The US paradox

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2021 - 12:00am

The images of the chaotic scenes at the US Capitol last week and their aftermath exposed the deep divisions in US politics and society today that have their roots in unresolved problems that have always been at the heart of the project that is the United States of America. At his inauguration, President Donald Trump declared that “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transfering power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people.” It was a direct reference to the inherent tension within the Consitution drawn up by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between northern states that wanted strong central government and southern states that wanted a weak confederacy that would hand states the power to do as they wished within them. States’ rights, as they are called, meant that Southerners did not want to enter into a strong national union that would be capable of interfering with slavery. So they came up with the idea of federalism, at which Alexander Hamilton sat amazed, then got up and said, “This is never going to work.”

In US political discussions, commentators and politicians often digress to refer back to the Constitution and what the Founding Fathers meant. It’s not that easy, of course. It is a legal document that was a kind of pragmatic fudge in an era when compromise between politicians was possible. It also counts a black slave as two-thirds of a person and denied women the vote. It’s careful never to actually use the words “slave” or “slavery,” but cruelty and inequality are in the US Constitution from the start. The word “liberty” appears only once in the preamble. The Framers sought to defend the rights of property owners from being taxed by the British colonial power; owners whose property happened to include other people.

Watching it all unfold from London reminded me of the Philippines’ 1986 people’s uprising. Could it be that the precursor of the events of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington DC took place in Manila in February 1986? Had the Philippines, made in the image of the USA, turned around and reflected the flaws of its empire back on America?

“The Capitol Insurrection brought back memories of a relatively understated episode of the 1986 EDSA People Power uprising – the crowd entering Malacañang Palace, venting their anger on the Marcoses, and describing their action as an effort to ‘reclaim the people’s palace’,” Patricio Abinales, professor at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Hawaii Manoa, told me.

“I think everyone wanted to emphasize the ‘peaceful’ nature of the uprising (not entirely accurate), so the seizure of Malacañang became a side story,” he added.

The US played a significant role when the Philippines provided the world with its first edition of “People Power” that successfully ousted a dictator whose time had come. Subsequent iterations, from Rangoon to Beijing, Berlin and more recently in Cairo and Tunis during the so-called Arab Spring, and Bangkok were not always successful nor did they always advance democratic aims.

In “State and Society in the Philippines,” Abinales sharply observes the way the limits of people power became evident. “It was not an act of unmediated love of nation or a dissolving of social divisions. Filipinos came to Edsa as members of social forces opposing the dictatorship in varying degrees for varying lengths of time… Most importantly, as a fairly spontaneous mobilization, people power was not a sustainable political action, even as a form of revolutionary change.”

Having learnt that lesson, watching the mob assail the US Capitol, identifying as true patriots, waving confederate flags, with an exuberance the rest of the world had seen all too often in different forms, seemed rather ridiculous and doomed to failure. On one hand, Trump was taking on the role of a Cory Aquino, though the record shows he is actually Ferdinand Marcos.

“American democracy is obviously limping on both feet... This, alas, is actually the bottom. I say this without a shadow of gloating. America no longer charts a course and therefore has lost all rights to set it – and even more so to impose it on others,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China hopes the US will return soon to peace and stability. She also compared US media coverage and political responses to the pro-Trump demonstrations with the Hong Kong protests, equating the two. “What words did they use on Hong Kong, and what words did they use (on the storming of the Capitol)?…such a difference and the reasons behind it is worth us reflecting on seriously.”

“With this unfortunate episode, the United States is experiencing what it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression,” the Venezuelan Ministry for Foreign Relations said. The Trump administration has previously attempted to oust the Venezuelan president in favor of the opposition leader.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called Trump a “sick person” who had disgraced his country. “What happened in the US shows how fragile Western democracy is,” he said. “Despite all their scientific and industrial achievements, we see a huge influence of populism.”

Zimbabwe’s president pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of the Trump administration, having imposed economic sanctions last year on the basis of concerns about Zimbabwe’s democracy. “Yesterday’s events showed that the US has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy. These sanctions must end.” said Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The shocking spectacle of those American protesters is bound to be referred to by adversaries of democracy and US policy in the world, even though it had no impact on institutions or the rule of law. This apparent attempt by President Trump and his followers to overthrow the very system that has raised them to power for the past four years, showed the strength of the system. The rebels’ complaints were properly assessed by the legal system, the Vice President did his job in the Senate and the certification of votes went ahead just as it was supposed to.

It’s not yet over. US authorities are uncovering nationwide plans to disrupt the transfer of power to the incoming President Joe Biden. There are more US troops in Washington DC than in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the security concerns. The USA’s domestic problems are likely to continue to be an international embarrassment, its political paradoxes exposed to the world.

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