Has America’s fever broken?
An optimist could make a case. Donald Trump, the central figure in America’s febrile ailment, was further tarnished this past week, including by the conviction of his company for fraud. Trump wasn’t personally in the dock, but his reputation was — and the fraud involved checks he personally signed.
Meanwhile, the Senate Republican candidate whom Trump anointed in Georgia was defeated on Tuesday. That came after a midterm election in which some prominent Trump-backed candidates were trounced.
Trump’s willingness to socialize with Nazi sympathizers and his calls for a suspension of the Constitution also suggest that he is marching into extremist territory in a way that may leave him marginalized and less of a threat to the country. My own bet is that in the next presidential term from 2025 to 2029, there’s more chance that Trump’s federal housing will involve a prison than the White House.
But I may be wrong — and I worry that it’s premature to argue that the national fever has broken. We as a nation still face arguably the greatest peril since the end of Reconstruction, for three reasons.
First, remember that this extremism goes beyond Trump and even beyond the United States. Italy has just installed a far-right prime minister whose party has its roots in neo-fascism, a reminder that the fever persists globally.
Second, even when Trump broke bread with Holocaust-deniers and then urged a suspension of the Constitution, congressional Republicans mostly looked the other way. When leaders of one of our major political parties struggle to defend the Constitution or condemn neo-Nazis, America still feels feverish.
Third and most fundamentally, our political dysfunction is driven in complex ways by a broader economic and social dysfunction and despair, one that we fail to grapple with effectively.
A few metrics of our national crisis:
We are now losing roughly 300,000 Americans a year to drugs, alcohol and suicide in “deaths of despair.” The social fabric of innumerable families and countless communities (including my own) has been unraveling.
About one in seven prime-age men (ages 25 to 54), historically the pillar of the American labor force, are not working today. We don’t fully understand why, but it’s not because jobs don’t exist — there are 1.7 job openings for each unemployed worker.
Life expectancy for a newborn boy in Mississippi appears to be shorter than for a newborn boy in Bangladesh.
When so many adults are struggling, the problems are transmitted to the next generation. Every 19 minutes, a child is born with a dependence on opioids, and one in eight American children is growing up with a parent with a substance use disorder.
The coronavirus pandemic also seems to have aggravated loneliness and mental health problems, even as it has led to shortages of frontline workers to help them. Children suffering mental health crises are sometimes housed for days or weeks in hospital emergency rooms because there are no other beds available.
One doctor told me of a troubled 15-year-old boy in Oregon who was kept for two months in emergency rooms, and then finally shipped to New Jersey when a bed opened up there.
The problems are far from hidden, even if we don’t fully understand the connections or pathologies. Walk by a homeless encampment in Portland or San Francisco, or visit a neonatal ward in West Virginia where newborn babies are crying because of a dependency on opioids, or chat with Idahoans who believe that leading Democrats are part of a Satanic cult trafficking in babies.
We may not full understand how socio-economic crises build support for conspiracy theories and for authoritarian leaders, but the linkage isn’t new. That’s part of the story of the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain between the world wars. The great social philosopher Erich Fromm described in his masterwork, “Escape from Freedom,” how a people buffeted by insecurity and social isolation may turn to authoritarianism, with the promise of greatness and a path of certainty.
We in journalism pay close attention to politics. But I don’t think we pay sufficient attention to the larger social problems that shape ideology or, as today, drive authoritarianism and extremism. While support for authoritarian candidates is particularly pronounced in the white working class, it has also gained ground among working-class people of color.
People have agency, of course, and none of this is to excuse either the extremism or the bigotry that often escorts it. But if we want to solve problems in the political world, it may help to recognize that in the United States, in Italy, in Britain, the problems begin upstream from politics. They begin upstream even from Donald Trump. And unless we tackle them more seriously — I would suggest investments in early childhood, in education, in mental health, in fighting addiction — I fear we won’t resolve either our social mess or our political one.
So I’d like to say that the fever is broken, but that seems premature. We can’t confidently heal America’s body politic unless we do a better job treating our nation’s broader social and economic dysfunction.
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