As we ease into 2019, it would be easy to succumb to geopolitical depression. From Trump's solipsistic tweet storms, to the intractable Brexit debacle, to the rise of dangerous demagogues from Brazil to Hungary, much of the world is characterised by leadership vacuums and political opportunism. Yet, I'm surprisingly optimistic about what 2019 might bring for my adopted homeland of the US.
Being a relatively new American, I've always been slightly dismissive of the veneration of the Founding Fathers. But living through the age of Trump, I'm now coming to appreciate the extraordinary resilience of their creation. In politics, a subpoena-wielding Democratic House will now provide meaningful oversight of Trump's executive branch. While in the courts, the methodical work of both Mueller and the Southern District of New York is showing that bluster and lies wither in the face of facts and indictments. Finally, at some point in early 2019, the final Mueller report is likely to bring this political cycle to a damning climax. So, while the nadir of the Trump presidency probably still lies ahead, I'm now coming around to Bill Clinton's view that 'there is nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America.'
The genius of America's founding principles is that they were forward-looking and aspirational. In the preamble to the Constitution 'to form a more perfect union' is the language of striving and betterment, not self-satisfaction and status quo. The 'pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence isn't a selfish individual concept, but rather a collective quest for the Aristotelian concept of flourishing and fulfilling of potential. The result is that much of American history consists of the constant debate, relitigating, and refinement of these ideas.
At the core of these arguments have often been the words 'we, the people,' and 'all men are created equal.' The perpetual exam question for American democracy has always been who these concepts refer to and how to resolve the tension between their commitment to fairness and equality for all and persistent claims of white Anglo-Saxon cultural superiority.
Through cycle after cycle, America has managed to rise above its own prejudice and narrow-mindedness to answer that exam question and make social and political progress. Despite their high-minded rhetoric, the Founding Fathers were no paragons of virtue. Alexander Hamilton, now revered for his 'immigrants – we get the job done' mentality on Broadway, feared that 'an influx of foreigners would change and corrupt the national spirit.' Even Lincoln, the great emancipator, had doubts about equality when considering the future of African Americans: 'Should we make them politically or socially our equal? My own feelings will not admit of this.'
The central narrative in these cycles of American history has been how the country has wrestled with its original sin of slavery. The broad arc runs from the Founding Father's heated debates through the fragile compromises of the early 19th century, the Civil War, reconstruction, the backsliding of the Jim Crow era, and finally the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. But America's struggles with its own national identity over the last 200-plus years encompass a lot more than just slavery.
The late 19th century saw broad institutionalised discrimination against Chinese immigrants, with the Hearst newspapers playing the role of Fox News in stoking fears of the 'Yellow Peril.' By 1882, collective anxiety about being swamped by 'Orientals' resulted in legislation that effectively barred Chinese immigration for 60 years. Fast forward 25 years, and the resurgent Klu Klux Klan after the first world war were equal opportunity racists and xenophobes who spent as much time disparaging Catholics and Jews as they did African Americans. You don't have to look far for the Trump parallels when you read a 1924 KKK convention speech by Governor Walker of Georgia advocating that America 'build a wall of steel' to prevent southern European Catholic immigration.
The waves of debate around the meaning of 'we, the people' have often had overlapping peaks and troughs. Just as the second KKK wave was cresting, the long march of the women's suffrage movement was concluding with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. Thirty years later, as the civil rights movement was beginning to pick up steam, America was simultaneously gripped by McCarthyism and attempts to establish that political affiliation could exclude you from 'we, the people.'
To understand American resilience, you don't need to subscribe to the nobility of Lincoln's 'better angels of our souls' explanation. Instead, you just need to recognise the pragmatism of President Harry Truman, who when talking about civil rights, said 'the people have often made mistakes, but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.' Those corrections have often started bottom-up, with the righteous anger of groups like the abolitionists, the civil rights freedom riders, and the suffragettes; causes that were then helped over the finish line by strong and timely presidential leadership.
But progress towards the country's lofty goals has not been linear. Cyclicality means there have been lengthy periods of retreat. Immigration fears in the early 1920s led to the National Origins Act that set strict ethnic quotas. The result was that immigrants dropped from 15% of the US population in 1910 to only 5% in the 1960s when the Origins Act was repealed. Immigrants are now back to nearly 15% of the US population, hence we are seeing the cyclical reaction in the weaponising of immigration by Trump.
This pattern of action and reaction has been what has clarified America's identity debates and brought them to a head for resolution. In 1861, southern secession forced the issue on slavery and triggered the civil war. In 1963, it was attempts to desegregate southern schools that elicited from Alabama Governor George Wallace his promise of 'segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.' It was the contrast between this unambiguous racism and Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' vision of America, articulated only a few months later, that forced President Johnson to confront institutional discrimination on the basis of race.
As these cycles of American history have played out, the Constitution has provided a mechanism for codifying progress. Constitutional amendments addressing the abolition of slavery, voting rights, woman's suffrage, and outlawing racial discrimination are critical points on the path towards a more perfect union. The Supreme Court has also played its role in delineating important individual rights implied by (but not stated in) the constitution, from same-sex marriage to abortion. Once these rights are established, it's intentionally hard to go back. Even in the current fevered debate about immigration, Trump's throwaway remarks about outlawing birthright citizenship (guaranteed by the 14th amendment) got almost zero traction, even among hardline conservatives.
Therefore, the optimist in me believes that Trumpism is just another wave for which there will be a Truman correction once the full facts are known. Ultimately, the history of America is that of a national self-improvement project that has repeatedly wrestled with ignorance, racism, sexism and xenophobia, but which has gradually bent the arc of the society towards justice and equality, and will hopefully do so again over the next few years.
Unfortunately, my 2019 optimism doesn't span the Atlantic to encompass the UK. Like America, the EU was founded on ideas. Specifically, the hope that economic and political integration would prevent a recurrence of the wars that had defined Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Instead of a 'more perfect union,' the preamble to the 1957 Treaties of Rome called for an 'ever closer union' among the peoples of Europe. The UK never truly bought into this aspirational objective and Brexit is a rejection of the idea that the issues that plague the EU can be resolved through internal debate and discussion. Instead, a narrow majority decided that it was time to reach for the institutional wrecking ball.
The hope of the Brexiteers is that they can make British history cyclical. That almost 50 years of EU membership is a mistake that can be rectified, and that separation from Europe will ignite a forward-looking act of creation that will result in a thriving Singapore on Thames. But there's no aspirational British Declaration of Independence at the heart of the Brexiteers vision, just an angry rejection of everything that an 'ever closer union' entails. Instead of a sense of renewal, the language of Brexit is rooted in the past. Explicitly, it evokes the blitz spirit and Dominic Raab's Kiplingesque confidence in the 'British character,' but implicitly, the dog whistle is Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' and a repudiation of a multi-cultural Britain.
The reality is that British history has never been cyclical. Instead it's been proudly linear with a reverence for institutions like the monarchy and parliament that's rooted in the accretion of tradition rather than ideas. The unwritten nature of the UK constitution has traditionally been viewed as a strength, creating a pragmatic and sensible approach to governing that counterbalanced continental European theorising and volatility. Instead, as the current crisis demonstrates, the lack of intellectual scaffolding makes the UK dangerously brittle and prone to irrevocable fracture.
Rather than a disposable constitutional ornament, EU membership is a key Jenga block about to be roughly dislodged from the fragile political tower that is the UK. The immediate cascade effect is likely to be a second Scottish independence referendum, but a secondary ripple could also be broader recognition that a united Ireland is the best medium-term solution to the intractable border problem. From the butterfly wings of David Cameron's self-serving placating of a noisy minority, the resulting political storm could see the irreversible dissolution of the UK.
So, by 2020, the US may already be looking back on the Trump era as just another test that was passed and another lesson that was learned. Whereas from the same kernel of anti-elitist, anti-immigrant discontent, the UK could have the harsh reality of Brexit wrecking the economy, the beginning of a Scottish separation process, and Northern Ireland potentially plunged back into sectarian strife as hardline unionists react to a growing reunification movement. Ultimately, there may be no better evidence for American exceptionalism than its ability to weather Hurricane Trump while the UK tears itself apart when faced with the same type of political storm.