(Originally published here by the South China Morning Post on February 1, 2021.)
Less than two weeks into US President Joe Biden’s administration, he is leading a country closing in on half a million Covid-19 deaths, burdened by a chaotic vaccine roll-out that has left federal officials scrambling to locate millions of doses and struggling to shore up an economy that has yet to recover.
On top of these problems, he is leading a country so divided that Republicans elevated to a House committee seat a freshman representative who has supported calls for the execution of Democratic leaders. Some Republican lawmakers are coming under increasing scrutiny for their connections with far-right groups, but few have attracted as much attention as the party’s new phenomenon, Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Revelations about Greene’s recent past include her denial that dozens of children and teenagers perished at the hands of deranged gunmen and claims that laser beams probably caused last year’s California wildfires.
Greene is to the Republicans what new variants of Covid-19 are to the pandemic. She came out of nowhere and is suddenly everywhere, is potentially more dangerous in that her politics are more stridently Trumpian than former president Donald Trump’s and has everyone guessing what kind of long-term effect she will have on US politics.
When Senator Mitch McConnell finally dismissed Trump’s allegations that the 2020 election was stolen, and declared the Capitol rioters a disgrace, it seemed as though Republicans might have finally brought under control the Trumpian perversion of what was once a political party that defended the institutions of American governance.
However, a Republican backlash against congresswoman Liz Cheney, one of a handful in the party who voted for Trump’s impeachment, shows the party remains under Trump’s sway.
The political survival of Trumpism, even after the movement’s namesake lost the election and incited a mob to attack America’s seat of democracy, gives more merit to the argument that Chinese exceptionalism has overtaken the American sort. This facile assessment will never make sense given that there are as many different sets of metrics used to back it up as there are people trying to make the comparison.
But let’s poke at the proposition anyway – at the risk of giving it more oxygen – since pundits everywhere will go back and forth on this as the size of China’s economy overtakes that of the US sometime in the next few years.
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken want to shore up alliances that will be necessary to counter Beijing as the reputation of the US lies on mat, bruised and bleeding. The ideological war between those who refuse to accept the outcome of the 2020 election and the traditionalists, comprising the entire Democratic Party and what appears to be a minority of Republicans, is far from over, making Biden and Blinken’s task that much more challenging.
While Democratic infighting amounts to disagreements over which progressive policies should be prioritised and to what degree, Republicans who once valued free trade, immigration and small-c conservative governance are battling a mutating, parasitic contagion that threatens to turn the caucus into one bent on undermining everything that bolstered the claim to American exceptionalism, including policies based on objectively observable data.
This is a critical problem for an America that needs the more traditional strain of Republicanism to preserve the political order that many pundits have used to declare the country an example for the world. It gives more merit to the argument that American exceptionalism is over while Chinese exceptionalism is on the rise.
What is lost in this argument is the fact that Taylor-Greene and her ilk have no policy orientation other than a violent form of ethno-nationalism, the likes of which would be no less divisive than China’s Cultural Revolution or Russia’s Red October. Too few Americans want to erase every aspect of social reform implemented during the past century for such an outcome.
Like too many phenomena in our age of social media sound bites, Greene’s behaviour diverts attention from a less dramatic reality.
If Trump didn’t win over a majority of Americans with his nihilisic policies and rhetoric, Greene will attract even less support. Not even Trump’s appointees on the Supreme Court were willing to give his attempt to overturn the election a chance.
Make whatever arguments you want about the eclipsing of American exceptionalism by Beijing. If you’re betting on the demise of America, the odds are longer than you think.