Trump’s ascension to the presidency feels like a lifetime ago. In 2016, I remember flicking around the internet, trying to make sense of how a man dismissed by New Yorkers as a buffoon had become mini-mogul of the world’s most powerful country. Reading the desperate-sounding attempts to make sense of the insensible, I imagined the usual pundits rushing to bookshelves to find old college texts. “Wait a sec. What’s the difference between an authoritarian and a totalitarian again?”
Now, as America’s infection rate dwarfs that of shithole countries like Haiti and Brazil, where the president, a Trump doppelgänger, is infected with Covid, it turns out that the conversations I’d been having for years with Africans—the Ghanaian guy at the YMCA, along with the continent’s great intellectuals—held the answer.
The explanation for our turmoil, our angst, our fears, is not lodged in twentieth-century Europe. The answer lies in the failed state meme that hit the African continent in the 1990s and now holds the code, if we can decipher it, to reviving the shrunken ideals of the American experiment.
Postcard From The Future
The idea of Africa as a barometer for political weather entered popular discourse in 1994, when journalist Robert Kaplan wrote “The Coming Anarchy” for The Atlantic. Subtitled “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet,” Kaplan’s article, later turned into a book, was reportedly faxed from office to office in the Clinton administration. In San Francisco, where I lived, journalists, tech people, and political activists were equally smitten.
Kaplan’s thesis was simple. As the nation-state withered, globalization and tribalism rushed to fill the power vacuum. The post-World War II order dominated by the Western Alliance was giving way to something else: foreign, disorganized, unpredictable. Kaplan called it criminal anarchy.
To illustrate his point, Kaplan traveled to the West African nation of Sierra Leone. In the thick of a decade-long civil war, Sierra Leone was the poster child for failed states. The term had come into general use after 1992, when it appeared in a Foreign Policy article written by two U.S. State Department officials, Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner (not to be confused with Steve Rattner, a controversial figure involved in the 2008 economic bailout).
Often but not exclusively applied to African countries in those years, the term has come in for a healthy dose of criticism, generally for reflecting cultural ignorance and trading in racist stereotypes. Certainly, 1990s media coverage focused on the sensationalistic aspects of what came to be known as the West African dirty wars that roiled Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the neighboring countries of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. If Americans recognized the name Sierra Leone at all, they associated it with child soldiers, and with a rebel army’s grisly tactic of amputating hands and feet.
Against this backdrop, Kaplan described Sierra Leone, a country once known as the Athens of West Africa, as a bellwether for the “withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” While critics charged Kaplan with trading in racist tropes, he made it clear that this Hobbesian future was not confined to any single continent or country. “West Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world,” he predicted.
What Kaplan missed was the organization behind Sierra Leone’s apparent chaos. For ordinary citizens, wartime Sierra Leone was chaotic, but the economic system was organized, if brutal. Sierra Leoneans called it the Sell Game: rival armies looting the countryside while vying for control of the country’s illicit diamond trade.
Sierra Leone’s Sell Game exemplifies state failure’s central characteristic, as the term has evolved. In the words of Robert I. Rotberg, former director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict, Conflict Prevention, and Conflict Resolution at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in a collapsed state, “the market rules to the exclusion of any other concerns.”
Thirty years later, Sierra Leone is at peace. Generations of graduate students have made a cottage industry out of mocking Kaplan’s Westernized view of Africa. Outside universities, “The Coming Anarchy” has largely been forgotten. Kaplan’s talk of criminal anarchy sounds outdated, a relic of the Clinton-era hysteria that spawned The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the so-called “crime bill” that incarcerated a generation of black men and women and is now a political liability for Democrats who voted for it.
Yet the prescience of Kaplan’s Big Idea is truly remarkable. As Kaplan predicted in 1994, West Africa in the 1990s was a dire warning of global trends now hitting our shores. Not the amputations—although who knows how far things will go—but the withering of the nation-state, the rise of tribalism, big man politics, and above all, the Sell Game.
Welcome to the Failed State of America.
What’s in a Nation?
It can’t happen here, you say? If the Trump administration’s lack of response to the coronavirus isn’t enough to convince you, go back to the definition of a nation. The nation-state displaced earlier tribal affiliations in Europe where a bloody history gave way to the even bloodier business of protecting national borders. In recent decades, the martial (and arguably male) taxonomy of nationhood has given way to a definition that could have been constructed by a political consultant trying to win over the soccer mom vote. Nations are little more than tribes unified by “services”: education, health care, housing, reasonable hope of a better future. (A less refined word is patronage, presumably distributed more equitably than the handouts that ensured lifetime appointments for Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.)
Harvard anthropologist John Comaroff suggests that the West is no different in this respect from Africa or the Middle East, where departing colonial powers often drew national boundaries based on the waning vagaries of the Great Game: “Most European states are like colonies, in the sense of colonial nations being lines on a map,” he said. “You lump a whole bunch of tribes together and you call them a nation.” Comaroff noted that pre-colonial Africa not only had extremely complex political systems, the continent was also home to great empires. The European tagline of “tribalism” was world-class projection, Comaroff suggests, since Europeans were “more like we portrayed ‘them’ than the way they actually were.” Africa is similarly reduced to caricature today, while Western societies crudely violate their own ideals of nationhood.
We didn’t want to admit it, just as we didn’t admit that social class existed in our supposedly classless society, but America has always been tribal. In his groundbreaking 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, historian David Hackett Fischer delved into the roots of America’s contradictory culture, which he calls “voluntary,” and others call the myth of the frontier, the contradictory impulses of connection and autonomy that we grapple with in both individual and national psyches.
After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, many Americans were forced to abandon the delusion that we live outside history.
Thanks to the waves of migrants from Great Britain, who brought the underpinnings of constitutional government, as well as resistance to central authority, Fischer writes that America is both blessed and cursed by “a social system which for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, individualist in its society and pluralistic in its culture.”
In the bestselling 2011 book American Nations, journalist Colin Woodard expanded Fischer’s thesis, identifying eleven regional cultures dating back to the Spanish conquistadores planting their flag in El Rio Grande del Norte, near what is now known as Santa Fe, in 1595. (It is, perhaps, no coincidence that one of Woodard’s previous books was a bestseller about pirates, profit-seeking adventurers who flew a flag for situational rather than patriotic reasons.)
These revisionist views downplay the common culture that covers tribal divisions. In the United States, the frontier remains our national myth and the cowboy exemplifies its paradox. In the old radio and TV serial “The Lone Ranger,” Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, morphed over time from Potawatomi into a Comanche—but the Lone Ranger is tribal too. A vigilante who roams the American West dispensing justice and Manifest Destiny, the Lone Ranger is an emissary from the “voluntary society” described by Fischer. Decades later, Sherman Alexie turned the frontier back on itself, tweaking the archetype in his collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
For forty years, since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought neoliberal capitalism to the world, both Britain and the United States, along with their satellite countries, have diminished the state’s ability to provide the basic sense of security required for national unity. It’s hardly surprising that our paper-thin national identity is torn and faded while the word tribalism has taken on new currency.
On Martin Luther King Day, former president Bill Clinton gave tribalism a new context. “America at its best is a country of inclusive tribalism,” he said, reminding us that, whatever else he was, he was certainly one of our most intellectually au courant presidents. By contrast, pundits like Jonathan Chait, Andrew Sullivan and the reliably blinkered David Brooks brandish the word tribalism like colonial pooh-bahs. As Clinton’s phrase suggests, despite our enshrinement of splendid isolation, people require a sense of belonging. That’s exactly what makes the weakening of our ties to the nation-state so dangerous. To understand how this happened, it’s worth looking at Sierra Leone, where I found myself a little more than ten years ago.
White Man’s Grave
When I landed in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, I had no intention of writing a coda to “The Coming Anarchy.” I was working on a novel, a wild yarn about young army officers who stage a coup d’etat. Because the story was loosely based on events in Sierra Leone, I wangled myself a freelance writing assignment. Playing hooky from my paying work, I attended the country’s war crimes tribunal. I also traveled to Bo, a former rebel stronghold, and to an island where endangered monkeys thrived during the war because soldiers were more intent on killing each other than trading in bushmeat.
Along the way, I interviewed everyone I could buttonhole: former soldiers, regular people who had lived through the war, political activists, and the man who had given me the idea for the novel in the first place, a history professor named Joe Opala who reminded me of a character in White Man’s Grave, Richard Dooling’s satirical novel set in Sierra Leone. A familiar figure to anyone who’s spent time in Africa, Joe was a Peace Corps volunteer who had made a life in his adopted country, teaching at Fourah Bay College in Freetown until his political activities made it necessary for him to return to the United States. In the novel, this character warns the inexperienced young hero about the dangers awaiting him in the bush. Naturally, the hero ignores him.
Joe and I met in the bar of the Cape Sierra Hotel, a down-at-the-heels brutalist megastructure with the mid-century ambiance of the Playboy Mansion. This was May, the start of West Africa’s rainy season, and Joe was leading a history excursion to Sierra Leone. The wind was up and salt air beat against the efflorescence staining the windows.
“What do you think caused the, uh, atrocities?” I asked. “Was it something in the . . . culture?”
“You mean, was it something primitive?” Joe said acidly.
He proceeded to give me a rundown of Sierra Leone’s post-colonial history, winding up with a peroration on Siaka Stevens, prime minister and later president of Sierra Leone from 1967 to 1985. “Siaka Stevens systematically dismantled civil society in Sierra Leone. This is a political process. It has nothing to do with being primitive.”
Joe was right, of course. But politics wasn’t a sufficient explanation for the stories I’d been hearing. Without the rule of law constraining them, people do terrible things. This was about what happens when politics disappear and something else emerges. I only put this together after I came back to the United States. By then, like Dooling’s feckless protagonist, it may have been too late.
Losing the Mandate of Heaven
Anthropologist John Comaroff, whose Jewish family came to South Africa as refugees, watched the country’s hopeful post-apartheid era give way to institutionalized corruption. The research he’s done with his wife Jean Comaroff deals with the interplay of local and global cultures, crime, corruption, and economic shifts.
Like many academics, Comaroff believes it’s time to reframe not only the idea of a nation but also what it means when a nation fails. “The whole idea of failed states is something that American academics and public intellectuals call other places,” he told me. “Every state is in crisis.”
Comaroff’s point is well-founded. After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, many Americans were forced to abandon the delusion that we live outside history. The historical forces bearing down on our national institutions were described by political scientist Ian Clark not long after Kaplan’s Atlantic article gained wide attention. But Clark, who was deputy director of the Center of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, went deeper, describing what the respected historian John Lewis Gaddis described as a tectonic shift.
Despite efforts to establish international institutions after World War II that would help nations avoid another cataclysmic global conflict, the forces bearing down on institutions proved ineluctable, and eventually those very institutions became engines of instability, Clark wrote in his 1997 book, Globalization and Fragmentation: International Relations in the Twentieth Century.
Clark characterizes the post-war era as rife with contradictions: “Above all, the [twentieth] century was characterized by the greater interconnectedness of events on a global basis, while simultaneously being subject to political processes of rupture and disintegration: it has been an age of globalization and of fragmentation.”
As globalization and fragmentation ate away at central governments, the term failed state became a rallying cry for conservatives trying to maintain the old order. Yet the phenomenon is real. In State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, Harvard’s Robert Rotberg writes that while every country is different, the signposts tend to be the same. It is worth attending to the characteristics he describes. They should sound familiar:
- In a weak state, basic services such as education and health are privatized; public facilities decline. Infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, shows signs of neglect, particularly outside of major cities. Journalists and civil society activists are harassed. Tensions among ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups increase, but widespread violence does not erupt—yet.
- In a failing state, a single leader gains control of the legislature, law enforcement, and the judiciary. The leader and his cronies are enriched while ordinary citizens are left without basic services.
- In a failed state, living standards deteriorate rapidly. Citizens feel they exist only to satisfy the ruler’s greed and lust for power. The potential for violence increases as the state’s legitimacy crumbles.
- Finally, in a collapsed state, warlords run the country. The market rules to the exclusion of any other concerns, while the social compact has been completely eroded. “The Id is unleashed.”
The Incredible Deadness of Being
In his New York Times review of Denis Johnson’s 2001 nonfiction collection Seek, Ted Conover noted that “the conjuring of nightmare is a staple of Johnson’s fiction, and it’s what he does here, too: the situation in Monrovia would seem to spare him the need to invent.” Johnson had traveled to Liberia, where Sierra Leone’s civil war had been instigated by Charles Taylor, an insurgent educated at a Boston-area business school. Taylor and a military officer named Prince Johnson had been vying for supremacy; while Denis Johnson was in Liberia, Johnson was in charge. He invited the writer to visit, turning on a videotape of his torture and killing of the previous president, Samuel K. Doe. Johnson wrote:
On the screen, Samuel K. Doe, president of Liberia, sits on a floor in his underpants, his shirt open, his hands tied behind his back, his bleeding legs stretched out before him, bound tightly at the ankles. He’s been shot in the right knee, and his left thigh is badly gashed, apparently by a second bullet. A flabby balding man, he blinks frantically at the lights and the camera and the sweat running into his eyes, and tries desperately and above all to smile: Yes, there’s a war on, a terrible misunderstanding, yes, we’ve been killing one another, but let’s try to find grounds now for pleasantness. He moves his head this way and that as his captors poke at him with rifles. “I have something to say,” he keeps repeating. “Say it! Say it! the crowd around him cries, but they don’t let him say it, whatever it is.
“What have you done with the Liberian people’s money?” It’s Prince Johnson talking, and the camera pulls back to show him seated behind a table. Instead of medals, he now wears two grenades on his chest. He’s got a Budweiser before him. “Where is it? Where’s the money?” his followers cry.
“If you loosen my bonds,” the president insists, blinking and smiling, “I can talk to you. I’m in pain, I’m in a lot of pain,” he says.
They pour beer on his head and tear his shirt off. “What?” he keeps saying, trying to understand the questions, searching the faces around him, looking up, down, from side to side, “What? Excuse me. What?”
“I will kill you,” Johnson tells him loudly.
I have seen that videotape, shot by a Palestinian cameraman, as much of it as I could bear. What made me shut it off was not Doe’s pathos, upsetting as it was, but the deadness in the eyes of Johnson and his men. I saw the deadness again when I watched beatings of civilians during Sierra Leone’s civil war videotaped by London-based Sierra Leonean cameraman Sorious Samora, the only international journalist left in country after the Europeans and Americans had fled. I saw that same expression—or lack of expression—in a U.S. Border Patrol officer accused of killing two young Mexican-American men at a party in Douglas, Arizona. A local jury sympathetic to the Border Patrol acquitted him and, later, the families of the young men lost their civil case.
As the coronavirus spreads, the United States is taking on many attributes of failed states, Rotberg told me.
As the years went on after my return from Sierra Leone, mass shootings became so frequent that a week without an attack became newsworthy. Were all of these people mentally ill? What did it mean when the guy who ran the pro desk at Lowe’s told me he had an automatic weapon and was ready to use it if Hillary Clinton won the election? I found out later that he had lost his contracting business in 2008.
And when I was broke and desperate, my profession cratered, my health failing, I found the same deadness in myself. It felt like hard metal and I could have done anything then. The feeling ebbed when my circumstances changed, but I understood what Joe Opala hadn’t spelled out, or perhaps even understood himself, that time in Freetown.
By Rotberg’s account, a sense of betrayal is the inevitable consequence of inequality and the belief that “the system is rigged.” Lack of faith in institutions accelerates the state’s failure, Rotberg notes, writing that, “there is every reason to expect less and less loyalty to the state on the part of the excluded and disenfranchised. . . . The social contract that binds inhabitants to an overarching polity becomes breached.”
Using that metric, the Black Lives Matter protests are reassuring. An estimated 15 to 26 million Americans have joined protests. They must believe that someone out there is still accountable, that some arm of the government remains legitimate. In early June, the last redoubt appeared to be the U.S. military. As Trump and Attorney General William Barr threatened to use not only the National Guard but the Army itself against protesters, ordering the 82nd Airborne into readiness to clear Lafayette Square so Trump could have a photo op that showed his command of the situation. Military leaders hustled to get National Guard resources into place so Trump would have no excuse to turn the military on the American people.
Promisingly, after the controversial event, Milley and other high-profile military leaders put Trump on notice that their fealty was to the U.S. constitution, and if the president’s orders contravened the law, they would not be followed. But, as Dexter Filkins pointed out in The New Yorker, the country’s four hundred fifty thousand strong National Guard is under state control, taking orders from red state governors who have eagerly asked how high each time Trump has ordered them to jump.
As the Southern Border Communities Coalition noted, Attorney General William Barr called in the U.S. Border Patrol, along with the military and National Guard to quell protests for the notorious photo op. The Border Patrol has tripled in size since 2001 and includes elite tactical units similar to Special Forces called the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, BORTAC, that has been detailed to train counterinsurgency forces in Central America. The suspect accused of murdering the two young men at the border was a BORTAC officer who had trained counterinsurgency troops in Honduras. BORTAC forces have also recently been deployed, along with officers from the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group, to Portland, Oregon, to help “quell” nonviolent protests against police violence, where they’ve been recorded brutalizing protesters and disappearing them without charge in unmarked vans. On July 20, Trump signaled that he would be exporting these forces to other cities across the country like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
And, as any student of failed states will note, recalcitrant generals can be ousted. On June 14, Axios reported that John McEntee, a thirty-year-old former college quarterback who heads Trump’s Presidential Personnel Office, was making staffing changes inside top federal agencies without the consent—and, in at least one case, without even the knowledge—of agency heads. According to Axios, McEntee is trying to exert more control over staffing at the Defense Department.
Are We There Yet?
In a New York magazine column published in May 2017, former Clinton speechwriter Heather Hurlburt mocked pundits for invoking the failed state “cliché.” America isn’t Venezuela, she assured readers. It’s more like Poland, where the government fires officials without cause, clamps down on journalists, and quashes legislative debate when its leaders want to get something done. “So yes, you should be really worried. But no, we’re not there yet.”
Hurlburt’s column came out when Donald Trump had been in office less than six months. Less than two years into his term, journalist Michael Lewis published The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, detailing the Trump administration’s dismantling of federal agencies. Lewis didn’t write of the gutting of the Obama-era multi-agency pandemic response team in The Fifth Risk, but the administration’s response to the pandemic is exactly what he foresaw when he described the Trump transition team’s venal obliviousness to the responsibilities of governing: “A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks—the biggest portfolio of such risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world—and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen.” State failure feels like a train hitting a barrier on the tracks. The train is on the prairie, far from towns and cities. Cars pile up. People are screaming. No one hears. That is the feeling many Americans have as the national government sends the message: you’re on your own.
In March, more than two months after the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in Washington state, Congress passed a $2 trillion bailout for the U.S. economy. The stock market rallied. Donald Trump continued his refusal to use the Defense Production Act to ensure the supply of desperately needed equipment to medical personnel. The number of coronavirus cases soon reached one hundred thousand. The state of New York asked the federal government to build emergency morgues. The U.S. Forest Service announced that it would be forced to reduce prescribed burning, virtually ensuring a catastrophic fire season in the West.
It was spring. Oddly, daffodils sprang up in people’s gardens. Southwestern deserts bathed in flowers, coming to life in that brief interregnum between winter and the punishing summer heat.
Sulfur hung in the air, a premonition of a world on fire.
So where are we, exactly? Should we be “really worried”? I called Rotberg at his home in Massachusetts.
As the coronavirus spreads, the United States is taking on many attributes of failed states, Rotberg told me. “The U.S. isn’t a failed state yet,” he said. “But everything Trump does destroys the fabric of the state.” The crisis, so far, is mainly in the executive branch, but the legislature is weak and the courts hang in the balance. Government is still functioning on the state level, unless you live in Florida or Texas or Arizona. Or any state with a Republican governor who fears retribution for instituting statewide shelter-at-home orders, requiring mask-wearing or calling for necessary supplies.
Rotberg points out that widespread violence, one of the key markers of a failed state, is not in evidence. But as John Comaroff noted, the soft coup of finance can make violence redundant. Rotberg is one of the more conservative voices on state failure, so I was surprised when I asked about the consequences of a second Trump term. He simply said: “Move.”
Good Enough for Government Work
In early March, I helped my husband study for his citizenship test. Taking a break from cramming, we watched the movie 1776. Afterwards, we went back to the test questions: What is the rule of law? What is separation of powers? With their movie versions fresh in my mind, I marveled again at the intellectual depth of the constitution’s framers.
Adams, Jefferson, Franklin. These were men who embarked on a revolution, yet we can’t even manage reform. In 2007, constitutional law scholar Sanford Levinson warned that the American system is dangerously outdated. Talking to Bill Moyers, Levinson explained the problem: “a veto power that allows presidents to stop legislation 95 percent of the time; a contradiction of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle in the Senate which gives Wyoming, with one-seventieth of the population of California, the same political power; and an escape clause in impeachment that doesn’t allow for removal of the chief executive for lack of the nation’s confidence, only for ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’”
The Electoral College was rotten from the start, a compromise with Southerners who opposed electing a president by popular vote because 40 percent of the South’s population was enslaved, putting them at a disadvantage in a popular vote. “One might well speak of a ‘constitutional crisis,’ but one should recognize that it is the Constitution itself that is the crisis,” Levinson wrote in The Atlantic last fall.
Do we change our institutions, or strengthen them? Change appears to be the more dangerous course. Organizations with ties to the libertarian, pro-industry Koch family are vigorously pursuing a constitutional convention. Prominent among this is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy group that bankrolls politics at the state level, promoting a wide range of what used to be considered fringe causes, from charter schools to anti-environmental measures backed by the oil industry. They are succeeding. Nearly thirty states support a constitutional convention. If enough states sign on, the Koch Sell Game is likely to replace Enlightenment notions of universal human rights as the guiding principle of our next Constitution.
Most realist remedies are tough sells, including publicly funded campaigns and ranked voting.
If we can’t make “big, structural change,” we’re faced with the only slightly less daunting prospect of reform. Journalist Jonathan Rauch, political scientist Ray La Raja and, on the more conservative side, historian Joseph Postell, are on the side of reform. They call themselves political realists.
America’s polarization is as much psychological as political, Rauch wrote in National Affairs, echoing John Comaroff’s recognition of tribalism as intrinsic to human society. Rauch calls America’s polarization neither “ideological or even rational,” but deep and atavistic, a sign of the human need for group identity in a fragmented world. “Rebuilding institutions—and, just as important, noticing and valuing them—is more important for containing tribalism than pretty much anything that public policy could do,” he writes. “And two institutions in particular deserve strengthening: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.”
Strengthening political parties is a heavy lift, given that party membership has plummeted in recent years, a trend that shows no sign of abating. In fact, most realist remedies are tough sells, including publicly funded campaigns and ranked voting.
A fresh round of campaign finance reform could help. In their prize-winning 2015 book, Campaign Finance and Political Polarization, Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner argue for allowing political parties to regain the power of the purse. The trend, of course, is moving in the opposite direction, with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shaking off the Democratic Party’s fundraising apparatus to build their own organizations. In January, Ocasio-Cortez defended her decision not to share contributions with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, citing a protest over the party’s “blacklist” of progressive organizations supporting insurgent candidates. She might as well have trumpeted the framers cry: “No taxation without representation!” But by March, Ocasio-Cortez was moving toward working more closely with party leadership.
With the executive branch cratering and the legislature limping along, citizens seek recourse from the courts—a trend Comaroff calls “lawfare”—or become beggars, relying on the whims of billionaires. Neither are a substitute for good government. Start with the courts: since the Reagan years, the pro-business Federalist Society has been stacking the courts, so increasingly these, too, reflect that new system of finance über alles.
As far as our modern-day Medicis, the rich are famously mercurial. In late March, as Trump continued his refusal to enforce the Defense Production Act to fight the pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom got on the phone with Tesla founder Elon Musk. Within days, despite denying the seriousness of the virus, Musk had delivered one thousand ventilators and pledged to repurpose his factories to produce more. Musk’s philanthropy seemed genuine, yet his Tesla factories have been fined for a high rate of workplace safety violations and Musk is resolutely anti-union. He has been accused of ordering company executives to cover up the problems, including failing to get injured employees medical care. A telling detail: the volatile Musk reportedly didn’t like the beeping sound of warning signals from forklifts, so employees who feared losing their jobs stopped using them.
This is why government was invented. Must we learn that lesson again?
It’s Corruption, Stupid
When I interviewed Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey after a particularly bloody Kenyan presidential election, I asked whether Americans were both naive and hubristic to think they can export democracy. In many parts of the world, elections are meaningless exercises that instigate violence, while the same corrupt leaders miraculously win the votes to land back in office. “The crucial aspect is accountability,” Leakey told me. “The political system doesn’t matter so much. You can have a village council of elders and if they are accountable to their people, the society functions well.”
In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson made a similar point, debunking the notion that “culture” makes the Global South fertile ground for state failure. The back story on state failure in Africa is familiar to readers of publications like The Nation or scholars like William Easterly. It goes like this: colonialism destroyed traditional governance, grafting Western constitutional democracy onto traditional cultures. Later, misguided development policies driven by multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund saddled fragile civil societies with enormous debt. Short-sighted policy, economic downturns, and internal corruption made the loans unsustainable. Starting in the 1970s and expanding in the 1980s, these lenders, spearheaded by the United States, forced developing nations into cutting services and privatizing national industries, undercutting education, health, and housing, the pillars of national stability.
Surprisingly, few have pointed out the parallels to the United States. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s cowboy anti-communism made institutions the enemy, whether government bureaucracies or labor unions. Libertarianism here means freedom for corporations and slavery for everyone else. James Carville’s famous dictum on winning elections can be repurposed: it’s corruption, stupid.
If American frontier culture is the disease, it may yet hold the cure. Among the self-described political realists, conservative Jospeh Postell’s remedies sound the most realistic: grassroots organizing and restoring the power of local government to dispense largesse. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke has been pouring time and resources into just the kind of organizing Postell talks about, a test case that should be watched. The next few years will likely tell us if the old remedies work or if the restoration of America’s civil society needs something that goes beyond electoral politics. The worst-case scenario? Politics as we know it may be irrelevant.
Forget China. A new Cold War is playing out among the empires of these tech giants.
It is no coincidence that Comaroff and his fellow African intellectuals have a stronger grasp of the current dilemma than Americans. Kenya, where the state remains intact but its operations are a vehicle for institutionalized corruption, could be the model: a country where the hustle is 24/7, driven by an unequal system with the spoils going to presidential cronies and trickling down to a striving urban middle class. Meanwhile, essential governmental services and functions are privatized or outsourced. “When we see that in Ghana or Nigeria, it’s not failure. It’s a different relationship between capital and the relations of government,” Comaroff said. “The United States is a state that is a partially owned commodity of the corporate sector. If that’s the definition of a failed state, we are. The state has become analogous to McDonald’s. It’s a franchise.” And what better leader for a nation reduced to a franchise than a puffed up, golf-playing billionaire whose wealth comes in large part from licensing his name? Perhaps, as some scholars are suggesting, the new world order won’t be countries at all, but vast trading cities in a sea of ungoverned spaces.
The Age of Humanism Is Ending
On December 22, 2016, Cameroonian political philosopher Achille Mbembe, one of the world’s most significant public intellectuals, published an essay in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian: “The Age of Humanism is Ending.” He described the global future presaged by Trumpism, a Darwinist age defined by the “secular theology” of finance, driven by the flickering algorithms of high-frequency trading. As befits a philosopher of the digital age, Mbembe asked a profound new question: Is there a place for humanity in a culture that monetizes our every twitch and shudder? In the 1960s, historian and critic Lewis Mumford coined megamachine to describe the convergence of science, technology, and economics that adds up to totalitarianism. What would Mumford make of our current moment? Instead of the enormous, enslaved workforce needed to build pyramids or cars or bombs, the product, often, is us. Mbembe parses the consequences:
In this context, the most successful political entrepreneurs will be those who convincingly speak to the losers, to the destroyed men and women of globalization and to their ruined identities.
In the street fight politics will become, reason will not matter. Nor will facts. Politics will revert into brutal survivalism in an ultracompetitive environment.
In a world set on objectifying everybody and every living thing in the name of profit, the erasure of the political by capital is the real threat. The transformation of the political into business raises the risk of the elimination of the very possibility of politics.
Whether civilization can give rise at all to any form of political life is the problem of the 21st century.
Clearly, Trump and his cronies see America as little more than a business opportunity, yet the self-proclaimed “progressives” are right: the problem predated Trump and it’s larger than Trump. Our loss of faith in institutions is justified; it’s the remedy that baffles us. As Gramsci famously put it, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
How do we escape this grimly transactional cul de sac? In his dissection of failed states, Robert Rotberg tells us that countries can “graduate” from collapsed to failed, but the examples he uses, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, are hardly encouraging. If Trump has his way with us for another four years, our best-case scenario could be slotting into the category inhabited by Nigeria, a weak civil society with an oligarch class, rampant corruption, deep inequality, and intractable poverty. On the other hand, Americans own 393 million guns. Then there is Trump’s proclivity for nativism, already in evidence at the U.S.-Mexico border.
There is a more upbeat scenario. Rotberg and his colleagues have a list of remedies: a unifying leader, a government that ensures basic health, education, and housing, and, in a broad sense, Richard Leakey’s prescription for accountability. Twenty or thirty years ago in the United States, one might have said that wasn’t much to ask. Now these heights seem virtually unscalable.
Politics is not the disease: it is the cure. Politics is not separate from humanity; it is a synonym for human relationships. Mbembe’s initial questions have been followed by another: Can politics survive the digital age? Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune and greed-fueled misadventures in political speech have a sinister cast but they are only one of technology’s unintended consequences. In The New York Times Magazine, John Herrman compared Amazon, Facebook, and Google not to the corporations of America’s rise, but as empires akin to the Rome of Andrew Sullivan’s warnings:
The tech giants haven’t been considered start-ups for years, and in some cases decades. They’re no mere incumbents, either; they’re some of the biggest companies in the world. But it’s not enough to simply take their measurements. They’re diversified conglomerates whose power is greater than even their staggering user numbers suggest. They were expansionary powers, chasing and luring new customers by the hundreds of millions, laying claim to territory and souls with the zeal of missionary explorers. What they’ve become are superpowers, whose imperative for growth has been replaced with a need to fortify, ally and extract. Reaching a billion users is a successful conquest; keeping them, and turning their continued allegiance into lasting power, is empire (emphasis mine).
We all live in the “rigged” system that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders denounce with equal fervor, only Trump makes it his life’s work to profit from it while Sanders has labored mightily to ameliorate it.
Forget China. A new Cold War is playing out among the empires of these tech giants. The tactics of the virtual world have long-term social effects that can’t yet be gauged, many of which are unquantifiable. What we do know is that, as in all politics now, sliced and diced marketing categories rule. Crude manipulation, even in the service of a good cause, entrenches the fragmentation threatening to destroy us. Does it even work? I did a stint writing about the environment for hunting and fishing magazines. If there’s anything I learned it’s that while hunters may love nature, they vote in lockstep with the National Rifle Association.
For better or worse, digital warfare is likely to determine the outcome of the 2020 election. Obama campaign veteran David Plouffe recently founded a digital marketing group with a war chest of $75 million to counter President Trump’s early spending advantage in battleground states. That may sound like a lot, but Politico estimates total spending on the presidential election at $2.7 billion, out of a total $6 billion spent on elections at all levels. (Spending on political advertising has been growing, on average, 27 percent per year since 2012.) Those estimates don’t take into account covert digital manipulation. The New York Times reported that seventy countries have political disinformation campaigns, roughly double the number two years ago.
Digital campaigning is like chemotherapy, curing the disease but, if the dose isn’t right, and maybe even if it is, killing us in the long run. The medium is still the message. Digital marketing turns politics into just another business. Mike Bloomberg built a fortune by developing the nexus of communications, technology, and finance. His sophistication in these realms may be just as important to Democrats as the billion dollars he pledged to save the republic but has yet to cough up. Like Trump, he is a sign of America in triage.
Fuck It. I’ll Take The Mercedes
What about the nation’s soul? The word sounds odd when Joe Biden uses it in his presidential campaign, yet it is apropos. For the secular humanists among us, American culture is all we have to believe in. For many children and grandchildren of immigrants, patriotism consists of a embattled but enduring faith in the Enlightenment principles, however contradictory in practice, that saved our parents and grandparents from extermination.
In his taxonomy of state failure, Rotberg uses a telling phrase to mark the state’s decline: losing “the mandate of heaven.” This expression, once invoked to describe the divine source of authority for China’s rulers, invokes a crisis that is both individual and collective and more powerful for that dual nature. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “Young Goodman Brown,” a fatuous young man ventures into the primeval forest of Puritan America, where the night landscape is peopled by familiar faces turned demonic. This parallel world of night is virtually identical to the night forest in Sierra Leone’s cosmology. Anthropologists speculate that the mythology grew up in the 1600s and 1700s, when agents working for slave traders snatched young people from forest paths. But the landscape of night is archetypal and universal.
The failure of a state shakes people to their foundations. Downward mobility has bred a hopelessness that’s sent rates of suicide and alcoholism skyrocketing. We all live in the “rigged” system that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders denounce with equal fervor, only Trump makes it his life’s work to profit from it while Sanders has labored mightily to ameliorate it. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that American voters are reaching back to a time when faith in institutions was strong. The bipartisan friendship between Joe Biden and the late senator John McCain represents their shared fealty to institutionalism. At the 2017 Munich Security conference, McCain gave a eulogy for the post-war era.
Never much of a scholar, McCain exhibited a masterful vision of world affairs. He spoke of World War II as the bloody birth of the Western alliance, “a new and different and better kind of world order, one based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for the national sovereignty and independence.” McCain warned that the West, and perhaps the world order itself, might not survive Trump’s presidency. “In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there was a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.”
The speech was a coda to an American life, a eulogy for the twentieth century, an American era not unmarked by self-interest and realpolitik, certainly, but a time when it was assumed that the country was at least striving for liberal values. From opposite sides of the aisle, John McCain and Joe Biden were united by their belief in the post-World War II world order. Assuming that he wins the nomination and the presidency, Joe Biden must strive not merely to restore America’s alliances but also counter the growing dominance of China. He will also have an economic crisis on his hands.
When Barack Obama inherited a similar mess left by George W. Bush, the immensity of the tasks he faced convinced many liberal Americans to give him a pass for placing the Goldman Sachs softball league in charge of our lives. The crisis of the post-coronavirus U.S. economy may tempt liberals to give Biden the same carte blanche. Biden was once dubbed the senator from MBNA, but in this final chapter, he has no reason to carry water for the financial industry and every reason to care about his legacy. If America is lucky, he will win with a decisive mandate, the Senate will turn blue, and with nothing to lose, Joe Biden, the genial if not spectacular Everyman, will hand some kind of future to Millennials and Generation Z.
In the event of a second Trump term, there is little question that we will slide further down Rotberg’s list. But even with the best of intentions—even, dare I say it, if we’d had Bernie Sanders in the Oval Office—there are forces larger than any president. And these forces are global.
Even now, America is more like Sierra Leone than we care to admit, disunited and conflicted, our spirits eaten by cynicism. No longer asking what we can do for our country, the old martial definition of the state has given way to the description of war-torn Sierra Leone by London School of Economics professor David Keen: “a war where one avoids battles but picks on unarmed civilians and perhaps eventually acquires a Mercedes may make more sense . . . [than] risking death in the name of the nation-state with little or no prospect of significant financial gain.”
Like our predecessors on Manhattan Island, we may already have squandered our place on this earth for Walmart trinkets and the snake oil of libertarian omnipotence. The iconic political novels of our time are dystopian: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles and Omar El Akkad’s American War. Do we end in squalid settlements like the characters in these books, struggling to restore a battered culture while others serve the megamachine?
We are, I venture to say, halfway there.
 Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately characterized Antonio Gramsci’s stance on the Italian Communist Party’s program at the end of the 1920s. This has been removed.