By David K. Shipler
Beginning at noon Friday, when Donald Trump becomes the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history, the United States takes the first step into a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute. Unless our institutions and traditions turn out to be stronger than our people—which is entirely possible—we will become the charter member of what can be called the Fourth World.
It is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.
There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, “Make America Great Again!”
The Fourth World will come after the Third World, a term coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, to mean poor, undeveloped countries “ignored, exploited, scorned, like the Third Estate,” he wrote in L’Observateur. His reference to the Third Estate dated back to the gathering storm of the French Revolution, when Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes used it to refer to the common people, as opposed to the clergy (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate).
Later, in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a kind of retroactive explanation, First World was taken to mean the industrialized capitalist countries, and Second World, the industrialized communist countries. Like all sweeping generalizations, these categories were flawed, but “Third World” caught on as shorthand.
It’s now been largely replaced by the euphemism “developing countries.” A less polite term would be “banana republic,” a slight at Latin American nations where corrupt self-dealing and incompetent autocracy victimized the populations. A journalist friend threw the term into a recent conversation about the ethical indifference and shady business ties that Trump and some of his cronies are bringing into government. “Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States,” Trump said during the campaign. He seems bent on proving that he, not she, deserves the superlative.
The globe would be safer if America were, in fact, a banana republic, a Third-World basket case without the military and economic power to raise havoc. But the US has clout that can make it dangerous as it flails while it declines. For decline it seems likely to do, both domestically and internationally. And so we arrive at the gates of the Fourth World.
The most obvious characteristic of the Fourth World is the gradual intrusion on citizens’ right to vote effectively. American history is rife with such measures, mostly directed against African-Americans, and the efforts are currently being revived in new forms by Republicans. Indeed, if the Russians had really wanted merely to discredit American democracy, they needn’t have hacked any emails but merely reported accurately on Republican-led tactics: to suppress votes by fabricating fraud as a problem and requiring IDs they know that many minority citizens do not have. To strip powers from the North Carolina governor’s office once a Democrat was elected. To dishonor the people’s will by refusing, as Maine’s Governor Paul LePage has done, to enforce the new minimum wage approved overwhelmingly by voters in November.
Another characteristic is the roughshod ride over the Constitution’s separation of powers. Trump in his campaign declared repeatedly that he would do this or that, when any schoolchild knows (or should) that he could not without the legislative branch’s approval. It will be characteristic of the Fourth World to have no effective political opposition, and that is now the case in the United States. Both in Washington and most state capitals, the Democratic Party is decimated and virtually powerless.
Then, too, the leader’s impulsiveness, as in dictatorships, creates an edge-of-your-seat tension inside and outside the country. Every tweet, followed by contradictions from some prospective cabinet members, induces a kind of Kremlinology of the Trump administration fueled by speculation, uninformed prediction, and empty hopes about what policy is being adopted. Paradoxically, transparency is masked by the fog of ill-considered words. Squadrons of Trump watchers, like the China watchers and Cold-War specialists on the Soviet Union, parse statements and read between the lines.
In Trump’s vicinity, truth dies. He facilitates the erosion of shared reality in a polarized society more infatuated with opinion than fact—or, rather, that believes opinion is fact. Propaganda is made easier when nobody believes anything that contradicts what they wish to be true. Trump has shown an unerring instinct for exploiting this lack of grounding; he has picked up Rush Limbaugh’s line that the mainstream press propagates “fake news” to discredit unwelcome reporting. If you don’t trust the professionals (the Fourth Estate!), who work hard to investigate, report, and verify information then you are adrift until you grab onto a figure who speaks to your elemental impulses. In a less developed system of democracy, this would be a prerequisite for dictatorship.
Therefore, Trump can be expected to exaggerate the risks the country faces, and enough people will believe him to give license to abuses. He has disclosed his streak of cruelty, so he will whip up fears of terrorism, he will scapegoat and smear, and will react swiftly to the terrorist attack(s) that will surely come. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has an abysmal record on civil rights and will be no bulwark in their defense. A country entering the Fourth World is quick to violate the rights of its citizens. American Muslims beware.
The list of assaults on American interests is long: Trump’s apparent eagerness to dislodge Europeans from their union, to undermine the post-World War II alliance of NATO, to disregard human rights as a factor in foreign affairs, to squeeze Mexico for jobs so it declines economically and risks destabilization just across our border. His protectionism will damage the US economy and widen the income gap, triggering deeper alienation and anger, for which he will deftly blame others: foreigners, Democrats, liberals, and so on.
Domestically, The Hill reports, his anti-government nominee for budget director, Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney, plans huge cuts in the kinds of spending that contribute to America’s civil society: “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized,” the paper says, “while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”
Programs would be slashed in the departments of Energy, Commerce, Transportation, State, and Justice. The Energy Department (once slated for elimination by its new secretary, Rick Perry, who couldn’t remember its name) would see its research on nuclear physics and advanced computing cut way back, and its efforts on renewable energy and technologies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions eliminated.
Cuts would be made to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights and Environment divisions, The Hill reports, and other services would be scrapped, including community policing just as racial tensions have risen; violence-against-women grants; and the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers to low-income people in civil cases that include domestic violence, child custody, evictions and foreclosures, wrongful denial of government benefits, and the like.
There’s nothing wrong with imposing efficiency on government and discarding redundancy and ineffectiveness. But if you’re driven by political ideology, you miss the targets and do collateral damage by wounding the society. Trump is appointing extremists who want to disable the agencies they will lead. As a result, much of America will be disabled as well, less civilized, more polarized.
If the country remains whole and resilient a century from now, perhaps history will judge this as a fleeting and dark period before a renaissance, and its citizens can then try to make America great again.