Your correspondent is reporting from Abu Dhabi. While traveling during the past month I have been seeing the situation in America more or less exclusively through the lens of the media in South Asia and the Middle East. I’ve been making notes and thought you would be interested in the view from the outside.
Seen from this part of the world, the great global threat is an energized far-right nativist and nationalist movement led by opportunistic thugs. Duarte, Putin, Erdogan, and Trump are spoken of in the same breath. Every day’s news – most recently Trump’s tortured response to the mosque massacre in New Zealand – seems to confirm this view. The rising generation on this planet has never known the America of E pluribus unum, the America of “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the America that liberated the world from fascism. They know only the America of white grievance and corporatist greed – an America standing absurdly on the wrong side of demography and history.
The coverage of the 737-Max debacle has been illuminating. The near universal deference once accorded to U.S. government institutions such as the FAA is gone. In its place, a belief that under America’s corporatist politics the financial interests of Boeing would trump public safety, and the view that Trump has either politicized or dismantled the U.S. government institutions previously respected by the world. Papers yesterday noted with approval that Canadian and EU regulators would not rely on the FAA to validate the fixes to the 737-Max software. Indeed, the media here has been dismissive of the American government’s role, noting that Trump had left the FAA Chairmanship vacant for a year, and then considered his personal pilot for the post.
Guns are one area where the rest of the world has long been baffled by America’s seeming collective insanity. But there is an emerging view here that the gun control debate in America is about power, not culture. A statement in Trump’s March interview with Breitbart was widely noted: "I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump -- I have the tough people, but they don't play it tough -- until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad." And what is that “certain point”? The elections, of course, if Trump loses. As one Indian commentator observed, the right has all the guns. Why would they give up power?
Hypocrisy is a major theme of the coverage of contemporary America – which, the argument goes, supports values such as rule of law and free trade when they are applied to others, but ignores them as constraints on its own actions. It is not easy to be a Gulf state partnering with America in the fight against Islamist radicals on a day when the U.S. Secretary of State appears with Netanyahu in districts key to the coming Israeli elections, and Trump Tweets away decades of bipartisan U.S. policy (not to mention U.S. leverage) by recognizing the illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. The winners, according to the press here: Iran, Hezbollah, and Putin (so much for Crimea).
Americans have thick skins. Culturally, we are comfortable standing alone in the world, adhering to our view of right and wrong, even when prevailing sentiment is against us. But Americans do not like being the butt of jokes and the subject of ridicule. So if you travel, steel yourself. Our President is viewed as preposterous. America is the new Absurdistan.