America is at a low ebb. Pain and destruction strangle hopes and dreams of people across the country. People are dying – alone from a terrible virus or from a knee on the neck in full public view. Cities burn, destroying businesses and inflaming divisions. Tens of millions are out of work. The president makes it all worse.
This is the state of the union as the nation reels from multiple blows, each one arriving with swift and overwhelming force. Long-standing, untreated inequalities have been exposed anew, and they, in turn, have highlighted the country’s real vulnerabilities. What has been just below the surface, known but barely acknowledged and rarely addressed seriously, is now impossible to ignore.
America experienced a wave of burning cities in the aftermath of a racial killing in 1968. America was hit by a pandemic in 1918 that killed even more people than the 102,000 who have died of the coronavirus. America was battered by a Great Depression in the 1930s and laid low by a Great Recession just a decade ago. America has never experienced all of this kind of tumult in the same moment. It is more than the system can bear, and people grieve for the country.
The heinous killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police – one officer, Derek Chauvin, has since been fired and charged – provoked instantaneous outrage that united nearly every racial and ideological group in the country. It was a collective cry of anguish and a demand for change to what has become commonplace, the killing of unarmed black people at the hands of law enforcement.
But today that unity brought about by Floyd’s death is fraying, as what began as peaceful protests over yet another senseless killing of a black person quickly turned to violence and looting and businesses and police cars in flames. City leaders on the front lines, many of them black Americans, struggle to express their sympathy and solidarity with the underlying conditions that provoked the demonstrations while trying to quell those protests so they can save their communities from further damage and division.
Through all this, President Donald Trump has spewed division with ill-chosen tweets about looting and “shooting” or “vicious dogs” and overpowering weapons. He has attacked Democratic leaders as their communities burn. He flails rather than leads, his instincts all wrong for what confronts the country.
At a time when presidential leadership is most called for, at a time when Americans look to a president for words to unify and heal, many hope this president will resist that call – an extraordinary condemnation of the way he leads in crisis.
“He should just stop talking,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “This is like Charlottesville all over again. He speaks and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet, and I wish that he would just be quiet.”
On the same program, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, lamented what Trump has done in the face of the protests. “It’s not lowering the temperature. It’s sort of continuing to escalate the rhetoric,” Hogan said. “And I think it’s just the opposite of the message that should have been coming out of the White House.”
America’s enemies revel in the chaos of this triple blow or seek to stir more disruption and division as they exploit the chaos. America’s allies see a president further withdrawing U.S. leadership at a time when the world seeks to unite against the common enemy of the coronavirus. The American carnage that Trump promised in his inaugural address to end is literally and figuratively on the doorstep of the White House, for all the world to see.
The coronavirus is not under control, and fears of a second wave persist. As the spread slows in some areas hit hardest early on, it grows in other places. The lifting of restrictions on businesses and other activity has in some places brought out crowds of people indifferent to calls for social distancing and the wearing of masks. The massive protests in cities also risk accelerating the spread of the virus.
Trump once, twice, multiple times, dismissed the dangers. Now the pandemic has killed nearly twice as many people as were killed in the Vietnam War and the death toll continues to rise. Black people have borne the brunt of the pandemic, dying at rates far in excess of their share of the population. Hispanics, too, have been hit disproportionately.
Economic pain abounds. The number of people filing for unemployment, though it has slowed in the past two weeks, has reached an astounding number, with roughly 40 million Americans out of work – the worst joblessness since the Depression. Many, if not the majority, of those are people who can least afford it: low-wage workers already struggling to pay their bills.
Many small-business owners, the backbone of the economy, are barely holding on. Some have been forced to close, and more could follow. Now, in some neighborhoods in big and medium-size cities, they are experiencing another threat from the flames that engulfed their livelihoods.
Congress and the White House stand seemingly frozen in the face of this economic catastrophe. Having moved swiftly earlier to supply aid, lawmakers remain at ideological loggerheads over what to do next, trapped in the past as if this were something ordinary and recognizable.
States and cities that have cried out for assistance now have another problem to deal with, the destruction of streets and businesses and neighborhoods from days of violent protests. It can take years for riot corridors to rebound.
“The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” former vice president Joe Biden said Friday. “And sometimes we manage to overlook it. We just push forward with a thousand other tasks in our daily life. But it’s always there. And weeks like this, we see it plainly that we’re a country with an open wound. And none of us can turn away. None of us can be silent.”
The entire nation is bending under the weight of the pandemic, of economic reversals and of the tumult in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing and how it is tearing apart cities. But that weight is felt more acutely in certain communities, among black Americans especially, and turning away no longer seems legitimate.
It is in the American spirit to proclaim that better days lie ahead, that this country has faced and overcome every challenge, external or internal. That is useful to remember. But it is also important to recognize the troubled and weakened state of the country today and all the things that have contributed to it and the enormity of finding the will and the leadership that will be needed in the days ahead.