When a reporter asked Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference last Tuesday what he thought about Donald Trump’s threat to use armed forces to suppress the mass protests occurring in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and in response to unceasing state violence against African Americans, Trudeau’s answer spoke volumes about the global standing of the United States.
What was Trudeau’s answer? Silence. Silence. One one thousand, two one thousand . . . twenty one thousand. Wait for it…..
But one didn’t have to wait to realize this silence was the message, pregnant with meaning, speaking volumes.
The twenty seconds of silence were deadly in their understated judgment of Trump’s desire to use the people’s military, bought and paid for by the people to serve the people, to inflict violence on the nation’s own people.
For poor interpreters, Trudeau finally translated in polite terms, “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States.”
Put another way, Trump is realizing the “American carnage” he waxed so unpoetically about in his inaugural address, and the whole world is, indeed, watching.
American leaders have long imagined the U.S. as an exemplary and exceptional nation to which all others bore witness.
Both Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy both spoke of America as a “city upon hill” which all eyes around the globe were watching, an image borrowed from John Winthrop’s famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” originally delivered during the Puritans’ passage across the ocean on the Arbella to start the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.
Winthrop warned his listeners,
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
And now Trump has succeeded most definitely in making the United States “a story and a by-word through the world” precisely for the kinds of “false dealings,” to put it mildly, Winthrop talks about.
While Trudeau figured contemporary America as a horror story for its ongoing epidemic of racial violence and the threat of using the military’s armed force to suppress its own people, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole had already been lamenting Trump’s making America a four-letter “by-word” around the globe for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Late last April in a column, he decreed that “If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated.”
O’Toole wondered, “Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode?”
Instead of a being viewed as an exemplary nation to be followed, whether that status was fully earned or not, O’Toole now sees the globe’s nations viewing the U.S. as a nation to be pitied.
He argues that Trump, “instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality,” concluding that “[t]he country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.”
This judgment reflects a powerful reversal of American exceptionalism, an idea with a long history in our culture. As Harvard Professor Stephen Walt explains, typical manifestations of this belief “presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration” and “imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.” They rest “on the belief that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law.” “Americans,” Walt says, “like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers.”
I’m not trying to suggest that the ideology of American exceptionalism reflected or was rooted in reality before Trump. Indeed, American politicians, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in critiques of American exceptionalism, have long claimed, for example, that America has the world’s best healthcare system or the best educational system, patently false claims that gain traction precisely because the nation’s self-esteem is informed by this exceptionalist attitude.
What I am saying is that Trump seems now to have officially killed that ideology, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The question remains as to whether the American electorate will fully wake up to Trump’s carnage and look around the globe to notice that other countries do a better job of creating a healthy, caring culture of mutual aid that gives priority to its citizens’ welfare.
Bernie Sanders, for one, would often talk about what such nations as Denmark or Finland have done in creating superior educational and healthcare systems—and overall conditions of quality of life. Members and commentators of both parties and political stripes lambasted him and called him un-American.
But maybe we will begin to look around globe.
Trump boasted last Friday of the unemployment numbers, while still over the 13% of the nation’s working population is desperate and unemployed.
Studies show that many countries addressed the pandemic both more humanely with a greater economic efficacy.
David Leonhardt, for example, writes in The New York Times,
Much of the rest of the world — including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and South Korea — has followed one strategy on coronavirus stimulus. Governments have temporarily paid the salaries of workers in order to prevent millions of layoffs.
The United States has taken a different path. It created a complicated mix of different stimulus policies, including loans to businesses and checks for families. This approach doesn’t appear to be working: The U.S. has had a sharper rise in unemployment than other countries. Many jobless Americans have also lost their health insurance — in the midst of a pandemic.
Trump’s handling of the economy, the pandemic, and the nation’s mass protests against violent racism and police murders in America need to turn Americans inward to reflect on our identity and culture, and outward to look around the globe and see there are other ways to live and cultivate a humane national culture and economy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.