People tend to look for watersheds in history that mark the end of an era, that unique juncture when there is no going back and the future looms disconcerted. As a new decade begins, pundits are still trying to reconcile when the US fractured to a point of no return. The turbulent 2020s certainly provided fodder for the heated debates. Some looked at the 2007-2008 financial crisis as a symbol of capitalism’s unbridled greed and lack of government oversight. Others, taking a longer-term view, blamed the increasing inequality of US society over more than half a century, or the growing polarization of politics and society in recent decades. The more philosophically inclined felt that American exceptionalism and hubris were culprits; more cynical minds felt it was more like complacency and presumption.
Those who needed numbers to understand loss looked at the dismal US performance in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Some say the day of reckoning came when the number of deaths from COVID-19 passed the 620,000 mark -the number of fatalities in the US Civil War- and then the roughly 675,000 Americans that died from the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. In any case, the numbers kept on growing as the vaccines took longer to develop and distribute than previously thought.
Historians, though, mostly tend to agree that a pivotal moment in US history occurred in the 2010s when a perfect storm of creeping developments began to converge. A widening divide between a wealthy class that became politically adept at promoting and preserving their privileges and low and middle-income Americans whose wages stagnated became more conspicuous. Globalization and deindustrialization played a role in the largest wealth inequality gap among the most developed nations, but so did skewed policies that largely favoured the rich.
Increasing political polarization and hyper-partisanship made decision-making intractable; whereas in past decades Democrats and Republicans would cooperate on major policy issues, and even displayed camaraderie, the situation deteriorated to the extent that outlooks became irreconcilable and politics faded into trench warfare in which the opposing party was perceived not as an opponent but as enemy and traitor.
Parallelly, societal polarization also deepened as personal political identities increasingly transcended ideology to encompass topics as diverse as climate change, healthcare, gun control, the pro-life or pro-choice divide, and even the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In broad terms, two Americas emerged: one liberal, racially inclusive and egalitarian, the other socially conservative, white-dominated, occasionally prone to nativist and xenophobic overtones, that increasingly overlapped with the party system.
The US might have survived this toxic cauldron of developments if it weren’t for the whirlwind persona of Donald Trump and his tempestuous presidency. His constant attacks on US institutions and the deep-rooted system of checks and balances at such a consequential historical juncture did irrevocable damage to the country. Trump weakened America’s democratic legitimacy and standing abroad by siding with autocrats of all stripes and deriding long-standing alliances and trade partnerships. The US has a long history of disruptive populist leaders: Huey P. Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan stand out in the twentieth century. But none of them became president. Trump was the first one that reached the pinnacle of political power. He contributed more than anyone or anything else to the polarization of politics and society, all to serve his narcissistic persona.
Historians and sociologists still ponder on how a significant majority of less-educated white Americans, desperate to preserve their eroding prerogatives, could unconditionally condone his self-serving meanderings, so contrary to their own needs; ironically, they ended up strengthening Trump’s plutocracy. More worrying was the opportunistic subservience of the Republican Party to his whims and authoritarian tendencies. Some wondered whether Trump was a symptom or a cause of the unravelling of the US. It didn’t matter; his single, contentious mandate proved to be a harbinger of the fracture to come.
A most dysfunctional election
Trump lost the November 2020 presidential election by a wider margin of the popular vote than in 2016, though nobody knows the exact count as there was no official final tally, at least not one accepted by both parties. On Election Day his call to supporters – the self-proclaimed ballot guardians– to protect the votes in critical swing states led to abuse, violence and irregularities. The situation was aggravated by the presence of armed members of far-right vigilante groups. “Suspicious” voters and election adjudicators were harassed under the guise of preventing voter fraud; some voting centres and post offices were rampaged as sympathetic law enforcement officers looked on.
Though the results coming in on Election Night slightly favoured Trump, the expected blue-shift phenomenon as mail-in ballots were progressively counted began to give the Democratic candidate Joe Biden a commanding lead. There was no legal precedent to the mayhem that ensued. Soon thereafter, Trump reiterated the election was rigged against him; without any proof, he stressed that due to massive voter fraud in the mail-in votingthe count should be suspended and tabulation be based on the results of Election Night. The conflict went from the streets to the courts; it was no less ugly.
The elimination of the decades-old consent decree in 2018 had given the Republicans ample tools to again intimidate voters and suppress votes. Litigation ensued tabulation. Republican legal teams questioned the validity of many of these overwhelmingly Democratic mail-in ballots in an attempt to disqualify as many Biden voters as possible. Under the pretext of rampant voter fraud and political and civic chaos, Republican-majority state legislatures in the six crucial battleground states appointed their own electors to the Electoral College.
It was the most dysfunctional election in US history. To all effects, the Republicans attempted to stage a coup against the will of the majority of voters. The Democrats pushed back insisting that the electors should reflect the vote count. The Interregnum came and went, besmirched by political haggling and massive street protests that sometimes turned violent. Two separate Electoral Colleges chose two different presidents. The stalemate continued beyond Inauguration Day. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat plunged the country into the worst constitutional crisis in US history; actually, it was a series of constitutional crises.
Joe Biden was eventually declared the 46th President of the US, though the situation continued being tense and confounding, even though in the mid-term elections of 2022the Democrats won a majority in the Senate and kept the one in the House. Trumps insisted in his denunciations and called on his supporters to defend him, liberty and the Constitution, in that order. There was a certain irony in all this, as the white supremacy groups that mostly heeded his calls denounced the tyranny of the Biden government, while conveniently overlooking the authoritarian nature of Trump himself.
Proceedings began to arraign Trump on grounds of criminal and civil wrongdoing. It was the first time in US history that a former president would go to trial; ample evidence was presented. The majority of the American public, fed up with Trump’s railings and hoping for catharsis, supported prosecution; his supporters went ballistic. But President Biden eventually decided to grant a pardon on the grounds of national reconciliation. It was later discovered that a secret “deal’ had been made in which Trump promised to refrain from further destabilizing actions in return for a full pardon from prosecution. Even though Trump’s self-promotion as a master dealmaker rang hollow, as evidenced by his multiple bankruptcies and accusations of financial wrongdoings, this was one deal that actually worked out well for him.
In the end, the furor didn’t matter much. Trump’s empire eventually withered amidst a massive debt load and the enormous losses many of its businesses were incurring. Trump’s offspring and associates were accused of protracted criminal conduct involving bank fraud, tax and insurance fraud. When proof emerged (through a Russian source) of questionable financial dealings with Moscow and links to shady Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin, his credibility further eroded.
A tumultuous decade
Kamala Harris lost a close election in 2024 to a tech billionaire who ran as an independent and on a platform of discontent with the political system; the Republican Tucker Carlson came in third. The victory was inconsequential, as was the one in 2028 of a retired naval officer, a hero in the “skirmish” three years earlier with Chinese ships in the South China Seas. Neither president was able to reconcile the deep fractures in American society, the ones Trump had so ably and cynically exploited.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s unfortunate comments in October of 2020 that African Americans and immigrants can live in his home state of South Carolina as long as they were conservative were prescient of developments to come. Even though the metamorphosis began long before Trump’s presidency, throughout the 2020s the Republican Party became increasingly radicalized and intransigent.
The decade was pounded by profound transformations. In the early 2020s Americans worried that the increasing and seemingly irreconcilable polarization of society would lead to civil war. It’s true that following the controversial 2020 election, violence did increase throughout the country. Political polarization evolved into societal intolerance and went from resentful to vindictive. The US lost its common identity, its moral compass. The melting pot crumbled as neighbour turned on neighbour and families broke apart.
White supremacist groups and ANTIFA members fought pitched battles in the streets of cities. Other groups from across the political spectrum sometimes joined in, though less vehemently. The abundance and easy availability of arms, even automatic weapons normally used in wars, facilitated the carnage. Scores of thousands of Americans lost their lives. There were violent attacks on Democratic politicians in Republican bastions, and several members of state legislatures, mayors, and even two Governors were killed. Some more radical Democratic factions responded in kind. The police were unable to stop the spread of civilian violence as they too sometimes fractured and identified with one side or the other. The same occurred with the National Guard. Many Americans watched in disbelief and wondered how did it come to this. The liberal democracies of the world watched aghast.
But there was no civil war. Instead, there was a great migration. As the decade progressed, tens of millions of Americans left their homes seeking a better life in regions more in tune with their beliefs, aspirations and political identities. In some cases, harassment and intimidation contributed to forced departures. White educated, liberal urban professionals, blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans left the Midwest and South towards the Pacific, or to the northeast. Meanwhile, less-educated, conservative working-class whites fled these bastions of liberalism to find solace in Middle America- some nostalgically called it Trumpian America.
With states purging themselves of ideological opponents, violence has gone down. Very different territorial entities are emerging. The great reckoning is having an irrevocable impact on US society. Some say it’s almost inevitable the US will fracture into two or even three different countries. The exhaustion and deep mistrust on either side diminished the will to unite.
The Great Divide
The United Western States of America (UWSA), an area that includes the Pacific states but also Arizona, Colorado Nevada and New Mexico, are strengthening their common identity and increasingly challenging central authority. They no longer recognize the decisions of the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority rulings are overturning the liberal foundations of the country on everything from abortion and education to immigration and health care. They have taken paradiplomacy to the next level, opening up Economic and Cultural Offices throughout Asia, Latin America and other parts of the world that for all practical purposed function as embassies.
The UWSA has unilaterally joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and have intensified their economic and political relations with Canada and Mexico, as well as with the economies of the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American regional integration initiative. There’s even hearsay of a more formal agreement with Canada, maybe even a confederation, as that country defends and promotes the values that once made the US so exceptional. The interest is buoyed by the lobbying of millions of highly skilled Americans that moved to Canada during the tumultuous 2020s, and that contributed to Making Canada Great.
The UWSA has also welcomed talented immigrants in large numbers, predominantly from Asia, and mostly from China and India -these two countries are confronting their own existential dilemmas. The immigration and the higher domestic fertility rates in the UWSA have contributed to demographic growth and an economic boom. By the mid-2030sthe region will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. The heavy toll of climate change and water shortages have made the UWSA a global leader in mitigation and adaptation. They are rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. Interestingly, shared challenges have increased cooperation with the increasingly autonomous Chinese coastal regions. The UWSA is the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Eastern American States, encompassing most of the Great Lakes region, New England and Virginia, though more geographically constrained and scattered is also pursuing an active paradiplomacy, focused mostly on Canada, Europe and Latin America. In the late 2020’s they unilaterally signed a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement with the European Union.
Middle America has not fared that well. Whereas in the UWSA the Democratic party splintered and new parties emerged that are transforming the region into a vibrant multiparty democracy, in Middle America the Republican Party became the dominant, sometimes the sole political force. The party that erstwhile advocated free-trade and fiscal discipline -whose Congressmen shared with Democratic colleagues a sense of institutional patriotism– became withdrawn and mistrustful of the world, hostile to immigrants, and incredulous of climate change.
The message of Donald Trump resonated among the fervent populists who took over the party and used his playbook to stoke mostly imaginary fears and sow tribalist viewpoints. They pandered to the reactionary evangelicals and white supremacists that constituted the party’s core militancy. Its adherents, though, were mostly white Americans unwilling to accept a changing country and acquiescent of the party’s backsliding into chauvinism to keep their historical prerogatives. An ugly legacy of racism that goes back generations resurfaced, reassured by Trump’s earlier attacks on a liberal, inclusive society.
The country’s de facto dismemberment has weakened Middle America. Segments of white Americans continued suffering from a devastating opiate epidemic that reduced their productivity and life expectancy. The epidemic grew as the economy stagnated. Such was the heavy human toll that some compared it to Russia’s demographic decline in the 1990s. The refusal to transition towards renewable energy sources is impacting its fossil-fuel-based economy, whereas climate change is curtailing agricultural production in the Midwest and damaging vital infrastructure throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The resilient hegemon
There was nothing predetermined about the decline of the US. Quite the contrary; no other major power is so blessed by providence. The US had considerable strategic and competitive advantages over foes and allies alike that would have allowed it to be a key 21st-century global power. Its privileged geographic location shielded it from immediate rivals and made it both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. It had more navigable waterways -and major ports- than the rest of the world combined, with the Greater Mississippi Basin overlaying the largest contiguous piece of farmland in the world. The US became the largest fossil-fuel producer in the world, and with the proper policies and incentives could have led the global transition towards renewable sources.
As opposed to most other major powers who in the next decades will experience demographic declines, its population was due to grow steadily in large part due to immigration -thus guaranteeing economic growth and military preparedness. In addition, it held sway over the global financial and monetary system and had consistently dominated each new generation of technology. Its capacity to project hard power and the appeal of its soft power was without rival. Though the US had embarked on a process of global strategic retrenchment long before Donald Trump’s solipsistic resolve, it was still an energy, agricultural, economic, financial and military powerhouse, and could have continued being so. Few foresaw the fracture that was to come.
A world bereft of leadership
Alas, no country or region could muster the will, nor had the capacity to take the helm. The Union European (EU) mostly stumbled in the 2020s, as demographic decline set in and right-wing populism further encroached on the region’s politics. The governance challenges of such a heterogeneous block led to a multi-tier structure of interactions in which different members cooperate on matters of common interest. Economic divergence, anaemic growth and political squabbling limited the EU’s global ambitions, though the region maintained its allure as the world’s foremost cluster of freedom, prosperity and peace.
Japan’s economy fell from the third biggest in the world in 2020 to ninth place in 2030, due largely to sluggish economic growth, and a rapidly shrinking population and workforce. Automation and innovation, though, helped maintain the country’s high quality of living. Despite US retrenchment from the world and particularly from Asia, Tokyo actively maintained its commitment to an open rules-based international system. However, its diminished economic and geopolitical heft limited its global influence.
By 2030India had the third largest economy in the world and had overtaken China as the country with the biggest population. Despite arbitrary attempts at imposing Hindutva nationalism on the country’s mosaic of religions and ethnicities, it remained the world’s most populous democracy, albeit a flawed one. New Delhi has struggled to provide employment to its huge youthful working-age population, leading to social discontent. Large demographic imbalances, regional disparities and alarming levels of pollution and groundwater depletion have dampened India’s prospects, forcing it to cast its gaze inwards.
Russia is still governed with an iron fist by Vladimir Putin. Its raw commodity-based economy has been unable to modernize and transition. Russia is suffering from a fast-aging population and rapid demographic decline that’s affecting its industries and armed forces. There was an exodus of young talented professionals fleeing the stagnant economy and the stifling regime. Popular uprisings against personalist, authoritarian rulers in its near abroad left Moscow even more forlorn. The country never recuperated the Soviet-era geopolitical grandeur that Putin so vehemently promoted.
No did China become the global hegemon many had forecasted. The sum of its challenges exceeded the sum of its accomplishments. With its demographic dividend over, China faces a fast-shrinking population, one of the reasons it could not transition from an export-led economy towards a focus on domestic consumption. The extent of its Orwellian surveillance state reduced China’s appeal as an alternative governance model. There was a global backlash throughout the 2020s at Beijing’s systematic repression of its Uighur and Tibetan minorities and the emasculation of Hong Kong; developing countries sometimes criticized its economic policies as neo- colonialism.
The decoupling was not only with the US, as the more prosperous, historically outward-looking coastal regions demanded greater leeway from Beijing and the Communist Party’s suffocating rule. As the US reduced its presence in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad expanded its scope to include not only Australia, India and Japan but also Vietnam and South Korea, with some Southeast Asian countries showing interest. This reduced Beijing’s quest for strategic depth.
Even countries that were previously critical of America’s hubris look back in nostalgia and grief at its decline, and what became of the global community. For all its failings and moral contradictions, the much-vilified Pax Americana contributed to an unprecedented era of economic growth, as well as one of relative stability and peace. The globalisation it helped spur lifted more than one billion out of poverty and improved the lives of billions more. For decades democracy around the world flourished.
The waning of the US came at the worst possible time. The 2020s proved to be a ruinous decade. The liberal, rules-based international order is fraying; no alternative has yet emerged. Multilateralism in its many forms weakened. Globalisation, already in retreat, further receded as the wide-ranging consequences of Covid-19 led to a fractured and regionalized world and economic nationalism brought a decrease in global trade and investments. The world went rudderless. Prosperity and stability are frail things. There is no greater pain than to be aware of what was and what was lost.