Over the last few months, Americans have watched tens of thousands of protestors demonstrating for rights, freedom, and dignity in Sudan, Hong Kong, Algeria, and, most recently, in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and on the streets of Moscow. When President Donald Trump visited the United Kingdom last month, a huge tide of protestors flooded the streets of London to register their disgust at the worst leader the United States has ever known. But here in America, mass protests are rare, despite the many outrages of the Trump Administration, such as the cruel treatment of immigrants held in concentration camps at the southern border, clear evidence that the president is a criminal and a racist, and the realization that global warming is very real and quite dangerous. Although Trump’s approval rating is quite low–hovering around 40 percent–and a majority of Americans find his words and actions repulsive, private distress has not yet assumed significant public expression in the form of mass protests and demonstrations. Given that over half of the U.S. citizenry opposes Trump and all that he stands for, this is indeed strange. We seem to be sleep-walking into a catastrophe of fascistic rule and environmental devastation, and despite the many opportunities to discuss these perils in depth during an election campaign year, fears and anger about the state of the country are not bringing people out into the streets.
Discussing this odd situation with friends lately, a couple of explanations emerged. Most notably, the economy appears to be in good shape. Unemployment is down and Wall Street is happy. Americans are known to vote with their wallets, as summed up in the Democratic party’s call to arms when Bill Clinton faced off against George H.W. Bush in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!” A number of states have raised the minimum wage to $15 (double what it was before), yet dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. In the Midwest, floods have devastated farming communities, and will lead to higher food prices this fall. Miners and factory workers, who avidly supported Trump in 2016, are in worse shape now than they were before Trump promised to bring their jobs back. Housing prices in urban centers have skyrocketed, and homelessness is now epidemic in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Two weeks ago, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned that the United States might soon run out of money and urged Congress to raise the federal borrowing limit before their summer recess.
Of course, the U.S. economy looks quite different depending on where one sits in the class structure. For the very rich, things are quite good indeed. For the poor, many of whom work multiple jobs, the situation is grim. Given big money’s decisive role in elections, the poor have little to no representation in Congress, and those who speak on their behalf, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, are dismissed as dangerous socialist radicals by the political, media, and financial establishments, and even the Democratic Party leadership strives to silence their voices.
From another angle, the “gig” economy and the massive student debts shouldered by young people might explain the relative quiescence of the American public. To keep one’s grip on a middle-class lifestyle in this hyper-capitalist economy, working more than one job and keeping one’s head down in order to hold on to a sufficient salary makes protesting and solidarity building difficult. Workers’ rights are in decline, and unions have been weak since the 1970s. In fields such as higher education, social services, and the media, a new class, called the “precariat,” has emerged over the last decade. Without a safety net of job security and health insurance, millions of Americans are terrified of losing their precarious jobs and scanty benefits, and perhaps that explains why so many remain silent. Also, Americans tend to blame financial distress on individual failures rather than larger structural issues, so shame, rather than anger, is often the emotional response to poverty. Clearly, the divide between the super-rich and the increasingly impoverished, which has grown dramatically in the last decade, is only widening under Trump’s watch.
Another explanation for the weird calm on America’s streets is psychological, rather than economic. Since November 2016, perusing the news every day is tantamount to being punched in the face repeatedly. Trump’s tweets, the corruption of those around him, the cruelty of White House advisor Stephen Miller, and warnings that humanity has less than a dozen years to stave off the worst impacts of climate change all combine to turn outrage into despair and a sense of defeat. Many of my friends, relatives, and colleagues complain of feeling exhausted, powerless, and depressed as a result of the daily outrages of life under Trump. One is barely able to absorb all the ugliness and toxicity the spews forth from Washington hourly. People used to talk about “compassion fatigue,” but now we speak of “outrage fatigue.”
Last, but not least, is a more troubling explanation: the erosion of our political institutions and the consequent damage to their legitimacy since Trump took office. The Supreme Court is now a right-wing body in accord with many (but not all) of Trump’s aims, and last week ruled that the Trump Administration could divert federal money to the building of the wall on the southern border. The Senate is under the firm control of a corrupt Republican Party, headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has come out against protecting the U.S. election system in the lead up to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. The House, though controlled by Trump’s opposition, seems feckless and lukewarm in the face of conditions that demand fiery spirits and burning commitments to social justice and reform. Resistance to the status quo seems to turn into resignation all too quickly, especially as valid doubts about the security and veracity of voting systems grow.
Many people were waiting for the Mueller report to save us, but neither the release of the report in March, nor Mueller’s lack-luster performance on the floor of the House last week signal any rescue is forthcoming from the legal system, which now, under Attorney General William Barr’s direction, is becoming more draconian by the day. Barr, who has done his utmost to bury the Mueller report’s findings, announced five days ago that the federal government will resume executions of prisoners convicted of murder.
Many Americans are waiting for the 2020 elections to deliver us from Trump and the perverse incarnation of the Republican Party that now occupies the Senate. But despite statistics that indicate at least 220 million out of 320 million Americans are sick of Donald Trump and Congressional gridlock, one wonders if they will show up to the ballot boxes in 14 months when they haven’t shown up on the streets for the last three years.
(Read the Arabic Version of this article here.)