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Slouching towards an American Dystopia?

I am a naturalized American citizen. I lived most of my life, and intend to spend what is left of it in my beloved state of Virginia. Becoming entrenched in my American identity took years. As a journalist interpreting America with all its grandeur and magisterial if tepid march towards a ‘more perfect Union’ and its occasional hubris, to almost two generations of Arabs through print, television and radio, became the passionate mission of my life. Through American Media I tried to explain the complex world the Arabs lived in; their yearnings, hopes, traumas, and self-inflicted wounds. There was a correlation between my growing estrangement from the world I left behind, and my deepening Americanization. I have finally arrived home, and home is where you are free.

But, I have never thought that there will come a day when an American president would flirt openly with authoritarianism, peddle overt xenophobia and stoke naked nativism, while basking in the support of millions of our fellow Americans. I have never believed for a moment that in the twilight of my life, that my patriotism would be suspect, only because it is not undergirded by blood and soil. I have never thought I would doubt or question even for a fleeting moment my decision to celebrate and embrace America as my new and last home. Ever since Donald Trump was elected president I have been haunted by these questions and fears. Home is less welcoming now, home is becoming almost unrecognizable.

A week of explosive devices sent to kill and maim former presidents and former senior and current Democratic leaders, in the largest assassination attempts in the nation’s history, followed by the bloodiest attack ever on the Jewish community in America elicited only a banal reaction from the president of the United States. Donald Trump the campaigner viewed these terrorist assaults on America as annoying hurdles delaying his victory lap through the midterm elections. He doubted the authenticity of the bombing threats and lamented that this” ‘bomb’ stuff “could derail the Republican momentum. He held his fire for few hours, before he resumed his attacks on the intended victims of the would be assassin. He lamely read statements written by his aides denouncing the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11 worshipers at their moment of peace and grace, and he did so without passion,or empathy.  Then, the newly minted “nationalist” president went on to the next campaign rally, where he denounced the “globalists”, the media and his political opponents, ending the night with a tweet about baseball. Trump, more than any American president in modern times could easily incorporate at his rallies the Roman concept of bread and circuses to the cries of approval of his boisterous crowds in the Colosseum listening to him verbally gouging the eyes of his opponents. You go to the Colosseum to watch Trump the gladiator, not Trump the national healer.

What’s a citizen to do when his/her government builds detention centers for children – any children- and keep them away from their parents, behind chain-link fences that look like cages? What are we to do when for the first time in the history of the Republic an American President threatens violence if his party loses an election? How will writers, historians and journalists restore the integrity of the political language, now that a linguistic charlatan and his revisionist wordsmiths have succeeded in debasing and corrupting our language by turning Epistemology on its head , claiming the existence of “alternative facts”,  and that “over time, facts develop,” or boldly proclaim that “truth isn’t truth”? It is true that Trump is intellectually wanting, but he possesses enough diabolical cunning to understand that the debasement of politics, society and every facet of life, begin with the debasement of language.

We are being asked to accept new norms without questions. Donald Trump holds a one-on-one two hour meeting with Vladimir Putin, the very man U.S. Intelligence agencies have credibly accused of undermining the American democratic process, and the American President exonerates the villain publicly, and then keeps his intelligence chiefs, his cabinet and the American people in the dark regarding the meeting. What kind of a   president who refuses to acknowledge even after death, the sacrifices and patriotism during war and peace, of an American citizen named John S. McCain? I can partake in John McCain’s concept of patriotism because it is creedal, that is if I believe in the ideals, values and principles enshrined in the foundational documents of the Republic. I have no place in Donald Trump’s nationalism of blood and soil. Is it conceivable, that after all these years, I could be estranged again, but this time from my last home and  refuge?

I arrived in the United States, in June 1972 from Lebanon after being accepted by Villanova University to pursue an undergraduate degree. My English vocabulary did not exceed few dozen words I picked up watching American movies and listening to Blues and Rock & Roll songs. A crash course in Basic English during that summer helped me survive my dizzying, bewildering, anxiety filled first year as a student during the day, and worker during most of the night, initially shining the floor at a Sears store, and later as an assembly line worker at a Zenith television factory. Growing up in Beirut, a relatively open liberal city I was exposed, then mesmerized by the pull of American popular culture, which instilled in me a vague sense of America’s dynamism, uniqueness, and yes exceptionalism, that I only understood fully years later.

I reveled in narrating America’s story; the glorious but flawed founding brothers,(of course, with unabashed bias towards my fellow Virginians,) the foundational visionary texts of the Republic, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers, and  later every word written by my secular Saint, Abraham Lincoln. I did not skirt the shame of the original sin of slavery, and the cruelty to the enslaved, and to the indigenous peoples. Because of the civil war in Lebanon, I studied the American Civil War ( not to do so would have been a heresy for a Virginian) and became infatuated with the most consequential epic struggle in the history of America, the one that pushed us exponentially forward on the road to a more perfect Union. I reminded my readers that America saved Western Civilization from total destruction, twice in one century. I wrote extensively about immigration and the legacies of immigrants, particularly Lebanese and Syrians, and how the United States oscillated between embracing certain immigrant groups and excluding others, but in the end succeeding in becoming the richest, most diverse, wonderfully colored human mosaic in history. I highlighted the struggle for universal suffrage and civil rights in America, in part to contribute to the ongoing debates about these crucial issues in majority Arab societies. I enjoyed writing about American music, particularly blues music, the mother of almost all American music and about my enduring love of American Westerns. When I am in the mood of ‘nuff politics’, I preach blues and bluegrass music on Twitter, mostly after midnight. Throughout, I tried to celebrate the idea of America as an enduring experiment in self-governance, a true representative Republic always conscious of its imperfections, but ceaselessly trying to live, not always successfully by the values of its founding texts, even when struggling to tame the curse of hubris.

I have always believed in the genius, the resilience and the endurance of the American political system and culture. After all, the system withstood a civil war that killed 750,000 soldiers, and an unknown number of civilians, assassination of presidents, two ghastly world wars, and two costly land wars in Korea and Vietnam. In the 1950’s the system fought back against McCarthyism, one of the most serious domestic challenges since WWII. In the 1960’s it survived the fires that consumed parts of American cities following riots in the streets during the bleakest days of the struggle for civil rights, and to end the Vietnam War. In the first half of the 1970’s the system absorbed the blows of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In the first decade of the new century America was severely shaken by the September 11th terrorist attacks which lead to the two longest wars in American history in Afghanistan and Iraq. The system underwent structural changes, that were demanding politically and costly economically; and after the exaggerated initial reaction to the painful blow, the system regained its immunity. Things did not fall apart; because the center did hold; and the system of checks and balances worked, and the institutions functioned the way they were designed to function, even when a president, (Nixon) tried to exploit them to serve his personal ends. Finally, the existence of an overarching external enemy, the Soviet Union, cemented American national unity.

The phenomenon of Donald J. Trump represents a unique domestic threat to the American system of government. Unlike Nixon who lost the support of the pillars of the Republican Party when it became clear that he violated the constitution, Trump as the chief executive is dismantling or undermining parts of the civil state, with the support or the acquiesce of the Republican Party leadership and the enthusiastic support of a considerable base of entrenched, mostly white voters that sees in Trump the last man standing, fighting on their behalf the inevitable demographic, cultural and economic changes that immigrants, legal or otherwise represent. With few exceptions, the Republican legislators have been thoroughly intimidated or cowed by Trump. No president in modern times dominated his party the way Trump dominates the Republican Party today. President Trump is a unique uncontrollable political tsunami, who unabashedly celebrates his mission of not only disrupting the institutions that uphold America’s values: the justice system, congress, and the Media, but also deepening the political and cultural fissures in American society. From the moment he announced his candidacy, Trump wrapped himself in the garb of bigotry, racism and exclusion. He believes, and certainly he would like to rule by fiat and executive orders. He is the American would-be autocrat, who would like to join the confederacy of autocrats and authoritarian leaders he admires and envy: like presidents, Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi and Duterte. It shall be said and written, that Trump is waging a war on the Constitution, particularly on the First Amendment and he is chipping away at the foundational principles of American governance. He wants the legal system to allow him to hunt his political opponents, and his critics in the Media. Trump’s personal corruption led him to violate the emolument clause of the constitution, and members of his family are abusing their government positions to enrich themselves. In an incredible reversal in a democracy, an American president, is staging a full throttled coup against the very Constitution and State, he was sworn in to protect.

Trump gives us reason to believe, that if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, uncovers proof that the president has violated the constitution, and committed impeachable offenses, he would call on his passionate supporters to take to the streets to denounce the whole ‘Deep State’ ; represented by the investigation, the FBI , the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. Such demonstrations could conceivably make the violence at Charlottesville last year pale by comparison. To paraphrase William Butler Yeats, this time the center may not hold, because most of ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

Last year I was asked by al-Hurra Television Channel, the network funded by Congress that broadcast to the Arab world, to do a series of documentaries about the issues and events that shaped and influenced the process of my Americanization. I traveled the country from Philadelphia to New Orleans, with stops in Washington, Gettysburg and Monticello. We covered the evolution and the partially unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, the paradox of Jefferson’s obsession with liberty and his mountain top colony of slaves, how we are still living in the shadows of the Civil War, and New Orleans, the gift of the Mississippi River which gifted the world Jazz music. I have traversed many times on the grounds that the Confederate army marched during Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg, and too numerous times to count, I walked gingerly on Bloody Lane and the Burnside Bridge at Antietam.  But I have never felt before, the trepidations I felt this summer while filming at those bucolic hallowed grounds. I kept hearing echoes of the voices of wrath and ruin that preceded the war, the unheeded warnings on the eve of destruction, the intoxicated yells of demonization mixed with the celebration of polarizations and absolutist convictions. Those voices never been so contemporary, never been so chilling, or so loud, as they are today.

The rise of the Trump phenomenon occurred at a historic if paradoxical inflection point. The Liberal World Order, that the United States created with its allies following WWII was in full retreat in the face of a vengeful returning history, exemplified by a belligerent, irredentist Russia, a bolder, expansionist China, and the emergence of darker nationalism and nativism in India, Turkey, the Philippines, and even in those parts of Europe that saw in narrow nationalism the best defense against the marching of brown non-Christian refugees and immigrants from the East and South. Europe, in the shadows of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ was the soft underbelly of what is left of the liberal order. Old Europe, more than any time in its modern history, is susceptible to the pressure and machinations from Trump’s America, Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The United States was the last great western power not in retreat, with a thriving economy and capable of projecting military power all over the world, when Donald Trump arrived. Trump has no use of what he sees as feeble, feckless old Europe. On his way to the White House Trump met a liberal order at the breaking point and he decided to bypass it. The election of Trump challenges the old orthodoxy that nativism, xenophobia and populism can only thrive in hard times and during economic crises. A humming economy convinced that strata of Americans outside his narrow base, to enter into a Faustian deal with him whereby they would give him their silent approcal as long as their investments continue to grow, even if they are offended by his crassness, bigotry, misogyny and corruption. That economic reality makes him more of a threat to American democracy, if he is allowed to continue chipping away at the institutions and traditions that undergird this democracy.

The founding brothers, particularly Thomas Jefferson were obsessed with guaranteeing the survival of the Republic, and guarding against the return of political tyranny, hence the need for repeatedly revising and amending the constitution, a free and thriving press, representative institutions and educated and well informed citizenry. The founders knew, that only vigilant democrats can guarantee democratic governance, that there is no guarantee that civilized order and behavior can endure without watchful critical human agency. Most importantly, the founders knew that democracy can shrivel and wither away from within. In less than two years, Trump has dealt withering blows to America’s body politics, and to the political culture and norms at the heart of the American experience. Can the Republic endure more than two years of this kind of degradation and debasement? Maybe because I am an American citizen by choice and not by happenstance, I doubly feel the pain and the peril we face at this moment in our history. I would like to believe that the political system will survive the Trump onslaught. But I also fear that it is possible, though not necessarily likely, that Trump with a sizable cheering, passionate citizenry could hurtle America on the path to Dystopia. There is a season to raise corn, and a season to raise hell.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist for the Lebanese daily Annahar and is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington . Follow him on Twitter at: @hisham_melhem.

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