Donald Trump's legacy of COVID apathy, gun violence and hatred has set in motion the decay of American democracy, writes Sue Arnold.
AMERICA IS a divided nation. A nation on the verge of civil war, as many opine, or one buried in apathy, denial and refusal to engage in the tsunami of political scandals which are now daily events.
As someone who has spent nearly half my life in the U.S., my too-short trip to California after two and a half years of isolation can only be described as a glimpse of the big picture. I stayed with family and caught up with many friends and colleagues, mostly by phone as they're all over the country.
America has changed; the evidence is difficult to ignore. Businesses gone, empty shops, "now hiring" notices in most open shops, lack of staff almost everywhere, expensive produce even at community markets, gas prices through the roof, near-empty second hand clothing shops.
Social atrophy is making itself felt. People have lost personal contact with friends, with staff and family as a result of the pandemic. Re-engaging in a social life can be a difficult journey as the growing toxic divide is ever present in communities, neighborhoods and families.
One medico friend told me that many people found friends to be "unmasked". Not only refusing to wear one but their rejection of any COVID-19 commonsense has wrecked many long-standing relationships.
If COVID didn't do it, then the political scenario is a deadset certainty,
I left the U.S. before the FBI carried out a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump's luxurious abode in Florida. Subsequently, the warrant revealed stunning potential reasons for executing the warrant, including matters under the Espionage Act.
Prior to the raid, almost everyone I talked to, including long-term friends, are either in denial over the political war being waged by Trump and the GOP or in despair. I asked one friend (a Republican) whether he would vote for Trump to regain the presidency given his history of crime, corruption and lies. He didn't hesitate to respond: "I probably would."
When questioned about the morality of his decision given the Big Lie and extraordinary evidence coming out of the 6 January hearings, my friend had no answer. He really didn't care. Like many Americans, he's disappointed in President Joe Biden.
This was a common attitude I encountered. It could be described as the "I don't care" syndrome but it may well be a growing symptom of a society in denial, unable to cope with the monstrous stressors heaped on Americans over the past six years.
The legacy of COVID is unquestionably mental health.
One that deserves a deep focus, as many non-Fox News journalists are asking "how can more than a quarter of the country support Trump?" given the evidence which continues to spew out in various court cases, inquiries and now FBI raids.
While about half of Americans think Trump should face criminal charges for the attempted coup on 6 January, roughly a third of Americans favour Trump.
A survey has revealed that 63 per cent of Republicans say the FBI raid was an abuse of power. Republican politicians and well-known supporters are stirring the hatred and divisive pot.
It's difficult to describe the insanity of Trump supporters as anything other than a symptom of madness. Trumpsters are dividing communities and causing social chaos. Is this a symptom of mental health deterioration a result of COVID? If not, is the extraordinary level of backing reflecting a major change in American social behaviour effectively lowering the standards of morality?
Michael Cohen (Trump's former lawyer) was asked why he had stayed so long with Trump given the extent of alarming evidence being exposed.
Cohen responded that he was in a cult:
Perhaps therein lies an explanation. Cults provide comfort to the lonely and those who are either economically crippled or drowning in wealth facilitated by their leader's corruption.
Then there's the freedom to carry arms. Who knows who is armed in public situations?
According to Bloomberg, Americans have more guns than anywhere else in the world:
Inflation is really having an impact. A small Mexican papaya cost my friend U.S.$10 (AU$14.27); it was only slightly bigger than a large grapefruit. All fruit and vegetables, bread and staple foods cost dollars more than on my last visit nearly three years ago.
There's a definite sense of urgency in the general public to party and go to restaurants, book stores, coffee shops, markets and malls. People gather in big numbers in cafes that have taken over the sidewalks to avoid eating inside. Most seem anxious to get back to "normal" as soon as possible. Aside from a minority wearing masks, life goes on.
Yet there is no normal.
Airports are crowded with non-masked people. Flying on domestic flights jammed next to each other with virtually no masks on passengers is an act of faith, especially if someone nearby coughs.
No one talks politics. No one talks COVID. Hotels are conspicuously scrubbed clean but many internal restaurants are closed because of a lack of staff.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles, signs of economic activity are highly visible. Giant cranes, infrastructure, road repairs, plans for apartment blocks and offices are in the process.
At Los Angeles airport, an underground train station and railway line is being constructed, the noise and disruption travelling across huge cleared areas.
My brief visit to an isolated hot spring hours away from San Francisco was a first-hand look at the fierce impacts of drought. Creeks have dried up, rivers are running dry, the land is parched and there are few signs of life. Water is short in most towns and cities but there's no rationing or curfews.
In many ways, my visit to the U.S. was like a schizophrenic experience with two entirely different realities. Without the deadly influence and vitriol being stirred by Trump and his supporters, America can no doubt recover economically and socially.
But unless Attorney-General Merrick Garland has the strength of purpose to indict Trump on a raft of charges, the potential for civil war and a breakdown of democratic society is impossible to ignore.
Living in denial must not be an option.