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This is America

When I was growing up in the United States in the 1980s the nightly national network news programmes were still a centerpiece of American cultural life. Tens of millions of Americans watched half an hour of local news followed by half an hour of national and international news on one of the three national networks, ABC, CBS, or NBC. 

During those years a few international stories dominated. The crises in Latin America. The crises in the Middle East. And as frequently occurring as any international story was the crisis in South Africa.

Crises happened elsewhere. They took place in the benighted places that were not lucky enough to be the Good Old USA, the land of the free, the home of the brave, the model for the world for freedom and democracy, the antithesis of those godless commies and their deluded allies. These crises most often took place in the “Third World.” In short, they took place in shithole countries. 

Oh, sure, most of those conflicts had American fingerprints on them. And yeah, apartheid was awful, but commies were worse, and Ronald Reagan’s Cold War policies ensured that the commies would not win in South Africa or anywhere else, and yeah, it was a shame about all the racism, but… commies!

Every so often a country would have an election, and because democracy was such a fragile and precious thing and these poor countries didn’t really know how to do democracies, I learned about election monitors. 

I did not know what an election monitor did except to ensure that those fragile places did not descend into chaos and violence, that those who opposed democracy did not disrupt or corrupt the elections. After all, we provided a global model for the rest of the world, which is why we, the good old USA, were in a position to provide or at least train so many of those election monitors. The majority rules, strongmen cannot steal elections, and the defeated accept the results.

Forgive the bluntness, but what a load of shit that was.

Fast forward to last week and the shameful, frightening, humiliating events of 6 January.

By now I don’t need to give you the details – in South Africa and across the world, those details have been rehashed to death and the images distributed widely. But in sum, thousands of Trump supporters, a large percentage of them right-wing extremists and white supremacists, descended upon Washington DC to disrupt the final stage of the byzantine election process in the US – the certification of the electoral college votes that would finalise the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

A normally perfunctory exercise had instead been dragged out because Donald Trump, a man-child untethered from reality and a stranger to the truth, continued to spread the big lie about nonexistent election fraud in an election he insisted he won by a landslide despite the inconvenient truth of, well, the truth. 

Trump lost the popular vote by millions, he lost the electoral college by the same exact margin he’d managed to win it by in 2016 despite losing that popular vote by millions, and he was mobilising his strike force to descend on the nation’s capital. 

He told them he would accompany them on a march to the Capitol building and they so marched, growing more violent, more extreme, more rabid as they went. It came as no surprise that Trump, a weakling’s version of a tough guy, a coward’s version of a hero, instead headed back to the White House. Thus the world saw a crisis.

In the wake of that crisis a few stock phrases began to emerge among American pundits and politicians, perhaps the most common being, “This is not who we are.”

Again, forgive the bluntness, but what a load of shit that, too, was.

A cursory glance at American history reveals that this is precisely who we are. We try to play the role of the world’s superego, but last week was yet another example of the ugly seething id that is at the heart of the American experience.

From “Indian removal” and the “trail of tears” and every other euphemism for genocide against Native Americans to the sin of slavery; from the evils of Jim Crow and thousands of lynchings to the “race riots” that euphemised white terror against black Americans for much of the 20th century; from the murder of children like Emmett Till and the four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham to the myriad examples of police violence that have characterised the black experience in America up to and including the events that led to Black Lives Matter: this is precisely who we are.

The threats of violence that backstopped white supremacy and white racial grievance have always been more text than subtext. And the willingness to resort to force to get our way has been as American as declaring the winners of our professional sports leagues “world champions”. 

This is precisely who we are, and it is a side of us that most of the rest of the world has long known to exist even when our professed ideals still warranted lip service.

And now the aftermath. In no time conservatives have gone from saying, “We need to rethink things; that was bad; Trump is a problem,” to telling the rest of us that it is our responsibility to engage in the healing process, to forgive and instantly to forget. But that cannot happen.

Truth before reconciliation

Forgiveness, if possible, does not happen without addressing the sin. For all of its flaws, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was predicated on truth before reconciliation. The TRC may have believed in restorative rather than retributive justice, but it believed in justice only after truth, or some simulacrum thereof. 

The recent events at the Capitol, but also everything leading up to them, demand justice, and some of that justice must be retributive. People died and many more could have. Those events were ugly. They could have been much uglier had the insurrectionists (including their inside helpers in law enforcement, the military and within government) managed to get hold of some of the politicians who inspired their ire.

Among those who need to be held to account is, of course, Donald Trump. He has violated every norm, and yet Republicans who managed to build Barack Obama’s wearing a tan suit into a mortal sin managed to push the expectations back for their guy so that every damned fool thing he did to own the libs became a badge of honour rather than the sign of shame that it should have been. 

Trump should face justice in the courts, but before then he needs to be removed from office, even if only hours remain in his term, even if his term is exhausted, to prevent him from serving in any political office going forward.

For those who say this would make Trump a martyr I say: so be it. He will always be a martyr for the cause of Trumpism anyway. Some of his most vile and loyal supporters will continue to believe him no matter what. He needs to be held to account because he is responsible for denigrating those values that the United States claims to hold dear even if the country has fallen short of those ideals. 

Joe Biden wants to redeem America from one of its darkest moments. But he can show charity down the road. He can work to heal our divisions when the wound is not festering.

2020 was the first year I did not travel to South Africa in more than 15 years, in no small part because the United States, and especially Donald Trump, utterly failed in its Covid-19 response by denying its seriousness by mishandling every stage of the crisis, and by trying to weaponise a global pandemic for political purposes. South Africa and myriad other countries closed their doors to Americans, as well they should have. And 2021 may well offer more of the same.

When I do get back to that country that I love so much I expect an equal response of pity and disgust. After all, that’s the response that is appropriate to those from countries in crisis. I learned that right here in the good old USA.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Derek Catsam
Guest Author

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