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Rod Oram: A painful moment of American reinvention

Rod Oram has been traveling through the south and west of America over the last month and reflects on an historic and ugly moment of American reinvention, driven by Donald Trump.

On Monday, many Americans celebrated the 89th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

On Saturday, many Americans protested the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the nation’s 45th president.

Fifty years ago, King foresaw the massive damage to American society we’re witnessing today under Trump.

"I've come upon something that disturbs me deeply," he told a group of close friends and colleagues in a meeting shortly before he was assassinated in April 1968, as Harry Belafonte, the actor, singer and activist who was present, recounted in his autobiography.

"We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I've come to believe we're integrating into a burning house."

"I'm afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had. And I'm afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation."

As president, Trump is escalating the anger, violence and splintering of society King feared. He is proving to be the single most destructive leader in American history.

At home he is undermining the three pillars of government carefully constructed by the founding fathers in the constitution – congress, the presidency and the judiciary. Meanwhile he is dismantling the very health, education, immigration and economic systems vital to the whole population, but particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, some of whom helped elect him and continue to support him.

Abroad he is unraveling the US’s reputation as a rational actor and a reliable ally, to the great detriment of the systems that have promoted peace and prosperity for many people and countries over the past 70 years.

Short fingers, long nose

Above all he is incapable of even a modicum of honesty. As president, his tally of false and misleading claims hit 2,000 on day 355 in office, fact checkers at the Washington Post calculate. That’s an average of 5.6 a day over the year, but the daily rate has accelerated in recent months.

Quoting the founding fathers, among others, Senator Jeff Flake delivered a withering critique of Trump and his administration from the Senate floor on Wednesday. If political discourse continued in this fashion, he concluded: “Our democracy will not last.” The full text, worth reading, is available here. Flake, almost a lone voice among Republican Senators, or across the party, is not seeking re-election this November.

But Trump is far from alone in the US these days in his utter disregard for facts, sound analysis and sensible policies. The Republican majorities in Congress passed a tax bill before Christmas – Trump’s only substantial legislative achievement in his first year – that will exacerbate the great economic divides in the country, according to the vast majority of non-partisan analysts.

Even more unequal

Of the world’s seven richest large economies, the US and UK have experienced the highest growth in per capita income since the mid-1990s. But the US ranks second from the bottom in the income gains of the poorest fifth of households over the period. It also scores badly on middle distribution.

The bill, which Trump signed just before Christmas, only exacerbates the inequalities. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center concluded that the bill would reduce taxes on business owners, on average, about three times as much as it would reduce taxes on people whose primary source of income is wages or salaries. For highly paid workers, the gap would be as much as 10 to one.

Before the tax bill, US companies paid on average only 18 per cent tax on their profits, thanks to the extensive write-offs they enjoyed. While the official rate has now dropped from 35 per cent to 21 per cent, the write offs have been widened for all sectors, with some sectors such as real estate, the source of Trump’s wealth, gaining even greater benefits.

Trump’s malign administration is busy damaging many other areas of policy and government too, such as healthcare, foreign policy, science, immigration, the environment and education – the tax bill will hit university endowments particularly hard.

The US has long struggled to have the intelligent and constructive debate needed to devise solutions to its myriad problems. Deeply opposed ideologies and world views, money-dominated politics and the withering of civic and social engagement are just three of the factors.

'Exploitative and toxic'

But all these, and more, have become far more toxic in recent years. Trump exploits them brilliantly, emboldening others to follow his example.

There is plenty of blame to apportion to Trump opponents too. David Brooks, a conservative columnist in the New York Times, recently argued that the quality of discourse across the political spectrum has plummeted.

The US has been here before. As Paul Krugman, recently wrote in the New York Times:

“These days calling someone a “know-nothing” could mean one of two things.

“If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is wilfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.

“The sad thing is that America is currently ruled by people who fit both definitions. And the know-nothings in power are doing all they can to undermine the very foundations of American greatness.”

There are also lessons for today from another traumatic time in American history, the years from the 1890s to the outbreak of the First World War. As now, vast economic and technological progress had generated great wealth and power for a few at the expense of many. Society in general, and money-corrupted politics in particular, was utterly unable to reinvent itself so it could reassert the founding principles of the republic.

The story of those 25 years or so of progressive reform is wonderfully told by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Bully Pulpit, published in 2013. As Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the New York Times wrote in his review for the paper:

“If you find the grubby spectacle of today’s Washington cause for shame and despair — and, really, how could you not? — then I suggest you turn off the TV and board Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest time machine. Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan.

“There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.”

Searching for signs of such a transformation today has much preoccupied me over the past month as I’ve been travelling around the US visiting family and friends in the south, midwest and west. Ever since I first came to the US as an exchange student nearly 50 years ago, this country has much shaped my life and it continues to do so.

I return home to Aotearoa New Zealand a little more optimistic about the US than I was before Christmas. But braced for far more trauma for it and the world before it eventually reinvents itself once again.

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