The rise of Trump was facilitated by America's obsession with "greatness," as two new books remind usby Diane Roberts / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Greatness” is the essence of the American brand. We are great because we are good and good because we are great: a land of liberty and opportunity, a nation favoured by God. That’s what we Americans tell ourselves, at least, though lately the story’s been sounding a trifle shopworn. The current occupant of the Oval Office got there by promising voters he’d make America “great again.” But after 18 months of posturing “greatness,” it’s hard to find areas in which the US really is a leader—other than mass shootings.
The US is no longer one of the most admired nations. The American healthcare system continues to languish at the bottom among developed countries. We’re no longer a bastion of press freedom: Reporters Without Borders places the US at 45th in the world, citing the silencing of diverse voices through corporate consolidation and hostility emanating from President Donald Trump, who has called the press “the enemy of the people.” The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks the US as a “flawed democracy,” on par with Italy, India or South Africa.
The US military remains the most powerful in the world and the US economy still rules (for now). But what does America stand for these days? Traditional answers—the rule of law, equal opportunity, equal justice, hope for the oppressed, human rights—are necessarily qualified by the uglier realities of American history: forced removal of indigenous peoples, slavery and segregation at home, ill-judged wars abroad. Nonetheless, America used to have certain ideals. We often failed to live up to those ideals, but they were a moral template inspiring (or reproaching) our leaders.
These days our government doesn’t even pretend to care. Trump’s Justice Department means to prosecute asylum seekers, refugees fleeing the murderous streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. It separates children from their parents at the border and puts them in cages. (Though Trump, under pressure, has supposedly reversed this.) The “travel ban” has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump embraces the leaders of North Korea and Saudi Arabia with no mention of human rights.
Meanwhile, old democratic allies are berated: the new US ambassador to Germany boorishly demanded that his host nation also ditch the Iran deal. The Environmental Protection Agency was until recently run by a man who refuses to accept the science of climate change; and the Department of Education, under this narcissist playboy president, is run by a woman who thinks education should “advance God’s kingdom.”
If there’s a silver lining to the bellicose storm cloud, it’s the many thoughtful writers responding to our present calamity. Not the lurid (if fun) tales of the White House freak show such as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or even the more temperate jeremiads such as Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace, David Frum’s Trumpocracy or David Cay Johnston’s It’s Even Worse Than You Think, in which the author characterises the Trump administration as “political termites” who have infested our government. But instead scholarly works taking the long view, chronicling the nation’s descent into xenophobia, isolationism and proud ignorance—a process that has lurked in the national DNA from the beginning of the Republic.
In the Shadows of the American Century: the Rise and Decline of US Global Power by Alfred McCoy examines America’s ascendancy from its colonial adventures in Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the 19th century to the “good war” against fascism and the bad war in Vietnam, through the Cold War and the rise of China. Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream charts the long story of how America struggles to define itself and its place in the world through those two magisterial slogans. Both books document a nation that is frightened of the future, making warlike noises while rejecting its more generous self.
“America’s hegemony,” says McCoy, “is visibly crumbling amid a tectonic shift in global power.” The US won the Cold War partly because of its intelligence pre-eminence, partly because of its economic puissance, and partly because of its crafty use of diplomacy. Now America finds itself losing economic ground to China, uncertain about how Russia influences its politics, and beset by a cancerous nationalism. Meanwhile, the world, which once looked to America for inspiration, turns away. Like other empires before it, the US refuses to acknowledge that the nature of empires is to fall. Not quickly, of course—Rome didn’t collapse as soon as Visigoths or Vandals raided the city. It took years and America won’t be any different. McCoy quotes Niall Ferguson: “To those who would still insist on American ‘exceptionalism,’ the historian of empires can only retort: as exceptional as all the other 69 empires.” The US is an empire in decline; its leaders are in denial.
McCoy, a history professor at Wisconsin, could have been an American mandarin. His father was a graduate of West Point, a Second World War veteran and a defence contractor executive who mixed with foreign service grandees. He attended a New England prep school dedicated to training young men for service to the nation. Boys were expected to go on to the Ivy League, then to the CIA, the State Department or the law, very much in the British imperial mode: “Our curriculum followed the classical form of English boarding schools, with Latin or Greek as required subjects. The school crew actually made periodic trips to the Henley Royal regatta. All this was aimed at instilling a cultural affinity between American and British elites for shared global dominion.”
Anglophilia among the American governing class goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who admired the “muscular Christianity” of Britain’s colonial administrators, who ran their far-flung possessions with a Bible in one hand and an Enfield rifle in the other. The idea was for the US to take over as world hegemon: “Athenian in its ability to forge coalitions among allies; Roman in its reliance on legions that occupied military bases across most of the known world; and British in its aspiration to merge culture, commerce, and alliances into a comprehensive system that covered the globe.”
But McCoy chose not to become a cog in America’s imperial machine. He’d seen his father (who drank himself to death) destroyed by “the invisible wounds of war,” and instead he became a dissenter. He protested against the Vietnam War, while also researching how the country had become entangled in that distant fight—one which he came close to being drafted into. While at Yale, he uncovered the complex and often criminal relationships between the CIA, French intelligence, the Royal Lao Army and the heroin trade.
The CIA’s covert operations director (like McCoy, a Yale man) called the president of Harper & Row, demanding they stop the publication of his findings. They refused, and McCoy’s first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, came out in 1972. McCoy soon found himself a target. The FBI tapped his phone, the Internal Revenue Service audited him. Yale’s history department put him on “academic probation” for no apparent reason. In the Shadows of the American Century brings together McCoy’s work on how the surveillance state, the military, colonisation and foreign policy have brought America to its current crisis: divided at home and thin on allies abroad.
Sarah Churchwell’s book begins in about the same period as McCoy’s, during the days of the Robber Barons, Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism,” and America’s incursions into Cuba and the Pacific. It was a few decades after the Civil War, and the nation had begun to contest, often bitterly, indeed violently, who was authentically American. Whites only? “Anglo-Saxons” only? Churchwell’s book is about what happened to cause us to ignore “the better angels of our nature”—as Abraham Lincoln put it.
In its earliest uses a century ago, “American Dream” meant anything from a general endorsement of democracy to what Churchwell calls “a loose, collective optimism.” The phrase signified not personal economic gain (which is mostly how we use it nowadays) but something more inclusive and idealistic. Churchwell quotes a 1939 Memorial Day sermon delivered in Wisconsin in which the preacher stresses equal justice: “Thousands of Jews and Negroes have died to create this American dream, but they certainly cannot sleep. Not as long as we treat them as outlanders, close the doors of opportunity to their children, believe every unfounded and prejudiced story which discredits them.”
This social justice American dream—Martin Luther King’s dream—is the antithesis of “America First,” a concept born in a paranoid assertion of belligerence. America First appeared as early as 1884, in a California newspaper headline describing US-British trade wars, but really took off in 1915, when Woodrow Wilson used it to underscore America’s neutrality in the Great War. It was soon linked to the idea of “pure” Americanism as opposed to “hyphenates,” citizens with some ethnicity other than Northern European. “African-American” (a term which is more than 200 years old) as opposed to “Saxon-Americans” (white Christians), a hyphenated category that is rarely regarded as such.
The origins of “America First”
The political meaning of “America First” expanded to cover those who were pro-protectionism and anti-League of Nations, until in 1921, the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a motto, right in the middle of one of the US’s periodic spasms of xenophobia. For the Klan, “America First” meant racial purity and the protection of white women’s “honour.” “America First” impelled white men to lynch at least 4,000 black men between 1877 and 1950. “America First” impelled the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted the numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Asians and other groups considered less than white.
Now the slogan is used as part of a nativist backlash against Latinos, black people, Muslims, gays—anyone who doesn’t fit the mould of white, conservative, and (at least culturally) Christian.
The US has always expended a lot of energy denying the past, pretending that the nation is immune to historical forces, that slavery and genocide have simply disappeared from the national psyche like morning dew on grass. The sustaining national myth has been that America was once an Arcadia of small towns where everyone got along, populated by fair-skinned folks who loved their mothers, saluted the flag and tolerated people of different faiths or ethnicities, largely because there were so few of “them.”
In 1901, Senator Albert J Beveridge of Indiana blocked statehood for New Mexico and Arizona because too many Native Americans and Latinos lived there. In 1920, he declared “when this country was established, it was a homogeneous nation” of white Europeans. This would, of course, come as a shock to the African slaves who stepped off the boat at the same time as the first European colonists, to say nothing of the indigenous peoples.
Churchwell reveals a country that’s always been frightened of enemies without and within: the “International -Jewish Conspiracy”; “Reds under the bed”; Black Panthers; feminists; wild-eyed environmentalists; European socialists; and the sinister forces of “political correctness,” all of which are, to America Firsters, determined to destroy God’s country.
Churchwell’s thoroughness in delineating America’s decade-by-decade bigotry through primary sources from speeches to newspapers to novels is a marvel. But it is more than a history lesson. She’s constructing the case for how the US elected Donald Trump, a catastrophe many of us struggle to understand.
At some point, the American Dream became entangled with America First. Trump’s developer father Fred got into trouble for discriminating against black tenants in New York. As Churchwell reminds us, during the 1927 Memorial Day parade when American fascists and Klan members got into fights with onlookers, a “20-year-old hyphenate German-American” named Fred Trump was one of seven arrested.
Fred Trump’s son Donald, who as a businessman apparently kept a collection of Hitler’s speeches by his bed, in 2016 equivocated over an endorsement from former KKK leader David Duke. In August 2017, white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia shouting “Jew will not replace us!” and “Go back to Africa!” One woman died in the ensuing violence. Yet Trump asserted there were “fine people” on both sides.
Churchwell provides plenty of Trumpian atrocities. But the real value of her book lies in demonstrating how white Americans have always felt threatened by the Other. Back in 1923, the Chicago Tribune demanded that Congress “Keep the Gates Closed”; now Fox News beats the anti-immigration drum. The “scientific racism” of the 19th century demanded that America should belong to the “Nordic” races; now Donald Trump wishes the US could take more people from Norway, instead of “shithole countries” such as Haiti or El Salvador. Making America “great again” means, to Trumpists, making America white again.
Both Churchwell and McCoy show that the key to America’s present lies in America’s past. Churchwell slightly misquotes George Santayana: “A country without history is a country of madmen” (it’s actually “a country without a memory”), but the point is well made. The US has struggled to rise above racism since the Declaration of Independence proclaimed “all men are created equal,” but did not include black men or any women.
America wants to be first on the international stage without accepting its responsibilities. “This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after the Second World War,” said a State Department official in the early days of Trump, “when you realise, no, the Sun actually does set on your empire.” Neither McCoy nor Churchwell suggest that the American Century should be prolonged.
It remains unclear whether the US will be able to manage its decline and shape “a succeeding world order that protects its interests, preserves its prosperity, and bears the imprint of its best values.” The light is fading. As Edmund Burke put it in 1775: “a great empire and little minds go ill together.”
In the Shadows of the American Century: the Rise and Decline of US Global Power by Alfred McCoy is published by Oneworld (£18.99)
Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream by Sarah Churchwell is published by Bloomsbury (£20)