Reading The Guardian last week, two articles captured my attention. Set side by side were “A ‘tyrant-clown’ has destroyed my love affair with America” by Robert McCrum and “‘Chairman Xi’ seeks only to purge and subjugate. That is his weakness” by Simon Tisdall.

In the first, McCrum talks about his introduction to America over 40 years ago and how, like many Brits, he was captivated. He describes how, even years later, he was “brought to tears by a video devoted to that love letter to democratic principles, the US constitution, and the eternal magic of ‘We, the people.’”

Today he is disillusioned, the long love affair sadly over. His admiration has, he says, died, “bludgeoned by the racism, cruelty, corruption and outright stupidity of the current administration.” He describes how through all the struggles the country has been through its basic humanity had always shone through. Now, the light has gone out, overwhelmed more than anything by Trump’s blizzard of lies.

I share his despair in kind but not in degree. I have been greatly disappointed not only in what Trump has done to America, but that Americans would elect a “tyrant-clown” in the first place. That in fact they didn’t elect him, the Electoral College did, is little consolation. Americans have a lot on their plate these days: Donald Trump, a morally bankrupt Republican Party, and a host of crazies, to say nothing of a raging pandemic. The country’s democracy is in such a shabby state, corrupted by wealth, gerrymandering and other iniquities, it is generous to call it democracy.

Nonetheless, while I have frequently been a critic of the U.S. I have, like Robert McCrum, also long admired and enjoyed it, easily the world’s most interesting country. (A society that invented Hollywood, baseball and the blues has to have a lot going for it.) And I continue to admire it, if with considerably less optimism.

Despite its current travails, it retains great strengths, including a legendary constitution, some of the world’s finest newspapers, a vigorous civil society, and a wonderfully creative population. And, for that matter, a goodly number of capable, committed and compassionate politicians. I remain confident, less than four years ago certainly, but confident nonetheless that American liberty will prevail. 

And we must all hope it does. That brings me to the second article, by Simon Tisdall. This article discusses the very ambitious Xi Jinping, a president much more frightening than Donald Trump. Tisdall refers to “Xi’s authoritarian, expansionist policies, pursued with increasing vehemence” and states that not since Mao’s revolution has China been more at odds with the wider world, “its borderlands ablaze with conflict and confrontation.”

He points out that while China’s manufacturing is recovering, inequality is growing, too, with the fabulously rich Xi himself an example. Whereas Trump and his policies can be challenged in the public arena, Xi and his policies cannot. Tisdall suggests he may soon entitle himself “Chairman Xi.” America’s blacks fight for equality, but they aren’t being systematically tortured, disappeared and sterilized like the Tibetans and Uighurs.

And this is the kind of society Xi sells to the world, i.e. the “Chinese model,” communism with a capitalist face. Or is it capitalism with a communist face? He is eliminating democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and longs to do the same in Taiwan. Democracy is really the only threat the dictator faces, such is his control over his country, and he will assiduously work towards its decline elsewhere lest it influence his people. 

So who has the clout to challenge China in the ideological realm? The EU perhaps, but they have their own nemesis—Vladimir Putin, another autocrat scheming to become tsar. Putin, like Xi, fears democracy above all and meddles incessantly to undermine it. The Europeans have their hands full.

That leaves the United States the lone great power available to confront Xi. Unfortunately, Trump and his henchman Secretary of State Michael Pompeo are currently acting more like juveniles than statesmen in dealing with China, but that will change if Biden wins in November. In any case, we’re going to need the United States around for a long while yet.

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