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Editorial | America: 50 years after the moon landing

Published:Sunday | July 21, 2019 | 12:00 AM

There used to be a way people thought about the United States, of which yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing reminds us. You knew they weren’t perfect; that America sometimes did bad things. It was understood, too, that their union was far from perfect.

But America’s optimism was seductive. And there was the sense, flaws notwithstanding, of its intention towards inclusiveness. The world, therefore, felt part ownership of the event when Apollo 11’s lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility and later when Neil Armstrong descended the craft for man’s first step on the moon. His declaration of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” made sense to a transfixed world.

In the five decades since those events of July 1969 and in the 58 years since Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to send a man safely to the moon “before the end of the decade”, America has faced its lows – Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq being among them. But even when you disagreed with the United States, or rankled at the arrogance at its presumption of exceptionalism, or of its status as the world’s sole superpower, you didn’t lose faith in America’s overarching decency, or of the big idea upon which the USA was founded.

Yet, on this 50th anniversary of Mr Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s giant leap on behalf of mankind, America’s status is significantly diminished, its global leadership corroded and wanting. The deterioration has been rapid. The decline is epitomised by the presidency of Donald Trump.

Of course, the United States remains the world largest economy. Its military is still the most powerful. Its institutions of democracy, once the envy of the world, though stressed, continue to function. But a large part of America’s power rested on its moral authority; the sense that it was a force for good, which it shared with the world. So, while Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin were Americans and it was American resources and technology – helped by German scientists recruited after the Second World War – that took them to the moon, the world embraced the achievement.


Mr Trump, however, is keen to upend this global compact with his own brand of xenophobic nationalism. He threatens not only the international governance arrangements America helped to construct, and largely presided over, since the Second World War, but the societal fabric that we presumed to have been strengthened by the civil rights movement that was heading towards its zenith as the Apollo progamme prepared for the moon. Mr Trump’s construct of a great America is a white America.

Last week, in a vile racist assault of the Madisonian, and formerly deeply engrained American value of the right to dissent, enshrined by The First Amendment, Mr Trump advised four female members of the US Congress, who have been critical of his leadership, “to return to the places from which they came”. All are citizens and three were born in the USA. The president, who is America’s head of government and head of state, later presided at a rally at which his supporters chanted, “Send her back. Send her back”, in relation to one of the congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia. This was beyond Mr Trump’s racist dog whistle, when he questioned whether Barack Obama, his predecessor and America’s first black president, was really an American. The shock is that Mr Trump can, based on opinion surveys, count on the support of around 40 per cent of Americans.

Donald Trump, as part of his ‘America First’ agenda, threatens to unravel the multilateral architecture that has served the world reasonably well for the past 70 years, and provided institutional insulation, via the United Nations and its agencies, to small countries like Jamaica. For Mr Trump, all relations are transactional, bereft of the ideas of a shared humanity.

Fifty years ago, when Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off the moon, they left a plaque inscribed with the words: “We came in peace for all mankind.” Most of the rest of the world wants that to be true. Hopefully, Mr Trump is a passing phase and America will return to an even keel. It will, however, have much to repair.