The time when America stopped being great

A year ago Donald Trump produced the biggest political upset in modern day USA, but were there historical clues that pointed to his unexpected victory? Flying into Los Angeles, a descent that takes you from the desert, over the mountains, to the outer suburbs dotted with swimming pools shaped like kidneys, always brings on a near narcotic surge of nostalgia...

A year ago Donald Trump produced the biggest political upset in modern day USA, but were there historical clues that pointed to his unexpected victory?

Flying into Los Angeles, a descent that takes you from the desert, over the mountains, to the outer suburbs dotted with swimming pools shaped like kidneys, always brings on a near narcotic surge of nostalgia.

This was the flight path I followed more than 30 years ago, as I fulfilled a boyhood dream to make my first trip to the United States.
America had always fired my imagination, both as a place and as an idea. So as I entered the immigration hall, under the winsome smile of America's movie star president, it was hardly a case of love at first sight.

My infatuation had started long before, with westerns, cop shows, super-hero comic strips, and movies such as West Side Story and Grease. Gotham exerted more of a pull than London. My 16-year-old self could quote more presidents than prime ministers. Like so many new arrivals, like so many of my compatriots, I felt an instant sense of belonging, a fealty borne of familiarity.

Eighties America lived up to its billing, from the multi-lane freeways to the cavernous fridges, from the drive-in movie theatres to the drive-through burger joints. I loved the bigness, the boldness, the brashness. Coming from a country where too many people were reconciled to their fate from too early an age, the animating force of the American Dream was not just seductive but unshackling.
Upward mobility was not a given amongst my schoolmates. The absence of resentment was also striking: the belief success was something to emulate rather than envy. The sight of a Cadillac induced different feelings than the sight of a Rolls Royce.

It was 1984. Los Angeles was hosting the Olympics. The Soviet boycott meant US athletes dominated the medals table more so than usual. McDonald's had a scratch-card promotion, planned presumably before Eastern bloc countries decided to keep their distance, offering Big Macs, cokes and fries if Americans won gold, silver or bronze in selected events. So for weeks I feasted on free fast food, a caloric accompaniment to chants of "USA! USA!"

This was the summertime of American resurgence. After the long national nightmare of Vietnam, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis, the country demonstrated its capacity for renewal. 1984, far from being the dystopian hell presaged by George Orwell, was a time of celebration and optimism. Uncle Sam - back then, nobody gave much thought to the country being given a male personification - seemed happy again in his own skin.

For millions, it really was "Morning Again in America", the slogan of Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign. In that year's presidential election, he buried his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in a landslide, winning 49 out of 50 states and 58.8% of the popular vote.

The United States could hardly be described as politically harmonious. There was the usual divided government. Republicans retained control of the Senate, but the Democrats kept their stranglehold on the House of Representatives. Reagan's sunniness was sullied the launch of his 1980 campaign with a call for "states' rights", which sounded to many like a dog-whistle for denial of civil rights.

His chosen venue was Philadelphia, but not the city of brotherly love, the cradle of the Declaration of Independence, but rather Philadelphia, Mississippi, a rural backwater close to where three civil rights workers had been murdered by white supremacists in 1964. Reagan, like Nixon, pursued the southern strategy, which exploited white fears about black advance.

Still, the anthem of the hour was Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA and politics was not nearly as polarised as it is today. Even though the Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill reviled Reagan's trickle-down economics - he called him a "cheerleader for selfishness" and "Herbert Hoover with a smile" - these two Irish-Americans found common ground as they sought to act in the national interest.

Both understood the Founding Fathers had hard-wired compromise into the governmental system, and that Washington, with its checks and balances, was unworkable without give and take. They worked together on tax reform and safeguarding Social Security.

The country was in the ascendant. Not so paranoid as it was in the 1950s, not so restive as it was in the 1960s, and nowhere near as demoralised as it had been in the 1970s.

History is never neat or linear. Decades do not automatically have personalities, but it is possible to divide the period since 1984 into two distinct phases. The final 16 years of the 20th Century was a time of American hegemony. The first 16 years of the 21st Century has proven to be a period of dysfunction, discontent, disillusionment and decline. The America of today in many ways reflects the dissonance between the two.


In those twilight years of the last millennium, America enjoyed something akin to the dominance achieved at the Los Angeles Olympics. Just two years after Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, that concrete and ideological barricade was gone. The United States won the Cold War. In the New World Order that emerged afterwards, it became the sole superpower in a unipolar world.

The speed at which US-led forces won the first Gulf War in 1991 helped slay the ghosts of Vietnam. With a reformist leader, Boris Yeltsin, installed in the Kremlin, there was an expectation Russia would embrace democratic reform. Even after Tiananmen Square, there was a hope that China might follow suit, as it moved towards a more market-based economy.

This was the thrust of Francis Fukuyama's thesis in his landmark 1989 essay, The End of History, which spoke of "the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government".

For all the forecasts Japan would become the world's largest economy, America refused to cede its financial and commercial dominance. Instead of Sony ruling the corporate world, Silicon Valley became the new high-tech workshop of business.

Bill Clinton's boast of building a bridge to the 21st Century rang true, although it was emergent tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google that were the true architects and engineers. Thirty years after planting the Stars and Stripes on the Sea of Tranquillity, America not only dominated outer space but cyberspace too.

This phase of US dominance could never be described as untroubled. The Los Angeles riots in 1992, sparked by beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the police officers charged with his assault, highlighted deep racial divisions.

In Washington, Bill Clinton's impeachment exhibited the hyper-partisanship that was changing the tenor of Washington life. In the age of 24/7 cable news, politics was starting to double as soap opera.

Yet as we approached 31 December 1999, the assertion that the 20th Century had been The American Century was an axiom. I was in the capital as Bill Clinton presided over the midnight celebrations on the National Mall, and as the fireworks skipped from the Lincoln Memorial down the Reflecting Pool to illuminate the Washington monument, the mighty obelisk looked like a giant exclamation mark or a massive number one.

Shattered confidence

The national story changed dramatically and unexpectedly soon after. While doomsday predictions of a Y2K bug failed to materialise, it nonetheless felt as if the United States had been infected with a virus. 2000 saw the dot-com bubble explode. In November, the disputed presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore badly damaged the reputation of US democracy.

Why, a Zimbabwean diplomat even suggested Africa send international observers to oversee the Florida recount. Beyond America's borders came harbingers of trouble. In Russia, 31 December 1999, as those fireworks were being primed, Vladimir Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin.

The year 2001 brought the horror of September 11th, an event more traumatic than Pearl Harbor. Post-9/11 America became less welcoming and more suspicious. The Bush administration's "war on terror" - open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq - drained the country of blood and treasure.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, arguably had a more lasting impact on the American psyche than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Just as 9/11 had undermined confidence in the country's national security, the financial collapse shattered confidence in its economic security.
With parents no longer certain their children would come to enjoy more abundant lives than they did, the American Dream felt like a chimera. The American compact, the bargain that if you worked hard and played by the rules your family would succeed, was no longer assumed. Between 2000 and 2011, the overall net wealth of US households fell. By 2014, the richest 1% of Americans had accrued more wealth than the bottom 90%.
To many in the watching world, and most of the 69 million Americans who voted for him, the election of the country's first black president again demonstrated America's
capacity for regeneration.

"Yes we can."

"The audacity of hope".

Barack Hussein Obama. His improbable success story seemed uniquely American.

Although his presidency did much to rescue the economy, he couldn't repair a fractured country. The creation of a post-partisan nation, which Obama outlined in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, proved just as illusory as the emergence of a post-racial society, which he always knew was beyond him.

During the Obama years, Washington descended into a level of dysfunction unprecedented in post-war America.

"My number one priority is making sure President Obama's a one-term president," declared then-Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, summing up the obstructionist mood of his Republican colleagues. It led to a crisis of governance, including the shutdown of 2013 and the repeated battles over raising the debt ceiling. The political map of America, rather than taking on a more purple hue, came to be rendered in deeper shades of red and blue.

Beyond Capitol Hill, there was a whitelash to the first black president, seen in the rise of the Birther movement and in elements of the Tea Party movement. On the right, movement conservatives challenged establishment Republicans. On the left, identity politics displaced a more class-oriented politics as union influence waned. Both parties seemed to vacate the middle ground, relying instead on maximising support from their respective bases - African-Americans, evangelicals, the LGBT community, gun-owners - to win elections.

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama continued to talk about moving towards a more perfect union. But reality made a mockery of these lofty words. Sandy Hook. Orlando. The spate of police shootings. The gang-related mayhem in his adopted home of Chicago. The mess in Washington. The opioid crisis. The health indices even pointed to a sick nation, in which the death rate was rising. By 2016, life expectancy fell for the first time since 1993.

This was the backdrop against which the 2016 election was fought, one of the most dispiriting campaigns in US political history. A battle between the two most unpopular major party candidates since polling began, ended with a victor who had higher negative ratings than his opponent and in the end, three million fewer votes.

Just as I had been on the National Mall to ring in the new millennium in 2000, I was there again on 20 January 2017, for Donald Trump's inaugural celebrations. They included some Reagan-era flourishes. At the eve of the inauguration concert, Lee Greenwood reprised his Reaganite anthem God Bless the USA, albeit with a frailer voice.

There were chants of "USA, USA," a staple of the billionaire's campaign rallies - usually triggered by his riff on building a wall along the Mexican border. There was also an 80s vibe about the telegenic first family, who looked fresh from a set of a primetime soap, like Dynasty or Falcon Crest.

The spectacle brought to mind what Norman Mailer once said of Reagan, that the 40th president understood "the President of the United States was the leading soap opera figure in the great American drama, and one had better possess star value". Trump understood this, and it explained much of his success, even if his star power came from reality TV rather than Hollywood B-movies.

Yet Trump is not Reagan. His politics of grievance, and the fist-shaking anger it fed off, struck a different tone than the Gipper's more positive pitch. It played on a shared sense of personal and national victimhood that would have been alien to Reagan.
In the space of just three decades, then, the United States had gone from "It's morning in America again" to something much darker: "American Carnage", the most memorable phrase from Trump's inaugural address.
A hangover
It is tempting to see Trump's victory this time last year as an aberration. A historical mishap. The election all came down, after all, to just 77,744 votes in three key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But when you consider the boom-to-bust cycle of the period between 1984 and 2016, the Trump phenomenon doesn't look so accidental.
In many ways Trump's unexpected victory marked the culmination of a large number of trends in US politics, society and culture, many of which are rooted in that end-of-century period of American dominion.


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