Opinion | Beirut on the Potomac

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In Lebanon the collective interest — say, in having a functioning electricity grid — loses out to individual selfishness. Public money lines personal pockets.

In the past American individualism, a source of economic vitality, could be subsumed into collective determination at times of crisis. The virus proved the exception because American self-reliance has metastasized into narcissistic self-obsession, in the image of Trump. The American spirit got a Lebanese makeover.

Democracy in Lebanon is flawed by nepotism and religious division. In the United States, special interests and the power of the wealthy have warped representative democracy to the point that it fails in its essential task. How fair is the representation? How democratic is the elective process? Ever less so, as things stand. This is part of the rotting of the body politic.

The United States is not Lebanon, far from it. But it is ripe for detonation, the more so because that is what Trump seeks.

When I was in Lebanon last October, I headed south toward the borderlands controlled by Hezbollah, near the Israeli border. Plastic bottles and bags, ineradicable detritus, skittered in the wind. On the hard shoulder, cars careened the wrong way up the freeway. My driver muttered in disgust. In Lebanon everyone goes freelance. They have no choice. Governance is an exercise in crony deals. Credible tales of seeping sewage kept the beaches I passed deserted. The further south I went, into the hills, the more I saw the yellow flags of Hezbollah and its slogans. “Hezbollah always victorious!”

In June, after months confined in New York, I drove south toward Dixieland. I was reminded of American vastness. I crisscrossed rural Georgia and saw a different flag, the Confederate flag, here and there; and I drove on a stretch of highway named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America; and I saw Confederate monuments that spoke of states’ rights, but never of slavery, and claimed the lost cause was somehow not lost; and I listened to Americans whose language and values suggested a culture war so intense as to shred any shared national lexicon.

Lebanese fracture is not American fracture. My southward journeys were not really comparable. The United States has powerful institutions. Its civil war left “government of the people, by the people, for the people” alive. But vigilance is needed if, on Nov. 3, Trump’s America is not to go BOOM.

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