Just how rotten is the United States' political system? The answer is rotten, as in it will only take a small kick for the whole edifice to fall in, let alone a big kick like COVID-19.
The idea is about as fanciful as the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan famously demanded: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Yet, a short time later, a little chink in the Iron Curtain at the Hungary-Austria border saw the whole rotten regime collapse.
Almost nobody predicted it, with the notable exception of Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. Amalrik is not as well known as dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn because he was killed in a car crash in 1980 - but not before his writings had been smuggled out to the West. Amalrik was unlike other dissidents, who sought East-West accommodation and a little softening of the Soviet hard line while still under a communist regime (because the end of the regime seemed a hopeless cause).
Instead, Amalrik pointed out in detail the inherent rottenness of the Soviet communist system, which he said would be gone by 1984. He was not far out. He pointed out the circumstances in which a great power succumbs to self-delusion because it imagines itself to be indestructible.
Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., wrote an essay in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine outlining Amalrik's theory of great power decay, very cleverly avoiding directly applying it to the US.
King wrote: "The 'comfort cult', as Amalrik called it - the tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe "that 'reason will prevail' and that 'everything will be all right'" - is seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing, and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this ...
"Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalrik's work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crises - the faltering of the institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes."
Tragically, American exceptionalism - 'we are the first and best democracy on Earth' - contributes to the self-delusion of indestructibility. There is nothing automatically self-correcting in US democracy.
Look at the US now. Its president is so psychiatrically disordered with narcissism that he is incapable of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in a coherent, empathetic way. Everything he says and does is through a prism of himself. He has now turned his whole re-election campaign into one of race hate, law and order and a bizarre invention of a threat from "left-wing fascists".
But worse, the US seems to have a national self-delusion that once Trump loses and is gone, everything will return to normal. The delusion extends to a belief that the COVID-19-stricken economy will bounce back to normal in a V shape.
Trump is as much just a symptom of the underlying rottenness as an integral part of it, even if his sucking up to authoritarian leaders in Russia, China and North Korea is unprecedented.
The underlying weakness in present US democracy is that partisanship has become so extreme that the nation is incapable of dealing with the major issues that face it. COVID-19 has illustrated that starkly, with every word and act predicated on party allegiance. Meanwhile, other problems like race, police violence, gun control, inequality, the health system, climate change and energy policy go unattended.
The motives of "the other side" are routinely vilified without evidence. The Democrats are blamed for everything. The Republicans can do no wrong. And to a lesser extent, vice versa. My side of politics, right or wrong.
In a vicious cause-and-effect circle, the imperative of winning at all costs corrodes the political process, and the corroded political process makes winning at all costs even more imperative.
The Trump presidency has made all this worse, but the seeds were there long before. He has appointed incompetent ignorant toadies to the most senior positions in his cabinet and the bureaucracy. He has undermined the Supreme Court with appointments based on politics, not law.
For a long time, the electoral process has been corrupted by state governors drawing unfair electoral boundaries so that the Republican Party is grossly over-represented in Congress compared to its vote, and has won the presidency twice this century with a minority of the vote.
The electoral process has also been corrupted by runaway bribery through political donations.
Another vicious circle has emerged. The politicised Supreme Court from 2010 on has refused to control corporate and individual political donations - thus favouring the Republicans.
Donations from billionaires, mainly to the Republicans, consequently boomed from just $17 million in 2008 to $611 million in 2018 - and rising. This results in policies more skewed to the wealthy and conservatives, and therefore greater inequality. These policies include engaging in wars in remote places where the only real US interests are those of war profiteers. In turn, these policies result in more donations from billionaires, who get repaid manyfold, and who now have as much if not more control of the process than voters.
Tragically, American exceptionalism - "we are the first and best democracy on Earth" - contributes to the self-delusion of indestructibility. There is nothing automatically self-correcting in US democracy. Even the so-called checks and balances are not working - they are causing gridlock, rather than adding a bit of mild caution to a system that is overall supposed to be geared to problem-solving, not political point-scoring.
The system has become so warped that those disenfranchised, disempowered and disenchanted are taking to the streets, questioning the legitimacy of the whole system.
The only question is whether the taking to the streets can break these vicious circles, or whether it is just another step in the decline and fall of a great power.
Whatever happens, Australia must not go any further in the direction the US has gone in the past few decades.
- Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times. crispinhull.com.au