Latinos know what underdevelopment and a corrupt government mean when facing a crisis. Trump’s America is starting to find out.
When I moved to the United States from Mexico in 1992, I was like a kid in a candy store — not with shopping sprees or junk food binges– but with the thrill of finally experiencing a functioning democracy, a refreshing lack of dysfunction and a society that trusted in its political and civil institutions.
I remember asking if I could safely mail a check from a mailbox on the street in New York. I was told that it would reach its destination three days later. Where I came from, going to the post office was like living in the seventeenth century. Forget about mailboxes. The mail took ages, the lines were endless, and it was not entirely certain if or when your letter would arrive.
Coming from Mexico, where people are guilty until proven innocent and the judicial system is hopelessly corrupt and antiquated, I was moved by the notion that I could participate in a jury of my peers. To this day, I may be the only person I know who is excited to be called to jury duty.
Americans seemed to have a healthy sense of civic engagement, they exercised their first amendment rights, they organized against injustice: they firmly believed that they had recourse and that they could change things.
Of course, I could see that the U.S. is not an ideal democracy. I fail to understand why we cling to outdated ideas like the Electoral College and the Second Amendment, why we allow gerrymandering. But flawed as they were, the elections used to be legitimate.
In Mexico, I spent my life voting fruitlessly against a political party that had been in power for 70 years. The press seemed free until it wasn’t. Journalists were murdered all the time.
I soon understood that in the U.S. the law works best if you are white, rich or a celebrity. Corruption has always existed, but it is legalized in the form of special interest lobbying and campaign financing laws. Still, I have always been impressed by the lack of cynicism of the American people. They truly believe in their democracy, in the Constitution, and in their institutions.
Never, in those hopeful days in 1992 could I have foreseen that the United States was on its way to devolving into a “Developing Nation,” as the politically correct call the third world countries. But here we are.
Anyone who comes from Latin America is used to the surreality of living under a brazenly corrupt system. It’s like living in a circus of deception, incompetence and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and it is exhausting.
As Latin Americans know from experience, where corruption reigns, cynicism is rampant. Corruption is the oil that greases all aspects of society; nothing happens without nepotism, cronyism, favors, or bribes. Actions that here are considered scandalously illegal, like every deal that Donald Trump and his family are conducting to enrich themselves, is business as usual where we come from.
With deregulation and the dismantling of the American industry in favor of globalization (more profits for corporations, less for American workers) came “trickle-down economics” and with them obscene inequality, the likes of which one tends to see in underdeveloped nations. Our once-fabled economic and technological superiority has eroded to unrecognizable levels. The current coronavirus pandemic has laid this bare for all to see.
Trump is just finishing off the decline of the American empire. He is our Nero, and I wish he was only fiddling but he is actively burning the place down.
I fear that my fellow Americans, who have never lived under a system where the rot comes from the top, are unprepared for what is coming. We can already see it happening.
Perceived political opponents are banished, incompetent loyalists are hired, mismanagement rules, the citizenry is treated like children by an increasingly authoritarian and paternalistic government, shady business deals are normalized, the clique in power imitates their dissolute leader, and he attempts to control, muzzle or distort the press. Irresponsible populism and gutting public education are also surefire ways to keep the population ignorant and under control.
The most pernicious part of living under a corrupt regime is the erosion of trust. No one believes anyone, and no one believes in anything. When no one is held accountable, impunity rules. Fighting feels futile. The citizenry gives up. The system, which becomes Byzantine and dysfunctional, turns you into an accomplice.
It took one exceptionally destructive and corrupt man to destabilize our democracy. Trump is a brilliant grifter who surgically exploits all the weaknesses in our not so invulnerable system. We are closer to a banana republic than we ever thought possible and in these times of crisis, I hope that Americans will fight to strengthen our democracy and restore the institutions that protect us as citizens.