A divided America cannot compete in a superpower duel with China

Log on to Twitter for a masterclass in gall. What claims to be the account of Iran’s supreme leader shows his concern for America’s downtrodden. The Turkish president is “deeply saddened” at their lives under an “unjust order”. As for China, one official opts merely to quote the late George Floyd. “I can’t breathe,” said the man whose death after police arrest has set off US-wide protests.

America’s internal schisms are being used against it, and used well, with the soft touch and irony that autocrats are meant to lack. But then there is so much to work with.

The dividedness of the US — racial, material, political — is aired thoroughly enough as a domestic blight. It is the effect on its foreign policy that can get lost in the anguish. If the US is riven, it must also be hampered in its outward actions. And nowhere will it suffer more than in the superpower duel.

The US-China rift is so cheaply likened to the cold war that we forget how much more unified America was back then. When it took on the Soviets, it was fresh from the bonding trauma of the second world war. Republicans and Democrats did not just have bipartisan manners, but shared policies: a mixed economy, anti-isolationism, foot-dragging on civil rights. Immigration had been too low for too long to test the country’s sense of itself. Trust in government was so high as to implicate Americans in Old World deference. The distribution of incomes was much flatter than it is now. Politics rarely spilled on to the street.

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