“Desperate sadness” pretty well describes the mood that has predominated for me from the moment Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Most of the time, this percolates below the surface, mainly because I put my hardhat on every day and go to work to do what I can to rectify the situation. This usually staves off the sense of helplessness, but not always. These days, I have other things to be desperate and sad about, but it always comes back to the president. The condition I find my country in today is not an anomaly. It’s more like the physical manifestation of the spiritual rot that I’ve observed every day for almost four years. I can’t say it was inevitable, because who knows when a novel virus will emerge? But it is the unavoidable consequence of putting a man like Trump in charge and of letting people like Mitch McConnell control the U.S. Senate. What we’re witnessing is merely the implicit becoming visible so that even foreigners can witness it.
As images of America’s overwhelmed hospital wards and snaking jobless lines have flickered across the world, people on the European side of the Atlantic are looking at the richest and most powerful nation in the world with disbelief.
“When people see these pictures of New York City they say, ‘How can this happen? How is this possible?’” said Henrik Enderlein, president of the Berlin-based Hertie School, a university focused on public policy. “We are all stunned. Look at the jobless lines. Twenty-two million,” he added.
“I feel a desperate sadness,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford University and a lifelong and ardent Atlanticist.
American football is an exceptional sport, admired if not always appreciated around the world. And the National Football League is a well-oiled machine and moneymaker. In this, the sport is a good analogy for the country as a whole. But if you take some out-of-shape sociopath off the street and ask him to quarterback the New York Jets, the New York Jets are not just going to do badly… they’re going to do exceptionally badly.
“America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly,” said Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.
This isn’t complicated, or it shouldn’t be. Electing Trump was the entire nation deciding to stop doing whatever it was doing and stop being whatever it was, and instead just start punching itself in the face all day, every day, in perpetuity, until somehow it ends.
If we were the Ancient Greeks, we would have long ago concluded that this decision had earned the wrath of the gods. Perhaps Trump killed his father and married his mother. Perhaps he fell in love with his own reflection, like Narcissus. Yet, somehow, when the time came to remove Trump from power, the country couldn’t manage to get the job done. His impeachment acquittal in the Senate was followed immediately by the pandemic, almost as if the gods were exasperated by our decision.
“There is not only no global leadership, there is no national and no federal leadership in the United States,” said Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Growth Lab at Harvard’s Center for International Development. “In some sense this is the failure of leadership of the U.S. in the U.S.”
The only thing holding me up now is the prospect of getting new leadership next January. If that doesn’t happen, all is lost.