By Mac McCall
On January 20th 2021, I ventured out into a city under armed occupation. Barbed wire, fences, and concrete barriers constricted movement. The equivalent of two divisions of masked soldiers patrolled silent, deserted streets, wielding shiny M4 rifles, equipped in riot gear, and supported by armored vehicles. Personnel hailing from over 20 different law enforcement agencies assisted them in their duties. I had visited Washington to witness another iteration of the peaceful transfer of power which has been a hallmark of our democracy since 1797. I found a city under siege as a paranoic and militarized state ensconced itself against its sickly and impoverished subjects.
The citizens of the Greatest Country in the World ™ looked haggard and bedraggled, posing little threat to this overwhelming deployment of armed force. Homeless encampments dot Capitol Hill, housing internal refugees cast adrift by the arbitrary and cruel vagaries of a system which has transferred over one trillion dollars in wealth from poorer Americans to the richest during the last year. Night and day, the incoherent wailing of the schizophrenics echoes through the streets, poor souls who in a kinder nation would find themselves under state care. Ubiquitous masks serve as a reminder that our government has presided over one of the worst coronavirus responses in the entire world. Our pandemic dead exceed 470,000, many more American lives lost than in the entirety of World War Two. Restaurants sit vacant and shops shuttered, alluding to the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, healthcare, and homes.
Amidst this carnage, the oldest president in the history of the United States dutifully raised the banner of American exceptionalism atop a mountain of corpses. Instead of spectators, 191,500 American flags dotted the mall (not even one for every American pandemic dead). In his speech, the President worked overtime to provide life support to the American dream, a reality that died long ago. “This is a great nation and we are a good people,” he insisted to a diminished, masked crowd surrounded by lethal force.
Yet the façade has never been weaker. Despite all of the red, white, and blue draping President Biden could muster, the ugly truth is evident for all to see; America is past its peak, now an empire in decline. Our country, unable to employ, protect, or house its own citizens, now experiences its second impeachment in two years, quick on the heels of a neo-fascist assault on the Capitol. We continue to tumble in all important international rankings; education, healthcare, and life expectancy among others, while China plugs steadily ahead. Still, until the pandemic and Trump presidency, many found it possible to ignore this inconvenient reality. Now, one can only escape it with help of the most powerful of intravenous narcotics – American exceptionalism.
Unlike Rome, we didn’t even need barbarian invaders to assist us. Our illness is self-inflicted, a debilitating rot caught from too frequently imbibing sickeningly sweet draughts of narcissism and greed. Drunk on power after the victorious conclusion of the Cold War, we took our unipolar moment as vindication, a license to avoid even the slightest hint of introspection. The departure of the threat of socialism from the world scene enabled us to give up the fiction of pretending to care for the poor, allowing us to aggressively slash social programs. Intellectuals wrote about an “End of History,” as the infallible American system inevitably spread worldwide. Because winning means never having to look yourself in the mirror, right?
Joe Biden is the living embodiment of the bipartisan consensus which squandered the dividends of world dominance in the 1990s and 2000s and brought us Trump in the first place. He offers no real solutions, only platitudes. Our new president will continue many of Trump’s most destructive policies, but we’ll forgive him because he’ll forego the unhinged all-caps Twitter commentary. We will continue down the ever-accelerating whirlpool of decline, and things will get worse before they get better.
While milling around the largely empty streets, we met two girls from Oklahoma. We couldn’t believe they had traveled all that way for essentially nothing; no part of the inauguration was visible to us unwashed masses. They explained “We don’t like Biden very much, but Trump was really bad, so we’re glad that he’s gone, and we wanted to celebrate that.” Amidst poverty, plague, and the threat of lethal force, the simple goodness of Middle America chastened me in my apocalyptic pessimism. Here were some who still believed in the dream that was once America. Maybe if we could one day harness this faith, we could truly have a government by the people, of the people, and for the people. For now, however, we’re all lashed to the volatile rollercoaster of imperial decline, and a Biden presidency will do little to save us.