FIFTY years ago, the US was torn apart by racial unrest, rioting and social upheaval. Race relations, political assassinations and an unpopular Vietnam War fuelled the tumult.
Decades passed. There was healing, and progress. The first black president was elected, and then he was re-elected. Golden anniversaries of landmark civil rights legislation were celebrated. The nation has not since the 1960s suffered the shock of an assassination of a major public figure of the stature of Martin Luther King or the Kennedys, though there have been attempts.
And the US now fights its wars with a volunteer military force and contract mercenaries and suffers relatively few casualties, so there is comparatively little organised opposition. The military draft was abolished two generations ago.
Then 2016 arrived. To the astonishment of many, and apparently also him and his campaign, an obviously unprepared Donald Trump was chosen to be the US president. He campaigned with at least a benign nod to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other fringe groups most associated with remote American territories beyond the reach, and conscious awareness, of mainstream voters who were rarely reminded of their existence. There would occasionally be a standoff in isolated eastern Oregon over public land use, or a deadly shootout on a dusty compound in Texas, or indeed the bombing of a large federal building in Oklahoma City, but this did not seem to be a major American social or political phenomenon of significance.
Now and for the intermediate future, all of that is no longer true. Donald Trump’s artless waffling and inability to find an appropriate response to the recent tragic deaths in the leafy Virginia university town of Charlottesville has the US media, and many national politicians, in what has become their latest uproar. The large rally in Boston may foretell many more to come, with clashes, casualties and headlnes sure to follow.
Trump is without caution and largely inept when called upon to respond to public crises. This may be partly because in his seven months as president, so many of those crises are of his own making. But the fact remains that he gave opponents reason to suspect that his real sympathies lie with the nativists, xenophobes and misanthropes who have clearly found their voice during his so far unsuccessful term in office.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump, who campaigned so hard against the Washington status quo, respects neither the presidency nor the professional politicians in the capital who strive to maintain that status quo and their privileged part in it.
Both American political parties now face what may be existential dilemmas.
The Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House are visibly flummoxed. On the one hand, they are members of the party of which Trump is the titular head. They share with him many of the elements of the traditional GOP agenda, including reducing taxes. They are pro-business, with a strong belief that less government and regulation can open the way for new business creation and, therefore, job growth. These policies are durable icons of Republican politics.
On the other hand, Trump speaks and Twitters like an ignorant bigot at times. He is national embarrassment to many Americans, despite retaining the obdurate support of over one-third of his party’s faithful.
What are Republican officials to do? If they dare to oppose him, they face what for many is the greatest risk: A primary challenge from a passionate, motivated, likely well-funded core of their party that brooks no dissent from the new contemporary orthodoxy. If they stay in line in silent or muted support, they risk going down with what may be an already sinking Trump ship. All House members face re-election next year, as do a third of US Senators, and the president rarely misses an opportunity to remind them of that fact.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are not united in opposition. They remain riven by the disagreements that surfaced last year between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Accounts of recent intraparty feuds in the Democratic strongholds of California and New York have revealed the current lack of a unifying party theme.
The party that is quickest to unity should prevail next year.