America's shifting moral beacon signals a bleak future for the world
Nick Paton Walsh, CNN - What has it been about the spectacle of America this past week that has grabbed the planet's consciousness with a mix of unease at its vulgarity, but a compulsion to watch where it leads?
Is this about the practical damage to American leadership in the world today, or to its role as a symbol? Or is it really about the loss of direction in the rest of the world?
The week of turmoil surrounding Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford has felt like a moment where from outside the United States, it was possible to see the extent of the mess it is in -- in much greater clarity.
What made last week different from the usual contempt Europeans feel towards Republicans -- or perhaps some Middle Easterners toward Democrats -- is that it wasn't the flaws or ignorance of one President on display, but the collapse of an entire system.
Ford vs Kavanaugh should be very local in its impact.
In a far gone political era known as the 1990s, a similar candidate would likely have opted to deny the allegations, express horror at the ordeal of his accuser and then step aside because the whole affair was a "distraction" from his government's agenda.
One man's promotion would have been deemed not worth derailing an entire administration. It would have been, way back then, the obvious, decent thing to do.
But politics is so personal now -- and policy so often secondary -- that decency is on the bench.
There was last week no dominant voice in the GOP that said, "Obviously, we can't have this happen."
No red line making it impermissible that the prospect of determining the veracity of a sexual assault allegation would also decide the fate of the nation's most important court.
It seems almost as if the spectacle -- and the occasional display of unrelenting power and privilege it brings -- became the point of the process: to show who remains boss in a changing world.
And this is perhaps why the past week has had mobile phones users from London, to Delhi, to Lagos draining local bandwidth and peering through the gaps in their fingers as Capitol Hill flits between horror, sadness and rage.
Many outside America maintain it was founded on an idea. A young idea, that stole ideas from other democracies, but stripped them of monarchy, religion and prejudice, and created, on paper at least, a gold standard of sorts to inspire.
Its trumpeting of freedom and the limitless individual worked against the Nazis and the Soviets. And while the United States has lied, deceived, fudged and gaslit its way through Vietnam, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has still been covetous of the place truth holds.
It has distinguished itself as the country that tears itself to pieces with the truth -- that frankly baffles the rest of the world with its relentless introspection, investigating and launching of exhaustive inquiries into mistakes that Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping would simply sweep under an authoritarian carpet.
This has been its guiding advantage over decades, where autocratic nations and their economies have failed to keep up.
To be reductive: there's no point selling your shiny new iPhone to the world if it doesn't work. You need to know why you're losing in Afghanistan so that you can win. Truth matters -- it helps you stay on top.
This is why last week was different. There was a palpable moment where the truth didn't seem to matter.
Where the palpable pain of the accuser was felt globally, along with the lack of compassion that sometimes seemed to reign in that hearing room.
Where a large part of the GOP establishment preferred having their ideas represented on the Supreme Court for the decades ahead over risking allowing a man possibly guilty of sexual assault to sit on that body.
Moreover, the decency and optimism about human nature shown by one small group of educated and privileged white men -- the Founding Fathers -- which had been an ideological beacon for centuries, were being nudged aside by a succeeding group of educated and privileged white men who just wanted to stay on top -- regardless of the truth or decency.
It has seemed different to the daily madness of the Commander in Chief, where nations can alternately face nuclear destruction one day or send a very nice letter -- "a work of art!" -- the next.
That can pass in eight years -- the world is used to it.
Europeans recall their hatred of George W. Bush's unilateralism, but had eight years of Obama's soaring rhetoric to let them fall in love with the USA again.
In between, you could always binge-watch the first four seasons of "The West Wing." But this is not Rob Lowe thinking he should stop aside as he's embarrassing Martin Sheen. It is the collapse of decency -- of the veneer of civility -- in the American system itself, and that is terrifying.
So profound is the mess, it was possible to lose sight of the fact it revolved around the alleged crime of sexual assault, which requires the greatest possible tenderness and precision in its investigation. It has likely left at least half the planet outraged at the ham-fisted belligerence of the process.
Yet there are two other possible reasons why the world is transfixed: one ghastly; the other, possibly redeeming.
First, if America leads the world, then this open display of its political elite driving off a cliff is where we are all headed. Brexit, Salvini, Duterte, Sisi, Putin, all names that conjure different extremes that have failed to solve their nation's problems and have instead dragged their intolerance into the mainstream.
Political discourse has stopped being effective, some voters have concluded, a while ago. So now it opts to be vulgar and captivating, in the hope that good ratings for the spectacle mean the nation wins.
Are we watching the Kavanaugh hearings so intently around the world as they reflect a little bit of where we all are going -- or where we have already gone? Of how globalization has brought with it a deluge of money and information, but diluted the value of equality and truth?
The second option is not as depressing. At least we are seeing this ugly process play out. It is transparent and on cable news 24/7, even as it tries to be short and non-transparent itself.
You cannot say that the "warts and all" are not on display. They are painful to see. But, like Trump's thousands of mistruths reportedly spoken since his Inauguration, they are being called out and counted.
Even if America's political elite, or its place in the world as a beacon, cannot emerge from this episode --- and this presidency -- in the condition they entered into it, then maybe the idea that drove America's ascent in the world will survive.