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 grasp the damage done to America’s image by Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis – and by scenes of police violence against protesters.
The president’s slow response to COVID-19 and bungling on testing undermined longtime perceptions of U.S. competence and technological prowess. As Asia moves back to normality and European nations emerge from lockdown, most with stable or declining caseloads, or having defeated the virus, U.S. infections 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 implement 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 refuses to wear a mask, encouraging public disdain for the masking and social distancing that are critical for reopening. Soaring caseloads will deeply undercut any economic revival.
America the incompetent has become our new global image 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, trump’s indifference to human life, in this case black lives, has been the hallmark of his response to the murder of George Floyd.
The president’s refusal to address a wounded country on racial fairness, his unwillingness to meet with black leaders or Floyd’s family, are pure Trump. Ditto for his firm rejection to renaming military bases named after confederate generals. And his decision to hold his first post-pandemic rally in Tulsa, Okla., site of a horrific massacre of black Americans in 1921.
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 police was really an extremist provocateur? This is a total fabrication. Foreign allies and enemies alike can watch the video of the gray-haired senior lying bleeding from the head as police march by.
What makes this tweet, (and all the others like it) even more egregious is Trump’s gift to Russian and Chinese propagandists. The president cited as his source a tiny pro-Trump news network known as OANN. But the “reporter” who narrated the segment previously worked for the Kremlin-controlled Russian news network Sputnik.
So where do I find my optimism that America may be regaining its democratic shine?
First, in the overwhelming public support shown by polls for two weeks of multiracial demonstrations for racial justice, which, after a violent start, have mostly been 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 for a photo op after authorities cleared the way by tear gassing peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square.
Third, in the swift movement of many cities toward restructuring police departments, as well as a start to congressional efforts on legislation to curb police violence. Democrats are in the forefront, but some GOP legislators also understand the risk of doing nothing.