In September the long-delayed Frank Gehry-designed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial was dedicated in downtown Washington.  

Understated and situated in a park-like setting across from the Air and Space Museum, a visitor strolls among panels depicting Ike’s childhood, war service and presidency. The most compelling statue is of General Eisenhower addressing troops setting out from Britain for the D-Day landing. 

Eisenhower Memorial, Washington, DC

Ike went on to become the 34th president of an America that was strong, rising and confident. The country is very different today.

I can’t remember a time when America was as divided as it is today.  Yes, there were deep divisions in the 1960s and early ‘70s over the war in Vietnam and civil rights. But today it’s worse. Here in the capital, where 93% of voters went for Hillary Clinton four years ago, if you’re a Trump supporter you’ve learned to keep your mouth shut. To say anything suggesting support of Trump policies brings the risk of being thought stupid or ill-informed.

Of course, things are different in the heartland.

Donald Trump won in 2016 because of public frustration with the way things were going.  Since the 2008 financial crisis living standards had stagnated, rustbelt cities and industries were hollowed out by foreign competition, the country was stuck in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Trump was the great disrupter, finding fault with almost everything Barack Obama and the second George Bush had done. So great was the desire for change that voters were willing to overlook Trump’s obvious character flaws, coarse language and questionable financial dealings.

Donald Trump pulled back from the globalist policies that were embraced by Dwight Eisenhower.  He was a trade protectionist, lukewarm to NATO – demanding the Europeans pay more – tough on illegal immigration, sceptical on racial preferences, opposed to identity politics.

My own guess is that without the Covid-19 pandemic and the president’s inept response he would be coasting to re-election. Until March when the pandemic plunged the economy into recession, Trump’s signature tax cuts and deregulation had produced prosperity and a soaring stock market. He was applauded for standing up to China, had built up the military, and brought troops home.

Trump was upended by the pandemic and it will be a miracle if he recovers. First, he denied there was a problem, then he reversed course, closing the economy. He refused to formulate a national strategy on masks and testing, and decentralised decision-making to the states. He pointedly refused to wear a mask and violated the maxim identified by historian James McPherson: that in times of crisis the most important function of a president is communication and inspiration.  

America in 2020, like most countries, is awash with problems. A cancel culture has taken hold in universities threatening a long tradition of free speech. History is under attack from those who argue that previously revered figures should be demonised if they owned slaves or mistreated American Indians. The mainstream news media has abandoned objectivity and descended into advocacy. Identity politics and political correctness are rampant.

If Dwight Eisenhower’s America was strong, rising and confident, today’s America is floundering, weighed down by debt, and unsure of who it is or its role in the world.  

John Mackey, founder of the supermarket chain now owned by Amazon, says America’s problem is obesity. If Americans weren’t fat, with a high incidence of diabetes and heart disease, there would have been far fewer deaths from the corona virus. There may be truth in the idea that after seven decades of global dominance Americans have become tired, fat, and lazy. The Chinese Communist Party seems convinced that America is a declining power that will soon be replaced by China.

Of course, that assertion is premature. America is still the leader in technological innovation. Its democracy and free market economy are strong and time-tested. It would be a grave mistake to give up on America, no matter who wins the presidential election. As Eisenhower’s contemporary, Winston Churchill, observed: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.”  

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Photo by Adam Bouse on Unsplash

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch