Are we witnessing the end of the American era?

by Paul Thomas / 29 June, 2017

Donald Trump silhouetted against the Statue of Liberty. Photo/Getty Images

The American era could be in jeopardy if Donald Trump succeeds in turning the world against him, writes Paul Thomas.

The stereotype is as entrenched in our perceptions of America as the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline: the obese gun nut proudly ignorant of the outside world yet unshakeable in the belief that everything is bigger and better in the US of A; the Bible-bashing social Darwinist; the money grubber who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Those guys Randy Newman sang about in Rednecks (1974): “We got no-necked oilmen from Texas/And good ol’ boys from Tennessee/And college men from LSU/Went in dumb, come out dumb too … We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks/And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.” The song, incidentally, is as much a satire of northern, liberal hypocrisy over race as of the south’s overt racism.

The stereotype is a component of the quasi-ideological anti-Americanism that has been a unifying and animating force for the international left since socialism was driven to the brink of obsolescence by the collapse of Eastern European communism, the onset of globalism and social democracy’s adoption of the “third way” in response to the decline of trade unionism.

There are three broad strands to anti-Americanism, the only “ism” permissible in civilised company: fear or distrust of the American empire; loathing of American cultural imperialism or, to put it another way, despair over our youth’s apparently insatiable appetite for Americana; and distaste for the debased culture epitomised by the stereotype.

Anti-Americanism doesn’t preclude an admiration for American highbrow culture or a devotion to its popular art forms, from hard-boiled crime fiction and Broadway musicals to jazz and rock’n’roll. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, for instance, was an avid fan of Western movies. Nor does it preclude an awareness that anti-Americanism often descends into snobbery, if not prejudice, and can amount to biting the hand that feeds you.

While US foreign policy is the single biggest driver of anti-Americanism, No 2 would be Hollywood, which never tires of mining America’s dark side for our titillation, in the process making the awfulness seem both more routine and awful than it is. As writer James Ellroy, who has made a career out of illuminating America’s secret history, has pointed out, there are more serial killers stalking the big and small screens than there have been American serial killers.

An anomaly here is that Trump-supporting Republican Clint Eastwood has done his share to reinforce the stereotype (Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, for example), whereas liberal film-makers’ demonisation of the US security apparatus in works such as Matt Damon’s recent Jason Bourne unashamedly pander to alt-right paranoia over the deep state.

American nationalists could view anti-Americanism as a compliment since it proceeds from a sullen acceptance that we live in an American world. Anyone who has ever googled “China” should be familiar with Napoleon’s aphorism “Let China sleep; for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. That has come to pass to an extent: our homes are full of items marked “Made in China”. Yet for all the People’s Republic’s output and projection of soft power, its influence on the culture thus far is negligible. And although we should be careful what we wish for, China can hardly purport to be a superpower if it can’t summon the wherewithal to bring its rogue neighbour and client state North Korea to heel.

So is Trump-angst simply a variation on a theme? Is Donald Trump just George W Bush with ridiculous hair and without the wisecracks? After sitting through Trump’s dystopian “American carnage” inauguration address, Dubya reportedly muttered, “That was some weird shit.”

The President and First Lady’s photo with visitor Nikos Giannopoulos went viral.

Trump’s just what you get

A clear majority of Americans twice voted for Barack Obama, the antithesis of the stereotype. Another way of looking at it, though, is that America’s response to eight years of the anti-stereotype was to send the stereotype’s living, breathing, tweeting embodiment to the White House, thereby giving the Republican Party an electoral clean sweep. Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress and control 33 state houses to the Democrats’ 16. Factor in the cult of personality-style devotion Trump inspires in his support base and it doesn’t seem alarmist to view Trumpism as a jarring development rather than this year’s model.

Let’s leave the Russia-related murkiness aside: it’s conceivable – just – that that will turn out to be more Whitewater, the much-hyped Clintonian non-scandal, than Watergate. Let’s also leave aside the push to repeal Obamacare and gut welfare programmes in order to deliver tax cuts to some of the richest people on the planet. Let’s skate over the fact that one of Trump’s first acts was to undo an Obama regulation making it harder – note: not impossible – for the mentally ill to buy guns. These things were high on the Republican agenda before anyone but Trump took his presidential aspirations seriously.

Let’s not even dwell on the rebooting of discredited policies and postures – the War on Drugs, toeing the Tel Aviv/Riyadh line in the Middle East, isolating Cuba. After all, the US has a long history of persisting with courses of action that ensure the very outcome they were meant to prevent.

That leaves us with the following: a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the Western alliance and the values it represents, which can be lumped under the heading “democracy”; an alternative reality in which unfavourable media coverage is denounced as “fake news” and the Administration’s messaging is a combination of brazen mendacity, mid-20th-century propaganda and 21st-century social media; an eagerness to exploit the highest office in the land to boost one’s brand and businesses; and nepotism of the sort one associates with banana republics, Middle Eastern dictatorships and former Soviet vassal states.

All this is new. It’s what happens when the ugly American becomes president.

With the stereotype hogging the spotlight, anti-US sentiment will only increase. Logic suggests there is a tipping point beyond which the country can no longer claim world leadership, since the essence of leadership is that others are willing to follow you. That point marks the beginning of the end of the American era.

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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