Why Does it Matter That America Is Now a Villain?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The annual Independence Day holiday festivities provide an opportunity to reflect on the unique place that the United States holds in world affairs, for better and for worse.  How much worse has it become because of Donald Trump?  And does it matter?

Back in 2008, as the Bush era was ending and we were attempting to assess the disturbing legacy of the Bush/Cheney Administration -- the falsified case for the Iraq invasion, the horrors at Abu Ghraib prison that had been perpetrated by U.S. Army and CIA personnel, the ongoing human rights disaster that was (and still is) the Guantanamo Bay prison, and on and on -- it had become obvious that the reputation of the United States as a beacon of hope had taken a huge hit in the eyes of the world.

In December of that year, I wrote a short essay, "Our Reputation Matters," expanding on an editorial in The New York Times that had argued for closing Guantanamo as a matter of both moral imperative and national self-interest.  The key argument in that editorial was that the world would not continue to follow the leadership of the U.S. if we were to continue -- especially, I would emphasize, under our new and idealistic president-elect -- to violate all standards of justice and decency by keeping the prison open.

We now know that Republicans and many Democrats prevented President Obama from delivering on that campaign promise.  Even so, U.S. standing and leadership in the world generally improved during the Obama years.  And now we have Trump.

In my 2008 essay, I used a 1945 movie (Roberto Rossellini's "Rome: Open City") about the Nazi occupation of Rome during the latter part of World War II as a vehicle to consider how the rest of the world thinks about a country.  In that great film, a Nazi officer is depicted as the essence of pure evil, cruel and amused by the pain and death that he could impose on vulnerable people.

This was, indeed, the general theme of the world's collective memory of that war.  The Allies were the Good Guys and the Axis Powers were the Bad Guys.  And although it is true that history would not be told in that way if the other side had won, the essential point is that Americans were able to say with considerable justification that we had ridden to the rescue of the world when it was faced with unimaginable evil.

In other words, it was not just that we won.  We had a more than defensible argument that it was good that we won.

I do not want to overstate the case, of course, because there are certainly plausible arguments that we took too long to act, that the use of the atomic bomb (twice) stains our legacy, and so on.  Without taking a position on any of those issues, however, the point is that the U.S. has since WWII been able to say that we have at least tried to be on the side of human advancement.

Americans are sure that, unlike that Nazi officer in Rossellini's film, we are not cruel people who inflict pain on other, weaker people for our own gratification.  That is what bad guys do.

And even those of us who refuse to forget the state-sponsored evils of the Jim Crow era, or the history of the Vietnam War, have always been able to say, "Well, we have never lived up to our highest ideals, but the world still looks to us with hope."  The only question has been how to do a better job of living up to that reputation as we move forward.

Finding out that "we" tortured people during the Bush era was bad enough.  What was much worse was that the people who ordered the torture never admitted that what they did was a blatant violation of international law, that they were never prosecuted, and that they found champions throughout the American political system -- most obviously among Republicans who thought that the TV show "24" was a how-to manual.

And then, through an eye-of-the-needle win made possible by one of the many racist and elitist features of our Constitution (the Electoral College), we improbably elected a president who thinks that the world's apparent esteem for the United States is nothing but a cover for laughing at us behind our backs.

Trump was in fact merely mainstreaming an idea that has been rumbling around in U.S. culture for decades.  In movies and television shows, sometimes seriously and sometimes as a joke, it is hardly uncommon to hear an American say to a Brit, a Frenchman, or anyone else: "You'd be speaking German right now if it wasn't for us, you ingrate!"

That a reunited (and politically reformed) Germany is the country that is stepping forward to lead where the U.S. has retreated is of some irony.  But the larger point is that even people who have long criticized the U.S. (and again, there are plenty of valid criticisms of U.S. actions over the decades, even as our overall track record has been defensible) have nonetheless had reason to think that we would take the lead to make good things happen.

For example, sometime in the mid-2000's, I recall watching a TV show that examined how the child abuse scandal that had rocked the Roman Catholic Church was playing out in Ireland.  During a tearful interview with a U.S. news outlet, an Irish activist said words to the effect that "I know the U.S. will do something to make the Irish government do the right thing, if only we can let them know what's happening."

That an idealistic non-American would be saying this about the U.S., even in the middle of the Bush era, was in some ways astounding, but in other ways it was completely unsurprising and even normal.  We were the superpower that at least had some reputation for doing good for the sake of doing good.  Of course we would do the right thing!

And now?  Last week, the Pew Research Center published the results of global polls showing that the Trump presidency has delivered a severe blow to the reputation of the U.S. around the world.  The Washington Post quoted Frank Wisner, a former U.S. diplomat:
"America’s image has taken hits in recent years, from the decision to invade Iraq to the events of 2007 and 2008, when the American financial model took a huge hit.  But the most consequential is the ascent of Mr. Trump to the Oval Office."
How bad is it?  At the end of the Obama Administration, 64% of the respondents in 37 countries had "confidence" in the U.S. president, as opposed to 22% now.  Showing that the world is still holding on to a historic sense that the U.S. is more than its current president, almost half of respondents still have a "favorable view of the U.S.," but that is down by 15% in 2017 polls compared to 2014-16.

Those numbers, moreover, are propped up by responses from Russia, where positive views of Trump (53%) show marked improvement from Russians' views of Obama (11% positive), and Israel (where the rise has been much smaller, 49% to 56%).  So other than in two very unique situations (at least one of which does not reflect especially well on Trump), Trump has dealt a huge blow to the reputation of the U.S. around the world.

The Post's Aaron Blake followed up on the release of the Pew polls with an analysis highlighting four devastating points:

(1) The world distrusts Trump more than even Vladimir Putin,

(2) In each of allied countries, 9 out of 10 view Trump as "arrogant," 7 in 10 as "dangerous,"

(3) Even nationalists don't love Trump, and

(4) Trump's reputation is already worse than George W. Bush's -- at the depths of his presidency.

But maybe none of this matters.  It is not as if the U.S. has any right to believe that it will be the most respected nation in the world.  Conservatives argue that America is exceptional for specific reasons, but they usually use those reasons to argue that we should be more politically conservative rather than as a call to take our global leadership seriously.

Maybe the U.S.'s leadership position in the world was merely a historical accident, and the next stages of history will see our country becoming ever less influential and isolated.  Other commentators have noted that Trump's version of America First is more accurately described as America Alone, so Trump and his followers might even welcome the idea that the world no longer thinks of us as the good guys.

There is, however, something about the founding documents of the United States that pushes irresistibly against this pessimistic view of the future.

As noted above, it is not as if those documents (even after amendments that erased the Three-Fifths Compromise and allowed women to vote, among other corrections) are not situated in a history of exploitation and white supremacy.  Consider, for example, that the Declaration of Independence includes this complaint about King George III:
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
Wide-eyed innocence is unwise, of course, but the fact is that even given the complicated historical context, the Declaration and the Constitution are uniquely optimistic statements of human capacity for doing good.  For example, the Declaration of Independence, far from being the anti-tax screed that many Republicans think it is, is actually a call for the rule of law and truly representative government (and taxation with representation).

The Trump presidency and everything it represents twist and mock the highest ideals of our founding documents.  Worse, Trump represents a catastrophic departure even from this country's highly imperfect and inconsistent efforts to live up to some of those ideals.

Trump has shown again and again that he sees no reason for the U.S. to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, because then the world is supposedly "laughing at us."  (As opposed to what is happening now?)  Indeed, it seems unlikely that he knows the difference between right and wrong.

Everything is supposedly about getting a good "deal," but even there, Trump still does not understand that bargains are supposed to be win-win.  If the other side gets something good out of a deal, then Trump hates it (unless, of course, the other party is an authoritarian government).  Winning means nothing less than total domination.

This is the mindset of old-style corrupt political bosses and organized criminals.  Government and power more generally are useful for the purposes of enriching oneself and one's (currently useful, but completely expendable) associates.  It appears that Trump thinks we can only be great if we act like wise guys.

The rest of the world disagrees, of course, as well they should.  Unfortunately, it does not end there.  In the view of Trump and many of his Republican enablers, only some Americans are real Americans.  Trump and the vast majority of his party would happily take away health care from tens of millions of people, because those people evidently do not truly count as the Americans who should benefit from our supposed return to greatness.

The U.S. government, as it is constituted under Donald Trump, is now making us villains abroad and gratuitously cruel at home.  No matter what one thinks about whether we Americans should be able to think of our country as a unique force for good in the sweep of human history, we are doing real damage to real people everywhere.

Is it too much to ask, as we celebrate our nation's birth, that we at least stop moving in the wrong direction?