Wright in the New Yorker: Is America Becoming a Banana Republic?

Robin Wright:

In the early nineteen-hundreds, the American writer O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” in a series of short stories, most famously in one about the fictional country of Anchuria. It was based on his experience in Honduras, where he had fled for a few months, to avoid prosecution in Texas, for embezzling money from the bank where he worked. The term—which originally referred to a politically unstable country run by a dictator and his cronies, with an economy dependent on a single product—took on a life of its own. Over the past century, “banana republic” has evolved to mean any country (with or without bananas) that has a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power. I’ve covered plenty of them, including Idi Amin’s Uganda, in the nineteen-seventies, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, in the nineteen-eighties, and Carlos Menem’s Argentina, in the nineteen-nineties.

During the heated Presidential campaign of 2016, the term made its way into mainstream American politics, often glibly. President Trump invoked it in October, 2016. “This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments,” he told a cheering crowd in Florida. After the second Presidential debate, in October, Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, countered, “Donald Trump thinks that the Presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents.” The phrase has become an undercurrent in the national political debate ever since.

…The answer is no longer facile. Later that day, James Mattis, the former Defense Secretary, issued a scathing rebuke of President Trump, his former boss. Mattis described being “angry and appalled” at the use of the U.S. military against the American people and the description of American cities by his successor at the Pentagon, Mark Esper, as “battlespace” to be dominated. ”When I joined the military, some fifty years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” he said, in a statement to The Atlantic.

Pictures of National Guard troops arrayed in tight rows on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—a site that symbolizes reconciliation and healing after our Civil War—clad in camouflage, flak jackets, and body armor, added to the sense that America is in the midst of a defining national crisis. Mattis raged at the President personally, accusing him of deliberately trying to divide the country. “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,” he said. He went one big step further, demanding that “those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution” must be held accountable.

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