The times they are a-changing? America's not-so-surprising development
In this article, our guest author Wolfgang Mebs outlines the development the United States undertook in recent years and the true reasons why this country once proud of its democratic heritage has embraced isolationist and populist policies.
America’s policies today raise many an eye-brow the world over, in particular in Europe. What is happening to and in this country? Is it still our ally? How could a man like Trump become President? How could this happen? In America! This place of yearning. This realm of freedom and democracy, of dreams come true. Right. But unfortunately of nightmares too.
To everyone who has had a deeper look at the American nation and the American mind the current development does not come as a surprise. What the world sees today has always been genuinely American, has always been part of their genetic code and of the cultural and institutional structure which now comes into the open. The world and above all Americans themselves have been fantasizing a fairy tale – and the bubble is bursting.
In order to understand the current development and become fully aware of the dangers facing the Never-actually-united States of America one must be aware of the net of legends having been woven over more than 250 years.
It is a country of contrasts, which surely can be said about any nation – but none is as contradictory as America. This is what makes it so exceptional. Americans like to hear how exceptional they are: the most inventive people on earth, the most productive, the cleverest, the freest, the what-so-everest. Just read any speech by American politicians and in particular presidents; they keep telling it over and over again followed by outbursts of applause. Trump’s permanent use of superlatives therefore is not looked upon as psychologically worrying or downright conceitedness. It is absolutely normal and self-evident. Anyone outside the country – and very few within – know that this is nonsense. What makes them truly exceptional is their unmatched self-centredness, their unlimited capacity for self-delusion and their schizophrenic socio-political culture.
Freedom and Calvin
The land of the free? Yes. If you want to live as a hermit somewhere in the Mojave Desert or deep in Oregon’s woods, you can do so. There is no registration of residence, you need no passport, you are not forced to pay health insurance or pension funds, you can buy 100-round-machine guns and stand your ground and kill anyone who enters your premises, you may educate your children at home, build your house whichever way you like and believe in and found churches of any kind, even the Church of the Pink and White Striped Unicorn.
But you cannot be an atheist if you plan a political career. And you should not get a divorce (in particular in the Bible Belt) if you want to be elected. America has the largest porn industry in the world, but you are not allowed to take your clothes off in a sauna, and viewers are protected from seeing a naked breast on TV. God forbid.
What is more, America is the land of the free if you restrict freedom firstly to whites. Freedom for the first 200 years was reserved for whites – and in spite of new legislation it largely still is. Do “Black Lives Matter”? Rarely – outside Hollywood and entertainment. The police force must regularly be reminded. Do people of Latin American origin have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness? Only if they do so outside the US. Can Hispanic children be separated from their parents and be incarcerated? Sure. Do protests put an end to this inhuman practise? No. Because there are more citizens who support it. Or keep quiet. Or what some of them call neutral. After all, we do not talk about white American children. Is the American public seriously worried about the fact that child mortality in black ghettoes is on the level of the West Bank and Albania and higher than in Botswana, Argentina or Russia? Not that I know of. And why is this rate particularly high in southern states? Two to three times as high among blacks compared to whites. Independent of socio-economic status!1
Secondly, freedom in the United States in actual, everyday life more often than not is limited to personal materialistic freedom. From rags to riches, that is the truly American aspiration. The American Dream, this mirage, is foremostly reserved to those born privileged and to those individuals who are willing to ruthlessly take everything they want at whoever’s cost. People do not care much how you acquired wealth, how the Roosevelts, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Carnegies or Kennedys became what they are. Trump simply inherited millions, but funnily his supporters consider him a hard-working anti-establishment outsider like themselves. Wealth as such is adored and still has a semi-religious quality. The foundation was laid by the first colonists, by Puritans. Nowhere else in the world did the idea take such deep roots that wealth is a sign of God’s grace. If you work hard, and if he loves you, he makes you rich. Calvinistic ideas define America, not the Catholic stream of Christianity. Even today the real American, the true American is the WASP. Calvin is the American hero, not Franz of Assisi.
Right from the beginning riches was acquired ruthlessly, it was built on violence, land-grabbing and genocide, and those heroes of American history, be they self-righteous bigots or narcissistic megalomaniacs, are still adored today. Trump is one of them. The tough guy who asserts himself, who pushes his agenda through, wipes out those in his path and shows off his wealth. No wonder his TV show The Apprentice, was so successful. This is the American Dream of millions: being so free that they can point their finger and say: “You’re fired!”
Individualism and Narcissism
Individualism thrives in America, and it may be true that there is hardly any other place where you can ‘do your own thing’ to the extend it is possible there. It definitely is much more powerful than any communitarian ideas, although they have always existed. But the American Dream is a fundamentally individualistic one. This is why no politician will ever stand a chance who proposes higher taxes in order to finance a better welfare system. This is why Trump’s campaign against Obama’s health care reform was (and is) so successful not only among Republican voters. They insist on the right to decide themselves if and how they want to be insured. They oppose a state-enforced system of solidarity, by which you pay for anybody’s dental or hospital care. Personal donations for a needy neighbour or foundations by multi-millionaires are a completely different matter.2
The well-being of all plays a significant role only in State of the Union Addresses, inauguration and fourth-of-July speeches, or when you appeal to the American nation in contrast to others. ‘Government for the people’ is understood as government for me, not for all the different social groups and strata of society, but for mine. Do not mistake political speeches for everyday policy, neither expected nor wanted. The ego is at the American heart. And Trump is considered charismatic, because this sums him up: Trump is Pure Ego.
The same is true internationally. One of the misconceptions about America is that it is a patriotic nation. It isn’t. America is nationalistic. And it is narcissistic. To the common American the US is the hub of the universe. Do you know any other nation that is so impudent as to call their national sports competition (baseball) “World Series”?!
America has always had a condescending attitude towards other nations, towards other people. That is another reason why Donald Trump is such a fitting president. His excessive use of superlatives is nothing remarkable to the common American. It is their daily diet. Trump embodies the belief that the best thing that can ever happen to any human being is being born as an American (saying that you prefer living in Germany is met with utter incomprehension), as they are the cream of the crop (see above) and the United States the Promised Land. And as such they have the right to govern the world. Consider, for example, the words of former president George Bush, depicting the blessings of Unilateralism (the opposite of democracy!) after the breakdown of the Eastern Block:
“We must step forward and accept our responsibility to lead the world. […] Among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has had both the moral standing, and the means to back [its leadership] up. We are the only nation on this earth that could assemble the forces of peace.”3
Do you know any other nation whose every president declares that their rule will make the world a better place? Image a German Chancellor saying that! For Americans nothing to even hesitate over. It’s self-evident.
Trump’s ‘making America great again’ appeals to this belief. Foreign policy has to serve this one and only goal. The rest of the world has to submit. This is why his war of trade is so popular. This is why even democrats support Trump’s intervention into European energy policy. Because they are convinced they have the right to tell others what to do. Mind you, to American economic advantage.
The advancement of people in general is nothing but folklore. It never was at the core of American realpolitik. Economic treaties with other countries always made sure that the United States profited most, including opt-outs in case the actual development turned out to be too advantages for the contracting party4. And they never had the slightest qualms supporting dictators as long as they stood on their side, opening their markets to American companies; or depriving foreign people of their democratic rights if they dared reducing American profits. The truth has never been expressed more bluntly than by Henry Kissinger, the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”5
Just take the example of the Arabian world, where America keeps repeating their perpetual mistake of ideological and greedy policies. In 1953 the CIA helped topple Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Persia, simply because he dared nationalizing the oil industry in order to make Iranians profit from their natural resources themselves instead of foreign trusts. In his place they established one of the most brutal dictators, the Shah of Persia, and trained the notorious secret service SAVAK in torture techniques to suppress any opposition to the government that guaranteed billion-dollar profits of the American oil industry – and cheap gas for American citizens. The historical result was a theological dictatorship – the one of Ayatollah Khomeini. Which another American administration fought by supporting their adversary dictator Saddam Hussein, who they supported with several billion dollars’ worth of economic and military aid as long as this allegiance guaranteed cheap oil and political influence in this part of the world.6
All this must be considered if you want to understand why Trump’s policies are so successful in America. Not only his fervent supporters simply do not care in the least what consequences his decisions have for other nations, for other peoples. Most of them could not care less about what happens to the Kurds. Putin annexed the Crimean? So what? That’s how we got Texas.
Democracy and Hypocrisy
According to the City-on-the-Hill myth America has the divine mission to carry the light of civilization into the world. It is its Manifest Destiny, because God made it the model state, the shining example to the world. Of piousness, freedom and democracy. In reality US history is a history of violence, and this is not due to the fact that it is the result of a war of independence, but because violence never stopped. Not for a single moment.7 This nation was not born, because people wanted to establish a place where everybody could exercise political and religious freedom, but because they were searching for a place where white people could exercise their own religious belief. For all the different churches, most of them have a common origin: they are deeply rooted in 17th century Puritanism. Anything else was on sufferance, suspiciously looked at or down upon, often even discriminated against8.
America, the guardian of democracy? The beacon light of hope? Trumpists watch this president trampling on democratic principles, on the state of law, on human rights – and applaud him. If democracy is in the way of asserting yourself, of doing your own thing, of doing the American thing, well, we can do without it. Rule of the law? Rule of the larger purse. And accepting international law? Never! G.W. Bush made clear they would even militarily intervene if the ICC dared indicting American soldiers. Up to this day the United States refuse cooperating with the ICC. Abu Ghraib and the massacre at Haditha are just two recent examples of American atrocities and war crimes. But they consider themselves above international law.
America has never been a country that was great because of its democracy. What made America great was a basically feudal system9, unfettered greed and the denial of human rights, and all of it glossed over by institutionalized hypocrisy. This nation was founded on land grabbing, violence and genocide, justified by Puritan dehumanization of indigenous people.10 It expanded on their blood and bones. Economic growth in the 19th century was built on the blood and bones of black slaves that were considered chattle. Chicago could ‘feed the world’ in the 20th century only thriving on the blood and bones of East European immigrants. Agriculture today depends on the blood and bones of Hispanics.
There is hardly another country in the world that puffs itself up morally like America and at the same time as a matter of course disregards its own principles and ideals. American governments and public opinion could always hold two completely contradictory views at the same time. The first settlers truly believed that they were God-fearing people and lived by the word of the Bible, yet they massacred Native Americans by the millions as if they had never heard about “loving thy neighbour”, the Sixth Commandment and that “what you do unto the least of my brothers you do unto me”. Even those signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which officially abolished slavery, saw no moral contradiction in remaining slave owners. They truly believed in the reality of their constitution and that they held this truth “to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, when at the same time segregation divided the country. They praised their God a dozen times a day and a dozen times a day looked down on, insulted, exploited, tortured and killed people of dark skin. They praise themselves as the much too often quoted “beacon light of hope” for all the downtrodden of the planet, as those who fight all over the world to spread freedom and democracy, yet in 200 years they have actively thwarted, destabilized and destroyed more democracies than any other nation in the entire human history. Latin America can tell you a thing or two about it, from Nicaragua to Honduras, from Chile to Argentina. Just consider the indecency of calling their neighbouring continent “American backyard”! Dozens of times the US intervened in those countries in support of autocratic systems and military or family dictatorships, installed puppet regimes, spreading and perpetuating suppression, tyranny and torture.11 Is it not apt that the institution that in the 1970s trained the prison staff and secret service of all the dictatorships on this continent in torture techniques was called “School of the Americas”?
Fewer countries but same procedure in Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines. The beacon light of hope more often than not was the blaze of bombs and Napalm, of cannon boats, machine guns and electric shocks.
All of this was and is, by and large, either ignored or even endorsed by large sections of the American public. The Vietnam War was the only exception, but for a long time was fervently supported by the vast majority – until they had seen enough atrocities on TV during their evening meals, and until more and more young Americans came back in zinc caskets. Some people argue that it were nice if America became isolationist again. Firstly, they never fully were. Secondly, in a globalised world this is no option. Thirdly, today America might withdraw troops from some battle grounds, but will never give up their positions on dominating world policies. Again, Trump knows the majority on his side: what annoys most Americans about Afghanistan or Syria is dead Americans, that is why they want their president to “bring the boys back”. That now Kurds die and lose all hope of independence – bad luck.
Paranoia and leader cult
One of the worrying characteristics, one that is overlooked too often, is that apart from the grassroots-democratic traditions and aversion against ‘the state’, against Washington, there also is a strong streak of fascist attitudes ingrained in American culture.
What probably comes to mind first is the apparent racism in this country. It is highly virulent and thriving. But not just because of Trump’s ambiguous attitude towards the Ku Klux Klan. It has never been dead, but even before Trump has been gaining new members. How alive racism is does not become apparent to the average traveller in Yosemite Park or the Florida Keys. But it does watching policemen stop coloured people walking down the sidewalk, in everyday conversations in family homes about crime, in American schoolbook texts about Native Americans, watching Fox News, scrolling through Breitbart chats. For a few years people have been more reticent. Now they are back in public. And their numbers are rising.
Another thing that makes people prone to racist and/or fascist world views is fear. The home of the brave?12 Rather the land of the paranoid.13 Their fears are many. Of terrorists and Muslims, of killers and thugs, of Blacks and Native Americans, of vermin, viruses and bacteria (commercials for sanitary products are downright flabbergasting). And fear makes people irrational, makes them seek any protection they can get, one solution being arming yourself. But this insecurity especially in the US also leads to an increasing number of private militias, paramilitary grassroots organisations with a clearly racist, xenophobic and nationalistic ideology. You do not see them on the streets of cosmopolitan cities but you find them in the vast rural areas, in the American heartland, in the Bible Belt – where elections are decided.
Thirdly, American history shows that the system of checks and balances is not immune to totalitarian tendencies. Bigotry, racism, nationalism, ideological dogmatism and paranoia have all been responsible for the relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. And they led to the McCarthy Era. Some may claim that these were exceptional times. The ideological basis and the prevailing mood of angst, however, still exist and in times of a comparable inside or outside threat, whether real or imagined, can easily be activated and exploited. To a certain extent Trump already successfully does.
What is more, it is very easy for populists like him to gain support due to the American culture of individual heroism and the leader cult. Americans adore the rugged maverick and above all they adore leaders, people that elevate themselves above the common man. One of the biggest compliments and attributes that further promotion is being “a true leader”. It is a popular trope in graduation speeches, when the future of those students is envisioned. Once a year TIME Magazine publishes a whole issue on “Future Leaders”, the main point not being that these men and women do or have achieved something special, that they are particularly good at something or have a certain influence, but that they are leaders, those at the top, at the front, who show the insignificant majority the way. The American Dream is not about leading an unnoticed, decent life. America accepts nothing but leaders. “You don’t win silver, you lose gold” was Nike’s infamous slogan during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. And what was G.W. Bush’s main argument in his re-election campaign? I have proved that I can lead. That suffices. Where to? Who cares.
Propaganda and Ignorance
Let’s be honest about it: all the intricacies of economics, of domestic and foreign policy are a black hole to ordinary Americans. Their ignorance, sorry, is legendary. The vast majority of the American populace is badly educated and nescient regarding the rest of the world. They neither know, nor are they seriously interested in different cultures apart from folkloristic highlights. The idea that Americans might learn from other peoples is anathema to them. They neither know, nor are they interested in how other nations solve political, economic and social problems, how they organize state and society.14 Why should they? After all, Americans always know best. They are the superior breed. They are the most advanced species on our planet (according to mainstream cinema even of the universe). What on earth could they learn from others?
Just look at schooling and education. Sure, America has brought forth some of the best universities, the most eminent scientists and world-changing inventions, but if you look at the country as a whole, the general level of education is devastating, in particular regarding wide horizons. Just have a look at normal schoolbooks. In a Geography book for ninth graders an economic map of Germany exhibits three cartoon-like pictures: a pig in the north, a piece of coal at the centre, a beer mug in the south. How informative. What else is there to know? In most subjects they focus on America. Self-centredness becomes most obvious in History. In most states the compulsory subject for all high school students is American History, where they learn about all the fantastic feats of their presidents, especially the Founding Fathers, of which everyone has to learn birth etc. dates by heart. World History on the other hand is a largely elective course. The banality and uncritical self-adulation in American schoolbooks is downright shocking.What is more, many text books, not only in History, would not pass serious scientific tests.15
As tests are standardized in America, the main focus of school and even college education is not on critically penetrating a subject but on memorizing and repeating facts. This is what is expected if you want to pass the predominantly multiple-choice tests from school tests to SAT or even ACT. You do not question, you accept and repeat.
And now look at average Americans’ information level and you see – not much. Firstly, even in American quality papers you can read only a bit about Latin America, little about Europe and Asia, almost nothing about Africa. Secondly, compared to Europe only a minority reads those papers, printed or digitally.16 If you live somewhere in rural Tennessee or North Dakota or the middle of Texas you cannot even buy the New York Times or the Washington Post at supermarkets or news stalls. The vast majority gets its information from TV or from social networks, and above all from a channel that would be banned in Europe because of its hair-raising propaganda and hostile agitation, from Fox News.
And this is exactly what makes life for populists and self-anointed leaders so easy: the average American has never learned to get informed on a broad basis, has never learned to distinguish facts from lies, has never learned to detect propaganda. Admittedly, explosion of available information in the Internet Age makes this more and more difficult. The results are paradoxical as usual. On the one hand conspiracy theories abound, however ridiculous they are. On the other hand, according to several surveys an increasing number of Americans do not believe journalists and politicians any longer, simply because they feel unable to find out the truth! At present their conclusion is both simple and comfy: they do not believe anything nor anyone and they either do not cast their ballot (the latter being a tradition in the States anyway) – or fall for populists. For Trump aficionados all this is no problem as they do not care about science and facts and truth anyway. If he declares tomorrow that the earth is flat and the globe an invention by Hillary Clinton, they will believe it.
But joking aside, the combination of feelings of superiority and a moral sense of mission, superficial education and banal and partly propagandistic media coupled with cultural ignorance all add up to a population that is extremely gullible to simple messages and autocratic solutions by populist or charismatic leaders.
Wake up call
So, what does all this boil down to?
No one should be surprised if Trump is re-elected. Not only do his supporters not care about his racism, his lies, his misogyny, his aggressive nationalism, his insulting, narcissistic tweets, his disrespect for the rule of law and democratic process. They either shrug it off with a laugh or even get exactly what they wanted in the first place. And like in the first campaign there are also thousands of basically more liberal-minded people who might not like his character but his policies.
Even then Trump will not completely destroy American democracy, but the longer he is in office, the more will he undermine it. It already is eroding rapidly. In particular as more and more people, not only Republicans, accept Trump's interference into the judiciary and accept his role as a kind of 'democratic' monarch. What makes one sceptical is the widespread disinterest in politics, the refusal to discuss current political affairs in everyday life, at the dinner table or a barbecue. If 60 per cent of the electorate cast their vote in presidential elections, this is considered a sensational turn-out. In gubernatorial elections it is 30-40 per cent!The rest does not even care about influencing who they are governed by. And millions believe that it does not matter at all who is elected as it does not make any difference anyway, neither to their personal life, nor to the nation as a whole, because they are convinced that those who truly make the crucial decisions are the CEOs of the big trusts.
The Democrats’ candidates that stand for different concepts and a renewal of current, in particular socio-economic policies do not stand a serious chance. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Marianne Williamson, who in European terms pursue relatively harmless social-democratic aims, will simply be discredited as ‘socialists’, a term that raises spectres of apocalypse in a country that can hardly spell the word correctly, not to mention understand it. And with a candidate like Joe Biden – well, nobody expects any change from his administration. He just would be nicer to everybody and his decisions less erratic.
What America really needs is for the vast majority to finally wake up. Trump’s first election should already have been such an unmistakable wake-up call. It wasn’t. A few rallies here, and a few bold words there. Impeachment, even if unexpectedly successful, will not solve America’s structural problems. The question is: will the undoubtedly existing true democrats raise their voices everywhere, will they become a nationwide movement, will they become vocal early enough to save this exceptional country – and turn it into a truly democratic one and finally put into practice its idealistic dream?
1 There is overwhelming evidence that racism is the crucial factor; see e.g.:
2 There is a long tradition of founding charitable organisations in the USA, much more so than in other parts of the world; a tradition that, too, has its roots in Puritan, Calvinist doctrines.
4 See: Sadar, Z. / Davies, M.W. Why do People Hate America? Icon Books, Cambridge, 2002.
5 Quoted in: D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About America? Regnery, Washington, 2002.
6 Just look at buddies Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein; another example of American hypocrisy: e.g.:
Further sources (In particular the National Security Archives):
https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/: summary of US support of s.H. in national security archives
7 Violence is ubiquitous in America, it is an almost natural part of daily life, nationally (murder, manslaughter, rape and rough-and-tumble by the million on TV, more than 30 killings daily in real life, violence and humiliation in inhuman boot camps, prisons and military training) and internationally (from arms trafficking to wars to drone killings).
8 Catholics, e.g. (aversion by Plymouth Rock-Americans against the Kennedys; Catholic churches being burnt down by the KKK)
9 Consider the influence of families / family trusts or political dynasties, of the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Carnegies, Rothschilds, Kennedies, the Bushes; the cattle barons, slavery, the plight of migrant workers; education worth mentioning reserved to a small elite; in contrast to legend social segregation, in particular regarding housing / place of residence. American suffrage and election laws in various states are another highly questionable matter regarding truly democratic principles; they were and partly still are overtly discriminatory. And the institution of the Electoral College clearly shows how little the elite trusts the electorate.
10 In 1676, the minister Increase Mather, e.g., wrote about "the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers has given to us for a rightful possession." And he made clear that Native Americans were “a scourge […] whose extermination was necessary for the fulfillment of [God’s] divine plan”.
12 In Afghanistan? The best-equipped army against a country already devastated by over 20 years of war. Or Iraq? An oversized Arnie hung like a Christmas tree with the latest weapons technology against a midget with a bread knife. Some braveness.
13 For a funnily sarcastic view of this characteristic watch the cartoon in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine.
14 The latest proof of American complete disinterest and ignorance including the government itself are the recent revelations about the war in Afghanistan.
15 See e.g. James W. Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me”.
16 The Washington Post, quoted so often in Europe, has a daily readership of 70,000 plus 1.7 digital subscriptions – in a population of 330 million! The Wall Street Journal, the largest American paper sells about 750,000 copies daily and has 1.8 million digital subscribers.