by C. A. Chandraprema
If Sri Lanka’s own experience is anything to go by, the chaos reigning on the streets of the USA should ensure the re-election of President Donald Trump at the presidential elections later this year. In 1988, Prime Minister R. Premadasa’s victory at the presidential elections of that year was more or less assured by the campaign of terror launched by the JVP. Many ordinary people who were not loyalists of any particular political party feared that if there was a change of government, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike the then leader of the SLFP would not be able to contain the JVP. It was this fear of handing over the reins of power to a party that was not showing signs of being able to cope with the JVP that motivated many people to vote for Premadasa. The fact that the SLFP was known to be talking to the JVP to obtain the latter’s help to win the presidential election did not do anything to reassure voters either.
The same sentiment may well ensure Trump’s re-election in the USA. Ordinary Americans cannot possibly be pleased at what is happening on the streets of their country right now. The run up to the 2016 presidential election saw American politics descending to the level of Sri Lankan politics with vilification, smear campaigns and false propaganda taking centre stage. The introduction and spread of the use of new communication technologies such as smart phones, the internet and the social media during the second decade of the 21st century added fuel to the fire in Sri Lanka. The fall of the Rajapaksa government in January 2015 was due in large measure to their inability to respond effectively to the barrage of false propaganda against them. It’s a well known fact that all this was organized and funded from 2009 through 2015 by foreign elements who were hell bent on effecting what they called ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka by fair means or foul.
After having experienced a deluge of propaganda and vilification resulting in the Rajapaksa government being washed away by its force, we Lankans watched while a similar deluge of propaganda and vilification washed over the USA in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. But the result in the USA in 2016 was different. Donald Trump won against all odds – despite all the vilification, smear campaigns, and bias of the mainstream media. That marked a turning point in global politics together with the Brexit vote in the UK a few months earlier. It was not the conservatives but the liberals in the universal political divide who had mastered the art of the demonization of political opponents, smear campaigns, vilification and false propaganda. This was as true of the USA as it was of Sri Lanka, which is why in the second decade of the 21st century, there was such a resemblance between Sri Lankan politics and US politics.
Establishment’s fear of the mob
Now, after the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white policeman, US politics has come to resemble the Sri Lanka of the 1980s when mobs could be assembled at the drop of a hat to burn down government buildings, businesses, vehicles and anything that they can lay their hands on. Many commentators on the riots in the USA said they had seen nothing like it in their lifetimes. Indeed, we too never thought we would live to see the day that the USA and certain other parts of the developed West would descend to the levels Sri Lanka was in the 1980s. The arson and looting seen in some cities in the USA was reminiscent of the scenes that we saw during the 1983 July riots in Colombo. People fleeing with goods from smashed shops and even displaying what they had got to the cameras. Even pharmacies, were completely cleaned out of all their merchandise even though the looters would not have had the foggiest idea as to which medicine was used for what. Even toilet paper was stolen. Supermarkets had been emptied of everything, fruit, meat, dry goods, ice cream – the lot. Not a banana left in sight. All this was reminiscent of the July 1983 riots when even uninvolved bystanders in Colombo thought there was nothing wrong in taking home a few potatoes and big onions they may have found lying about. Now we see what we were so ashamed of, being re-enacted on the streets of US cities.
On the face of it, there seems to be no reason for these protests and the violence and mayhem in the USA. The officers involved in the Gerorge Floyd murder have been arrested and charged. The police officers involved in the killing of yet another black man in Atlanta have also been charged. So it’s not as if the state authorities or city authorities or whoever else is responsible has not taken any action. They have done all that can possibly be done short of lynching the police officers concerned. Then what is the violence and mayhem for? People who are sympathetic to the protestors argue that this is pent up anger spilling over. It’s mostly the liberal camp in the political divide that empathize with the protest movement. Liberal minded city mayors and administrators seem to have taken a step backwards and allowed the mob rage to work itself out without doing anything that may inflame mob sentiments further.
In the meantime, various gestures of atonement are being made by the establishment. Such acts would range from taking a knee in remembrance of George Floyd, releasing all arrested rioters, openly expressing support for the protests, hounding out those who do not do so, providing funding and support services for the demonstrators etc. President Donald Trump took the step of signing an executive order for police reform including changes in the measures taken to restrain suspects such as chokeholds etc. Even the conservative camp has had to do something to at least indicate that such incidents would not take place in the future. However the US protestors are obviously taking things too far when they adopt as their main slogan the entire abolition of policing or at the very least cutting off of funding for the police.
Responding to this call, the New York authorities have already taken steps to cut funding to the police department. Some seem to think that the protest movement can be headed off or even co-opted if the establishment also expresses sympathy for it. Perhaps everyone is just making sympathetic noises while waiting for the protest movement and the lawlessness that goes with it to lose steam and peter out. The hope probably is that it will disappear after a while like the Occupy Wall Street movement of years past. In the meantime, the protests have been spinning out of control with historic monuments and statues being vandalized and idealistic police free autonomous zones being established in cities like Seattle.
The authorities are once gain bending over backwards to appease the demonstrators by removing statues and monuments deemed offensive to the protestors. This success is obviously fueling even more anti establishment activity. Statues of Confederate heroes who were on the losing side in the American civil war of the 1860s have become a favourite target of the demonstrators. The Confederacy still has a lot of fans among the white population in the USA and nobody should be surprised if Trump sees increased support for him from these pro-Confederacy constituencies at the presidential elections later this year. An entire culture and a history is being erased as we watch. The biggest literary casualty of this wave of protests has been the romantic novel ‘Gone with the wind’ and its film adaptations. It’s almost as if the protestors have invoked some medieval blasphemy law and everything that goes against a given orthodoxy is being destroyed.
The last bulwark of law and order
One of the most dangerous spinoffs of this whole thing as far as the ordinary people of the USA is concerned, is the demonization of the police forces. The US is a country where anybody can possess firearms with much less restrictions than in other countries. The police therefore have to approach every suspect with great caution. To be sure, taking precautions would not include kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed suspect for eight minutes, but it would not be incorrect to say that the American policemen out on the streets may be taking greater risks in their day to day work than for example, Sri Lankan or Indian policemen.
Now for the police and other law enforcement personnel such as correctional facility employees to be demonized, tarred and feathered and to have their protections reduced may well have long term repercussions for the people living in the USA. If the way the police and correctional facilities unions reacted to the demonization of their professions, and the removal of their protections and safeguards is anything to go by, it can be predicted that the US is going to become a very dangerous place to live in if remedial action is not taken fast. If the US authorities fulfill even in part the demands being made by the demonstrators, the USA will also become sitting ducks for terrorists apart from becoming a lawless wasteland. One gets the feeling that the silent majority are just biding their time till the elections to put things right with the ballot.
President Trump is lucky in a way. If not for these riots, he would have had a tough time explaining to voters why there were so many deaths in the USA from Covid-19 when a much less wealthier country like Vietnam, once the USA’s bitter adversary, has not had a single death from the virus. The USA’s Covid-19 catastrophe is probably due to the structural issues in the USA which does not have a public health system of the kind that we take for granted. Furthermore, healthcare and the control of infectious diseases may have more to do with the state administrations and city administrations within the US system of government than with the President, but the Covid-19 issue would have been a good stick to beat him with, nevertheless. Trump’s rival Joe Biden did exactly that last Thursday. Biden said that the number of Covid-19 deaths per month is larger than the World War II monthly casualty rate and he described the situation as being similar to suffering up to five 9/11 magnitude attacks every month. If Trump had gone into the November elections with only the Covid-19 pandemic in the background, he would have been seriously on the backfoot.
Now however, many Americans would see him as the only thing standing between them and total anarchy. There is also an additional factor that will almost certainly work in President Trump’s favour which is that his economic policy is what America needs to get that country out of the economic downturn that will be the inevitable result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Before Covid-19 hit the USA, the US economy was doing well under Trump’s policies. His programme of bringing manufacturing jobs backs to the USA instead of allowing American companies to produce everything abroad just to make more profits, makes good economic sense. Even if one assumes that the Trump is entirely responsible for the Covid-19 debacle in the USA, still, it’s only his economic policy that will get the USA out of the downturn that will inevitably result from the pandemic.
In fact, Trump seems to be well aware of this advantage that he has, which is why he unhesitatingly showcases the signs of economic recovery to boost himself in the face of the opposition he faces from the liberal camp. It’s doubtful whether his rival Joe Biden will be able to market himself as a leader who can restore the US economy after Covid-19. After the Covid-19 pandemic blows over as it inevitably will, what the people of the USA will be interested in is not in examining who was responsible for the failure to control the pandemic, but in seeing how they can rebuild their lives and how the economy can be restored. In any case, due to the George Floyd riots, the Covid-19 pandemic has been all but forgotten. The need to restore law and order and economic stability to the USA will obviously take centre stage in the weeks and months that remain till the November elections.