The paradox of American chaos

The paradox of American chaos. By Tom McTague.

As Robin Williams joked, Canada is like a nice loft apartment, but America is the party raging underneath. That party, though, is turning sour; something is rotten in the state of America. Even Williams later changed his analogy. Canada was still a nice apartment, but America had turned into the nightmare meth lab below.

The news that Donald Trump will be indicted for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star only adds to the mounting atmosphere of dysfunction. Not so much because of the indictment itself but because of the sense of foreboding that comes with it. … Trump’s indictment … plays into existing fears about the future of the Republic: of democratic norms no longer holding; taboos being broken; dangerous precedents being set; even of a late-stage imperial decline becoming entrenched.

Columnists wonder whether we are witnessing the kind of constitutional unwinding that doomed the Roman republic when the state became too big for its constitution. Perhaps this is the moment American presidents begin fearing for their liberty after office and start behaving as such. After all, it doesn’t require an overly tragic mind to wonder what lessons Trump will take from this should he somehow take back the presidency. …

Dysfunction and incompetence:

Look around and the signs of dysfunction are everywhere. Just as the scale of the country’s wealth and power are hard to comprehend for those of us outside the imperial homeland, so too is the scale of its violent disorder and dysfunction.

Take homelessness. In Los Angeles today, there are approximately 42,000 people sleeping rough at the moment — and some 113,000 in California overall. In the whole of England, by contrast, there are around 3,000.

Or consider the scale of violence. Across the whole of the US, around seven people are murdered for every 100,000. This compares to around one in 100,000 in the UK, France and Germany — and half that number in many smaller countries in Europe. [Nigeria 35, South Africa 36 per 100,000 — over half of US murders are committed by blacks, so comparisons with Germany don’t tell the whole story. El Salvador 52, Brazil 27, Mexico 29 per 100,000.]

But even this masks the extraordinary ferocity of murderousness that is gripping some of America’s cities. In St Louis, the murder rate is 64 per 100,000. In parts of Chicago, it has reached almost 150 per 100,000. Such violent criminality is almost a social sickness. During the bloodiest year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 1972, there were 31 deaths per 100,000. …

Social breakdown:

There are the 131 mass shootings in America this year alone, on top of the 647 last year and 690 before that — a form of nihilistic terrorism that has been normalised to the point of acceptance.

The opioid crisis in the States is also of a different order to anywhere else. More than 58,000 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2020, compared with 97 in the EU.

Life expectancy, meanwhile, has collapsed in staggering fashion, in a way that is completely out of line with any other advanced country, down from 78.8 in 2019 to 76 today. This is not simply a case of poor Americans dragging down the overall figure either; all groups in America die younger than their counterparts in similar countries, whether old or young, rich or poor. …

Yet the suburbs are wealthy:

It is this tension, between suburban wealth and social breakdown, which catches you off guard when it appears on TV shows and movies. Every American sitcom or box set has some passing reference to prescription drug abuse. It is there in Modern Family; a small joke about popping a Xanax in with the evening glass of wine. And it is there in your face in White Lotus, with the American elite living secretly miserable lives, their children loaded with all sorts of drugs: uppers and downers, edibles and prescription pills.

The US dominates the globe:

This is part of the great paradox of our American order. Even as the US grapples with its own social and political dysfunction, it dominates our world culturally, economically and militarily.

Right now, the United States is attempting to maintain its global hegemony by protecting both the European and East Asian security orders at the same time. To do so, it must hold at bay both Russia in Ukraine and China in Taiwan. It is easy to forget the scale of this challenge because we have accepted it as normal. And yet it is not. America is the most powerful nation state in history, not the new Britain but the new Rome. …

Today, despite the chaos, the United States is not only maintaining its global power and wealth, but in many ways has deepened its dominance. Its economy is pulling away from Europe, while much of the democratic Western world is clinging ever more tightly to the legs of its big brother protector.

Culturally, too, America remains the source of almost everything which defines our world, from its fashions and music, to its movies and even its political ideas. The truth is, even as we look on in alarm, we dress like Americans and think like them too. The progressive Left rails against the American imperial order only to copy almost all of the battle cries and slogans which burst out of the imperial centre. …

Imperial decline takes a while:

In the 16th century, the Florentine philosopher and statesman Francesco Guicciardini warned that the process of imperial decline takes far longer than is often imagined. …

Guicciardini went on to warn of the dangers of underestimating a declining empire. “To be mistaken in these matters can be very harmful to you,” he warned. “Be very careful, for it is a step on which people often stumble.” This is the lesson that Vladimir Putin is learning today. He declared the American Century over and then found himself bogged down in hell in Ukraine, matched by a country a fraction of its size without a single American boot on the ground.