When I was a child in Ireland during the sixties, America seemed like a magical place. It was the land of Walt Disney, Laurel and Hardy, Batman, Captain America, and the first man on the moon. My grandad had served in the American army during the First World War.
As an adolescent, I assumed that the liberal side was winning the culture wars, and Watergate inspired my later pursuit of public accountability. In my teens, I loved the idealism of Jimmy Carter and the punk explosion of the Ramones. While in college, I saw Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination for vice-President as a breakthrough for women.
Clearly, my views back then were naive. American politics was more ruthless than I thought, and ultra-wealthy donors had too much power. Neither minorities nor women had made the progress that it seemed from afar. My brother was an American citizen, and he filled me in on its benefits and flaws when I visited him in Boston.
Whatever our political views, my friends and I saw America as important. For good or ill, it influenced the rest of the world both culturally and politically. It seemed powerful and internally stable, with Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama each serving two terms restricted by checks and balances.
But recent years have shattered this image. When Donald Trump was elected I argued that he should be given a chance to act in good faith. But he has presided over an increasingly authoritarian, science-denying, isolationist regime that has alienated allies around the world.
Social media has been a force for good and bad. People have access to more information, but many engage only within like-minded bubbles. Widely watched videos expose evidence of racism that would have escaped scrutiny. Online mobs try to ‘cancel’ people with different beliefs on nuanced issues or people who they misidentify from online videos.
Recent events seem increasingly volatile. Good cops see out-of-control cops assault and kill citizens. Lawful protesters see rioting thugs destroy their communities. Meanwhile, the President sows division on Twitter and undermines attempts to control a pandemic that has killed over a hundred thousand Americans and infected millions.
On the world stage, America has lost its historic importance. Other countries are adapting to global politics without what used to be a lead actor. Despite the gravity of his behaviour, many see Donald Trump more as a joke than a President. Harking back to my childhood, he is a modern-day Laurel and Hardy who is somehow in charge of the country.
I hope that Americans can fix the United States. I work alongside atheist activists who strive every day to build a fairer more secular America. Many other activists focus on equally important social issues. From over here it seems that, whatever eventual outcome you prefer, the first step has to be electing a different President in November.
The Democrats, who I have always supported from afar, seem divided with the establishment wing acting on autopilot. Previously honourable Republicans seem to have surrendered to the cult of Donald Trump. The system works against third party candidates, with only the eccentric and policy-free billionaire Ross Perot making any slight dent in my lifetime.
I know that these issues are more complex than I describe here, both because I don’t live in the United States and because this is a short post. I may well be mistaken in much of what I believe. But it is an honest overview of my impressions as an outsider who has always loved America.
Many people around the world, and some within America, would love to see the demise of the United States. Not I. For all its faults and crimes, it can still empower diverse people to build better lives for their families while living in mutual respect with their neighbours. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. That is still achievable.