7 days in the United States of Unconsciousness*

Like many, I cried when Obama became president. In some way America had become great through a collective decision.

In an imperfect world this was as close to the American dream as it was possible to get: a nation that demonstrated it genuinely valued progress, tolerance, diversity and respect. And under his leadership a nation pulled out of the greatest financial crisis in almost a century.

Recently, Swedish friends moved to Dallas where shooting the breeze with neighbours would occasionally stray into politics. These diversions invariably descended into vitriolic attacks on Obama saying he was out to destroy America and must be removed at all costs (Texan view not Swedish). Eventually our friends realised they had no choice but switch to listening mode to try to figure out what was going on with these Texans.

Was Obama out to destroy America? Of course not.

Obamacare provided essential safety nets for Texans and the rest of the nation. He reduced inequality — the poverty rate would have increased 4.5% without his 2009 stimulus package. And he recognized climate change was a threat to the US, and the rest of the world, realized the solutions were in our grasp, and did something about it. Statistics out yesterday show US emissions fell 2.6% in 2015 while gross domestic product grew 2.6% and, globally, emissions have flatlined for three years. This is big news one year after signing the Paris Agreement. The other big news out today: 2016 will be the hottest year on record by far. The previous warmest? 2015.

The world is metaphorically and literally treading on thin ice when it comes to the stability of our planet and its living resources. We need responsible, smart leaders to allow collective decision making under deep uncertainty to navigate a hazardous near future with implications for the distant future. With the election of Trump we have a de facto world leader calling for, as Noam Chomsky said this week, “rapid increase in use of fossil fuels, including coal; dismantling of regulations; rejection of help to developing countries that are seeking to move to sustainable energy.”

Chomsky concluded that the election outcome “placed total control of the government — executive, Congress, the Supreme Court — in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

Let’s go back to the Texans because in some way they may be right. While he was not out to destroy America, Obama threatened their way of life (essentially the same thing): the Texans perceived the Democrats were attempting to restrict their freedom, tax the hell out of them, and wrest control of their guns, conveniently ignoring that freedom for wolves means death for sheep.

Paul Noth cartoon from the New Yorker.

Is Trump out to destroy America? No, not deliberately. But if he carries out his election promises to build Fortress America then through outright lies, weapons-grade misinformation and heroic displays of ignorance it is likely to be much, much worse: the planet will become collateral damage in Trump’s war on facts. Indeed, Trump has never made clear at which point in American history he considers “great”: before civil rights, or after?

His campaign has wilfully divided a nation and will make collective decision making a bleak prospect. Yet collective decision making is essential in a working democracy and on the world stage.

On top of this, Trump is creating an industrial slaughterhouse to eviscerate environmental legislation spearheaded by climate denier Myron Ebell heading up the Environment Protection Agency. This is a catastrophe that we can hope has limited damage only through the huge momentum already built up in cities and industry, restrictions on the reins of power and international efforts particularly from the likes of China.

In a week of oddness, one quirky fact stood out. Until last week, Trump had never met Obama. Following that encounter Trump seemed to soften perceptibly. Perhaps elements of Obamacare were not so criminally insane after all, murmured the president elect. Two humans connected and a new understanding emerged — Trump, for the first time, could empathise with Obama and that meant he could no longer demonise him, at least to the same extent. This is so simple.

Empathy is critically important for understanding and breaking down cultural and ideological barriers — ask any Swede. This requires real human connection. The machinery for dialogue in the US between citizens, the media, political institutions and academia has entirely broken down, possibly exacerbated by social media. My guess is Trump has never spoken to a genuine world-leading expert on issues relating to healthcare, global development, climate or the Anthropocene.

We need to worry less about the wall between Mexico and the US and more about the wall the Republicans will build swiftly between Trump and the outside world. For the Republican party, it might be dangerous if the president elect actually starts speaking to people outside their bubble.

Seven days in and the new “fortress world” order emerges. This is as far the the American Dream as it is possible to get: we are living in the United States of Unconsciousness. What rough beast slouches towards DC?

*US rappers the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy used the lyric the “United States of Unconsciousness” in the song “Television”.