Is America a Failed State?

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Immediately following the 2016 presidential election, I emailed four German friends: “After 240 years, the great American experiment has ended, badly.”

It’s a grim assessment. I arrived at this discomforting conclusion while raking leaves and talking to a neighbor who served in the Peace Corps in a former Soviet republic. She’s seen failed states firsthand, and America, to her, has that “feel.” And she’s worried her children will grow up in an oligarchy.

The U.S. is not headed toward failed statehood. The election of Donald Trump is proof that the ship of state has floundered.

We’ve elected to highest office a con man who has neither the temperament, patience, morality, nor experience to lead. He’s been elected with a minority of the popular vote, and only then with the help of Russian meddling.

We’ve elected a president who campaigned as a populist but is stuffing his cabinet with corporate cronies.

Many cast votes of desperation, hoping Trump would be an “agent of change.” Yet his tax plan promises more of the same trickle-down economics that have decimated the middle class.

This catastrophe is unfolding because our national checks and balances, brilliantly erected by the founding fathers, have failed. Although the failures coalesced in 2016, special interests have long worked to foil the safeguards, creating a perfect storm of failures.

Education: The nation’s fathers appreciated the foundational role of education in democracy. Observed Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

While America pays lip service to education, it devalues teachers and underfunds education at all levels. As a consequence, our electorate is ill-equipped to think critically, to separate fact from fiction or truth from conspiracy theory. In an Internet age when anyone can post anything on any topic, this is prescription for disaster.

Closely related to our educational woes is the failure of the Fourth Estate: the press. Historically the watchdog of democratic society, the mainstream press has sunk into the business of “infotainment.” Said the CEO of CBS of the Trump campaign: “It may be not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Into the vacuum of sound journalism have stepped propaganda machines such as Fox News and Breitbart. With utter disregard for truth, these “news” outlets have paved the way for the election of a pathological liar.

Government as the problem: In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously declared: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Since then the GOP has increasingly made its primary mission the destruction of the temple through the systematic delegitimization of the once-sacred functions of government. A supreme function of any legitimate government is the protection of the rights of every individual — no matter of what rank — from the economic predation of the greedy and the political repression of the powerful. Instead, the nation conceived as “of, by, and for the people” now ignores the needs of ordinary citizens while prioritizing the whims of lobbyists, multinational corporations, and the plutocracy.

The Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court in January 2010 underscores how upside-down our national priorities have become. Granting “citizenship” to corporations, Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporate interests to influence elections. As a result, billionaires like the Koch Brothers, who live in Arkansas, dump millions of dollars each election cycle to sway school board elections in North Carolina, tip the gubernatorial election in Wisconsin, or elect climate-change-denying congressmen in every state.

Donald Trump, a dangerously thin-skinned narcissist, will take office with the House and Senate in his camp, poised to load a politicized Supreme Court with ideologues. No safeguards here.

In principle, the Electoral College, the next-to-last safeguard, could have stopped Trump if enough electors had defected. On December 19, this safeguard failed too.

The last safeguard is impeachment, for which Trump is imminently deserving because of his conflicts of interest, habitual lying, numerous legal troubles, and daily missteps.

Failing impeachment, if journalist Chris Hedges predicts correctly (Truthdig, November 17, 2016), President Trump will quickly exploit the next major crisis to impose martial law.

When that happens, regardless of political affiliations, all will know that the ship of state, gallantly afloat for 240 years, has sunk.