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Disagreement, lack of trust put America in crisis


At home, the California and the Pacific Northwest are overwhelmed by once-in-a-century forest fires. The coronavirus pandemic is likely going to worsen as colder weather and the flu season approach. The economy is still fragile and protests and violence persist over racial injustices. And the 2020 presidential election appears to be one of the nastiest and potentially most disruptive in history.

Abroad, in pursuit of a global competition with China and Russia, the United States appears to be on a collision course with both and with no off-ramp in sight. Clearly, it is easy to be pessimistic until one remembers history.

Here are two examples.

Donald Trump claims that no president has ever been so badly treated by the press. Someone should read him a little history. Franklin D. Roosevelt was attacked by the key newspapers of the day owned by Randolph Hearst and the McCormack and Patterson families far more viciously and mercilessly than the media is reporting on Trump.

Or imagine being born in 1900. You would have lived through two world wars, a pandemic from 1918-20 and a Great Depression. You would certainly have witnessed a Cold War and most likely the Cuban Missile Crisis and the start of the Vietnam War.

How then could 2020 be more dangerous or troubling? One answer is apparent, yet still invisible. The current major national security threat is not China, Russia or other powers that, of course, still must be seriously considered. The overriding threat is Massive Attacks of Disruption, a new version of the old Cold War Mutual Assured Destruction. COVID-19 is the messenger for this new era.

Beyond that, the nation is not able to agree on much. Congress is incapable of passing a new relief package to offset the economic losses caused by the pandemic. Republicans call for a “skinny” bill. Democrats refuse to settle for anything less than at least a trillion dollars to aid those in financial trouble. And nothing happens.

While the science supporting climate change is irrefutable, both political parties disagree on that. Both also disagree on most issues, even ones as basic as the necessity of wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While the pandemic and the economy will be the most important election issues, this administration’s great power global competition strategy has led to a tariff war with China and an arms race with it and Russia. History matters. Lest we forget, in 1914, great power rivalry was one of the major causes of World War I. Is this where the United States is headed?

The election will provide only a partial answer. The damage done by the pandemic will not be undone and will still need resolution. If Trump wins, MAD will be ignored and the risks of a major confrontation with China and Russia are too likely. If Joe Biden wins, it will take time for his administration to form. And it is not clear a Biden administration will understand what needs to be done or how to do it.

Obviously, the nation has been in difficult straits before. The nation was intractably divided in 1860. That ended in a Civil War. Today, it appears that partisan political divisions could be as fierce as at any time in America’s past. So far, violence is less than it was in the 1960s. And the Constitution survived those crises. But will that continue?

A political thermometer would surely detect two danger signals. First, trust in government has probably never been lower. Governments always lie. Woodrow Wilson denied the existence of the Spanish flu. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson lied about the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon about Watergate; and Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. But Trump is the declared champion when it comes to lying.

Similarly, both the Republican and Democratic parties and members in Congress refuse to trust each other. That, in turn, demonstrates the second danger signal: the absence of civility and compromise across the nation. Without both, society is in peril. And divided government cannot work unless there is a unifying danger or compromise and civility to bridge these divides.

Under these circumstances, the 2020 election is a potential political nuclear ticking time bomb. Unless one candidate wins by a very substantial margin, the election is likely to be contested in a number of battleground states. If that happens, legal challenges would overload the Supreme Court. Both candidates will declare victory. Yet, how will a winner be adjudicated?

Rarely have the dangers and risks been so stark and solutions seemingly so far out of reach.

Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”

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