Films and television in the United States have always tried and often succeeded at extracting laughs at the expense of foreign countries – whether fellow superpowers like Russia or China, or more often than not, poor and military weak countries, the kind many Americans call “shitholes”. As the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s helped usher in an age where America’s domestic ethnic minorities were to be ostensibly treated better than they had been in the past, producers in the powerful American entertainment industry simply took their ethno-centric and racist ire and piled it on people from far away lands who could not fight back in any way.
The stereotypes that American media promulgated about foreign lands were both utilised and turned on their head in the 2005 film Team America: World Police. The film, while mocking cultures from around the world, more importantly mocked the decadence, absurdity and overbearing nature of the mish-mash that is contemporary American culture, all the while mocking the disregard that the American state shows for foreign cultures, customs and peoples. Ultimately, the supreme target of the film was the US military-industrial complex which was ridiculed without mercy.
The United States of 2005, looks surprisingly different to the United States of 2018. In a short period of time, the US went from a country that learned to fall in love with its deepest flaws following the 9/11 atrocity, to a country today that is at war with itself. Gone are the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s where Protestant revivalists competed with secular centrists and those on the centre left, over the direction of a post-civil rights era America. In those days, secularists like Frank Zappa and those on the so-called religious right were consciously speaking to a country they sought to unite around the competing principles of social libertarianism versus quasi-religious authoritarianism, all within an otherwise free market society.
Today, the factions of America’s very new culture wars are not fighting to unite the country around a certain belief system, but to systematically segregate themselves on a political/ideological basis. On the west coast and throughout most major cities like New York and Chicago, there is a United States that rejects everything that looks, acts and sounds like Donald Trump. Such people embrace all of Trump’s opponents no matter who they are, while they reject Donald Trump’s allies and even his perceived allies like Russia. The fact that Russia and the US are enemies in all but name, doesn’t matter. Some things in the United States never change and style being more important than substance is one of them. Such people pride themselves on a post-modern sense of gender identity, racial politics and alternative lifestyles. They live in a part of America that one ought to call Libland.
In the other part of America, Trump is something of a cult personality, no different than those which spring up around any dictator. The difference is that while most dictators who form a strong cult of personality are themselves strong leaders, in the US, few people think that Trump is even fully in charge. Even his allies are happy to blame the faults of his administration on his opponents in Washington. For this America, Protestant values, firearms and a dislike of anything that is popular in California or New York are the bread and butter of the Trump diet. This place is called Trumpland.
But far from Trumpland seeking to influence Libland, it is increasingly apparent that they simply want to exist in separate spheres. In other words, division is now not only accepted but praised in the United States. Where the US Supreme Court once found that the old post-Confederate doctrine of “separate but equal” to be inherently unequal, today, both the left and right in US social-politics is demanding to be separate and equal terms.
This means that one of the last places where citizens of Libland and Trumpland converge is in Washington D.C. The competition is so hot, that a recently released memo alleges that the FBI used its authority to conduct investigations and issue warrants into alleged Trump-Russia “collusion” based on a dossier authored by a disgraced former British intelligence agent who was on the payroll of the Hillary Clinton campaign and expressed a personal hatred of Trump long before the election.
When one steps back and realises that such a thing would never happen in stable, productive countries like China and Russia, one sees how far the US has fallen among the elite club of superpowers. The famed dossier which the FBI used as a basis for its investigation, was so comically inane that one would imagine it only carrying water in the kind of “banana republic” that the US media takes so much apparent joy in mocking.
But now things have come full circle. Half of the US political elite are pointing the finger at the other half based on a document with tall tales of prostitutes urinating on the body of a head of state. Meanwhile, far from even uniting around one another, the American people are demanding separation, they are demanding sectarianism.
The United States is starting to look like the young Republic of Malaysia in the early 1960s. At that time, the People’s Action Party (PAP) which dominated politics in the Malaysian state of Singapore, was at odds with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which maintained support in much the rest of the newly formed federal republic. While the PAP argued for full legal and social equality for all Malaysians, the UMNO favoured special rights for ethnic Malays.
Race riots in 1964 led Singapore to sever ties with the rest of Malaysia, in spite of PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew’s determination to remain united. Interestingly, even before the race riots, the proximate cause of Singapore’s interdependence from Malaysia was the fact that while the UMNO and PAP had agreed not to compete against each other in federal elections, the PAP did in fact contest the elections, winning seat and even courting support among many ethnic Malay people in Singapore.
Ultimately, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965. Both post-split multi-cultural countries pursued different systems through which egalitarianism was supposed to flourish. Singapore continued the PAP’s system of full legal equality for all citizens with an understanding that the majority Han Chinese would help invest in Malay and Indian communities, thus creating a population where educational standards and living standards had parity across ethnic groups. Malaysia took the opposite approach and in 1970 introduced the New Economic Policy which favoured affirmative action initiatives as a means of eliminating race based economic inequalities.
Interestingly in the 21st century, many Malaysians began challenging the efficacy of affirmative action policies while in Singapore, new political arrangements have been put in place to ensure political representation for all the ethno-racial groups of the small republic.
In the United States it seems that the Trumpland/Libland split is increasingly similar to the spit which saw Singapore breaking away from Malaysia. While those in D.C. argue over who rules the Federal government, on the group there are two distinct countries that have less and less in common. While Lee Kuan Yew broke down in tears at his own forced declaration of independence, it is not clear who in the United States might cry were Libland and Trumpland to go their separate ways.
While splitting the United States in a formal sense would be almost impossible, compared to the relative calm which ensued between Malaysia and Singapore beginning in the 1970s, the US now finds itself in similar positions as countries which it likes to mock. The only difference is that in the US, there appears to be little light at the end of the very long tunnel. In this sense, while post-colonial South East Asia is having the last laugh, the US may indeed be the first to cry.