What began in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd did not remain in America. His death has not only shaken this country but has reverberated far beyond U.S. shores. And I’m not just referring to demonstrations from London to Berlin to Chile to Lebanon, Syria, and beyond protesting racism and inequality in America and within their own countries.
America’s allies and enemies are closely watching how well the United States handles the mass political protests for racial justice as well as a continuing COVID-19 debacle. Until the last few days, the imagery provided rich fodder for Russian and Chinese propaganda (ignoring their own racism and coronavirus failures).
“The example the United States sets at home and the image it projects abroad can either magnify American power or detract from it,” wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a trenchant essay published this week in Foreign Affairs.
If other nations were only observing President Donald Trump’s political efforts to stoke racial division, they could rightly assume that America had lost any allure as a democratic role model. They might conclude that the U.S. had become so dysfunctional, it could no longer provide an effective bulwark against Russian mischief or Chinese aggression.
Yet, there are positive signs in recent days that America is getting its democratic mojo back.
Before getting to the good news, it is important to understand the damage done to America’s image by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis — and by scenes of police violence against protesters.
The president’s slow response to COVID-19 and foot dragging on testing undermined the onetime U.S. image of competence and technological prowess. As Asia moves back to normality and European nations emerge from lockdown, most with stable or declining caseloads or even defeat of the virus, U.S. caseloads and deaths continue to rise even before a feared fall resurgence.
At the present rate, some epidemiologists predict the U.S. could reach a total of 200,000 deaths by fall.
What astonishes foreign observers is the continued White House refusal to devise and promote a national strategy for testing and contact tracing, unlike every other industrialized country. States and cities can’t do it by themselves. And around the country — contrary to Trump’s lies — nursing homes and front-line workers still often lack equipment, or tests, or the means to pay for tests.
Yet the president has silenced his scientific advisers, pretends all is well and publicly invites disdain for masking and social distancing, which are critical for reopening. This will deeply undercut any economic revival.
America the incompetent has become the new image of the U.S. in the coronavirus era. Until a vaccination is found, this country will pay for Trump’s mistakes in American lives and lost reputation.
Of course, as the world has observed, that indifference to lives, in this case black lives, has also been the hallmark of Trump’s response to George Floyd’s murder.
The president’s refusal to address a wounded country on race and police, his indifference to Floyd’s family, his unwillingness to meet with black leaders, are all pure Trump. So is his decision to hold his first open political rally after the pandemic began in Tulsa, Okla., the site of a horrific massacre of black Americans 99 years ago.
And what is the world to make of Trump’s tweet promoting a conspiracy theory that the 75-year-old peaceful demonstrator knocked to the pavement and grievously injured by Buffalo, N.Y., police was really an extremist provocateur? This is total fabrication. Meantime, foreign allies and enemies alike can watch the video of a gray-haired senior lying bleeding from the head as police march by.
What makes this kind of tweet even more egregious is Trump’s gift to Russian and Chinese propagandists. The president cited as his source a tiny fringe news network he promotes, known as OANN. But the Russian-born “reporter” who narrated the segment previously worked for the Kremlin-controlled Russian news network Sputnik, which puts the worst face on U.S. news.
So where do I find my optimism that America may be regaining its democratic mojo?
First, in the overwhelming public support shown by polls for two weeks of multiracial demonstrations for racial justice, which after a violent start have been impressively peaceful.
Second, in the strong stance by the Pentagon, including many top retired brass and now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark A. Milley, in rejecting the president’s efforts to use the military for political purposes. Milley apologized Thursday for appearing alongside Trump in Lafayette Square.
Third, in the swift movement of many cities toward restructuring police departments and regulations, as well as a start to congressional efforts on legislation to curb police violence. While Democrats are in the forefront, even some GOP legislators understand the risk of standing still as the president pulls the country backwards.
If, at this historic moment, the country can make real strides towards racial justice despite Trump, it will demonstrate to the world that America’s innate democratic strengths remain despite his efforts to shred them. And it will provide impetus toward a change in the White House in the fall.