The Melancholy of the United States

What a difference a year makes.

Last year in October (2016) I had taken a railway journey from east to west in the United States, this time on the beaten-up old ‘Empire Builder’. Travelling from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then to Portland in Oregon before the final run on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, I was in the United States in the last days before the presidential election that Donald Trump was to win.

On the trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, I met and talked long with a retired lawyer. A staunch democrat, he was full of foreboding. He and many of his Democrat friends were suspicious of the opinion polls that gave Hilary Clinton a comfortable lead. They would be voting, he said, holding their noses. Afterwards, they preferred to hide under tables awaiting the result.

Still they hoped. Obama had promised them hope, although it always seemed a hope for a Golden Age now past. In fact, the very idea of a Golden Age indicates an emerging consciousness that it is past. But Obama offered to recover it. As did Clinton, suggesting that ‘America’ was still great but that it needed to made whole again. But Trump captured this desire best: ‘Make America great again’ was his slogan. Industry would return to the United States, jobs would reappear, the economic might of the country would arise once again. But now it would be done by retreating from the rest of the world.

A forlorn message it was, for Trump has – not unexpectedly – failed to deliver. Or rather, he has failed to deliver on making ‘America great again’. Instead, he has delivered spectacularly in the ragged retreat of the United States from the world stage. But this is to give Trump the credit. In many respects, he is the symptom of a much longer process that began at least after 2001. Meanwhile, the Asian countries have begun to sort out their own problems, blocking the United States out of the process. Europe and China engage increasingly in cooperation, with the Belt and Road Initiative opening more and more paths of contact and exchange. The Chinese-Russian integration moves ahead vigorously, resetting geopolitics. And Xi Jinping has laid out a global roadmap of a common destiny for humankind, based on win-win cooperation.

Back in the United States – where I was again recently – many of these developments lie on the periphery of consciousness. For the few still continuing in privileged cocoons, what is outside the cocoon does not matter, whether in the world at large or in the United States. They perversely assume that what they say and do has world-historical significance. Except that the world is no longer listening or paying attention. Indeed, the majority in the United States has also ceased to listen.

But for those who had hoped with Obama or Clinton, another mood is upon them. A year ago, after the election, they were too shell-shocked to register anything but bewilderment and outrage. Now the mood is a growing melancholy. Hope has all but faded and Trump has brought the melancholy home to them. I mean not so much that Trump is their president, but that his victory had made it all too clear that this fractured and disintegrating society – with increasing class conflict, obsession over external interference, lost jobs and spreading rural poverty, rampant homelessness and endemic drug abuse – cannot be denied, cannot be repaired in the ways they had assumed.

Are there any alternatives? One suggestion struck me: while Trump may have given voice to those who feel the system has ignored and exploited them, he has also energised right-wing activity. Bring it on, was the comment, for this can only lead to a real and viable left outside the present political system. At last, they may have some relatively real political conflict instead of the sordid business as usual.