The fire that burns America


A canvas as dramatic as already seen. Which marked and continues to mark the history of the United States. The disproportionate violence of the police in one of the many difficult US metropolises; a defenseless man who falls victim to it; racial cleavage (the victim is black, the policeman who with his knee on his neck causes suffocation is white); the subsequent wave of protests, unrest and violence, which from Minneapolis, the city where the murder took place, extends to other parts of America.

Much has been discussed and much has been done in the United States in recent years, especially after the last great wave of urban riots in Saint Louis, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, also provoked in that case by the killing of a African American by the police force. The matrices and causes of this violence are multiple and well studied. There is the persistence, and indeed the recent worsening, of racial divisions and tensions (the possibility that an African American is a victim is between two and three times higher than that of a “white”). It affects the proliferation of firearms, which immensely complicates the work of law enforcement and often feeds a spiral that is difficult to control. There is a security inclination, which assigns to the police tasks that do not pertain to them – according to some estimates, a significant percentage of the victims of police violence in recent years were people with serious mental problems – while equipping it with a completely inappropriate military instrumentation for the contexts of urban petty crime in which it finds itself acting.

But there is also a new factor, that is unprecedented in the history of modern USA. A president who deliberately throws petrol on the fire. That feeds the clash and the opposition. That racial rift that has never been recomposed, which marks the history of the country from its origins, today seeks to expand and ride, aware that it owes so much of its political fortunes and that from it – from sharpening and exasperating the racial resentment of its electoral base white – ultimately depends on his ability to be confirmed at a second term.

Various data indicated an improvement in progress compared to some of the many indicators of the state of health of the American society also with respect to this racial cleavage. The killers for firearms decreased compared to the peaks of the late seventies and mid-nineties. The prison population has decreased significantly, with the reduction of almost a third of the black prisoners. The situation in most US cities has improved, compared to the peaks of violence and petty crime in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

Of course, the United States remains – in the richest and most prosperous part of the world – the country where one kills or is killed more easily. Where the sale and possession of firearms are more widespread and less controlled. Where the legacy of zero tolerance policies adopted since the 1980s continues to be felt. Where urban violence remains well above any physiological threshold we want to try to define: where the most dangerous cities – Saint Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis – have a murder rate in relation to the population that is ten times or more higher than that of their European counterparts. But progress seemed to be taking place.

The economic crisis of 2008, the long wave of its effects, the fracture that opened with the election of the first African-American president and the horrible reaction of a piece of white America, led precisely by Donald Trump, to the idea that a man named Barack Hussein Obama could have been President: all this has helped to rekindle the racial rift and, with it, the dynamics and tensions that we see today in action in Minneapolis. Again, various reforms have been promoted, especially in the state and municipal areas, starting with the obligation for policemen to equip themselves with cameras that document their behavior on duty. But after Trump’s election, the message has been ambiguous or opposite at federal level, in line with the Republicans’ propensity to adopt a strictly security perspective on the issue of urban crime. With a measure of high symbolic value, Trump has, for example, decided to reactivate the transfer programs to the local police force of the military equipment abandoned by the armed forces, which Obama had partially blocked in 2015 following the events of Ferguson. With his crude and binary language, Trump has often re-proposed the lexicon and proposals of that era of zero tolerance that seemed to be coming to an end. A verbal escalation, that of the President, which seems to have peaked with his umpteenth tweet, in which he targeted the alleged weakness of the Mayor of Minneapolis Jacob Frey and threatened to take direct control of the situation and send the National Guard to do “an appropriate job” (“to get the job done right”).

We have seen and listened to everything, in these three and a half years of Donald Trump in the White House. And yet this latest exit from President-vigilante who promises to deploy violence against demonstrators and tries to exacerbate the political confrontation – at a time that would instead require full collaboration and unity of purpose between federal power and municipal authority – truly represents one of the lowest moments of this Presidency. It shows us, if we have not yet noticed, the level of brutality of the political discourse and the frightening degradation of the presidential institution.

We know, in Trump’s actions, there is a license for institutional inadequacy and a violent and authoritarian inclination that we have seen many times at work. However, there is also an obvious political and electoral instinct, without which we would not be able to explain its 2016 success and its unshakeable popularity with a large majority of the Republican electorate. Trump reflects and exacerbates the acute political and cultural polarization existing in the country. The matrices of this polarization are multiple. The “color line”, the racial rift, is one of the most important. Widely overrepresented among the Trumpian electorate are specific demographic segments: those of white males over 50 and whites with low or medium-low education levels. According to the polls, in the definition of party membership, among the under-50s there would now be a gap of about twenty points in favor of the Democrats. This white America, older and less educated, is the one that most regrets an allegedly idyllic past, in which consolidated racial hierarchies were unchallenged and the violence was explicitly, and often institutionally, deployed to impose and preserve them. And it is obviously the one that most fears the demographic and cultural transformations taking place. Trump blows on the fire, regardless of the consequences, for institutional inadequacy (and, one would like to say, ethics) yes, but also because that fire can help him electorally (concealing, at the same time, his mismanagement of the health emergency). Because the spread of violence and unrest could fuel the irresistible, and to some extent understandable, demand for law and order. Thus putting in great difficulty a democratic front that relates instead to an electoral base, in majority theory, but much more composite and volatile. More difficult to mobilize, in other words. However, the Trumpian one is a fire that risks burning, metaphorically and otherwise, a country that today is extraordinarily torn, divided and unlucky.

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