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Who Is America?

One of former President Barack Obama’s verbal tics was to declare that the baser instincts lurking in the darker corners of American life did not represent “who we are.” But four years of Donald Trump's presidency, which is ending with an unprecedented spree of federal executions, suggest that millions of Americans disagree.

Why would a US president in the last weeks of his administration want to start executing federal prisoners at a furious pace, even as he pardons four American mercenaries who murdered 14 Iraqi civilians in cold blood? The federal government has killed ten men already this year – more judicial killings than in all of America’s states combined. Three more executions remain to come before Donald Trump leaves office next month – one for a murder committed when the condemned man was barely 18 years old, and one the first woman put to death by the federal government in 70 years.

The Trump administration’s killing spree goes against all recent norms and trends, which have reduced executions to almost none. And the frenetic activity on death row is going on even as the lame duck administration is doing very little else, aside from angrily contesting the election results. It is President-elect Joe Biden who is trying to talk sensibly about the COVID-19 crisis in America, not Donald Trump.
Is Trump’s bloodlust due to a fit of pique because he lost the election? Is it just a matter of personal malice? Or is it symbolic, a brutal gesture toward “law and order,” setting up Biden as a softie if he carries out his promise to abolish the death penalty?

Thinking about a possible explanation, I was reminded of an anecdote told by the late great Belgian sinologist and essayist Simon Leys. He was responding to the British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who had written a scathing book about Mother Theresa, entitled, in a typical Hitchens provocation, The Missionary Position. Leys, a devout Catholic, believed that Hitchens was so overawed by the spiritual superiority of Mother Theresa that he wanted to drag her down to his own base level.

Whether or not Leys was right about Hitchens, the anecdote bears repeating. One day, Leys was working in a noisy café somewhere in Australia. The radio was playing rubbishy pop music. Then, as though by a miracle, the program changed and Leys heard the glorious sound of a Mozart quintet. After a moment of silence in the room, a man abruptly rose to his feet and, as though in a fit of anger, switched the radio back to musical pap. The relief in the café was palpable.

Leys reflected on this peevish gesture. Did the man hate classical music? Did he have a peculiar loathing of Mozart? Or perhaps his lack of cultivation made it impossible for him to appreciate the beauty of this music. Leys concluded that it was none of those things. It was, on the contrary, precisely because the man sensed the quality of the music that he had to cancel it. Mozart had made him feel small, insignificant, uncouth. He had to drag the music down to his own level.

A similar type of aggression has marked the four years of Trump’s presidency. Barack Obama had his flaws as a president, but he always exuded an air of dignity and refinement. Few presidents in history have his gift for English prose. Obama is not only a stylish writer, but a discerning reader. His behavior in office was always impeccable, and he and his wife, Michelle, are the model of a highly civilized couple.

And that is precisely what some of his opponents could never abide. Racists hated the very idea of being governed by a black man. But the fact that he was such a well-educated and cultivated black man made his ascent to the highest office even more intolerable.

Many commentators in the past four years have pointed out that Trump was driven by an obsessive desire to tear down everything his predecessor had built. Various reasons were given: Trump’s deep insecurity; his playing to his base; or his own racial prejudices. I think Leys’ anecdote about the Australian café offers the best explanation. Trump had to erase the image of high civilization that Obama represented. He had to drag it down to his own level.

One of Obama’s verbal tics was to declare that the baser instincts lurking in the darkened corners of American life were “not who we are” as Americans. Torturing prisoners in “black sites” all over the world was “not who we are.” Racist killings in black churches were “not who we are.” And so on.

Obama was nothing if not an aspirational leader. He expressed in his books and his speeches a high ideal of the United States. In this respect, he followed the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were fully aware of America’s coarse, violent, racist side. Both tried hard to appeal to people’s better nature. They hoped that their country would one day live up to their vision of it.

That is exactly what provoked the aggression of Trump and his devoted supporters. Being crass, prejudiced, and extolling violence was the key to Trump’s success. The coarser his language, the cruder his behavior, the more his supporters cheered him on. It was their revenge on Obama, and everything he stood for.

Biden’s popularity has been based on the exact opposite. He is the anti-Trump who promises to restore dignity to American politics. Like Obama, he expresses faith in reason and patriotic bipartisanship, and promises that his administration will put an end to an era of social and political vandalism.

We don’t know whether he will succeed. It is far easier to destroy than it is to rebuild, as Trump’s presidency demonstrated time and again. And no matter how much Biden wishes to pursue Obama’s aspiration of a more civilized society, there are millions of Americans who still think that is not at all “who we are.”

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