‘This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,’ said President Donald Trump in his inauguration speech on January 20, 2017. Three and a half years later, in the early summer of 2020, a bout of heavy riots has broken out, like a virus spreading, in cities across America. Minneapolis rioted for days on end. Other cities erupted: in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, New York and Washington. A mob now menaces the White House.
Maybe that American carnage is just beginning.
We’ve seen plenty of riots in America in the last few decades. But this latest unrest, coming as it does in the middle of an ongoing global health crisis and a concomitant economic recession, feels more devastating. America is sick and its immune system is failing: a healthy society would turn on the rioters and unite against them. But in large parts of America, especially urban America, the majority really believe that Trump is a white supremacist. The riots are, if not entirely justified, an understandable reaction to another act of police brutality, in this case the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd.
Social guilt at black suffering prevents white people from expressing their horror at the burning buildings and looted shops. Nobody wants to be called racist. Even the Trump administration, which is meant to be unafraid of tackling political correctness, has been reluctant to denounce the violence for fear of putting off the black voters they want to woo. After it became clear that the riots had gotten out of control, the news networks finally shifted their editorial attitude from ‘understandable’ to ‘gone too far’. They find black voices to condemn the criminality, since black people can’t be called racist. We’ve seen the same sad story play out many times.
This time might be different, however. There’s a fresh nihilism to these riots that feels almost irresistible. We might just be witnessing a mass outburst of lockdown rage. America’s multi-racial urban populations have just been scared witless by a virus. Cities have been shuttered. Now they are burning. Put aside, for a moment, the racial politics. We might just be learning what happens after you shutdown whole metropolises for weeks on end. Humans are social. We are also more prone to violence when our human interactions are limited. America, like other countries, did come together to fight virus. But that unity has not lasted.
This American carnage isn’t stopping. The country isn’t well.