Destiny Lost? Trump and a US Off Its Moorings
Does criticizing and downplaying other nations help Americans feel better about themselves?
July 24, 2016
Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing — and it is this very gap that Donald Trump seeks to exploit for his personal political gain.
Trump understands that Americans feel powerless in good measure because of what has been happening beyond the country’s shores, and over which the United States lacks the means to exercise decisive influence.
Our collective response has been one of avoidance and evasion. Why? Because We Americans seem to fear that if we stare at reality squarely, we will find reality staring back at us in a most discomforting way.
To a considerable extent, that is a consequence of our country’s foreign policy elites’ inclination to over-promise and under-deliver. Trump pinpoints that weakness most skillfully. The true irony of his act, however, is that he is bound to be the biggest over-promiser and under-deliverer ever.
America’s fading prowess
Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with – whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence. We dread decline and its intimations of extinction.
This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective are inseparable. Today, events are occurring that contradict the national narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.
Our thoughts and actions in response to that deeply unsettling reality conform to the classic behavioral pattern of those suffering from acute cognitive dissonance.
Denial is its cardinal feature. That is to say, denial of those things that cause stress and anxiety. Sublimation methods of various kinds are deployed to keep them below the threshold of conscious awareness.
We all do that, to some degree, on a personal level. Groups, even very large ones, can do it as well.
In the latter case, we are speaking of troublesome military actions, abusive state behavior like the conduct of torture, diplomatic deals that are permissive of unsavory actions by others, or studied misrepresentations by government and media which hide unpleasant truths from the populace.
At a more abstract level, we repress or minimize perceptions of us by other peoples, our relative well-being compared to other societies (medical care, maternity leave, pensions), or national competence as demonstrated by accomplishment in comparison with other societies (constructing mass transportation systems).
The crudest denial mechanism is literal avoidance. If you don’t travel abroad, you don’t see. You don’t inform yourself about any of the above mentioned matters by:
- abstaining from following the news,
- reading only reassuring reports,
- excluding all contradictory sources as “alien” or “subversive;”
- declaring the world as too complex to decipher;
- appraising serious issues of national policy as “above my pay grade,” while ignoring the core democratic precept that as the citizen of a republic, nothing is above your pay grade
Another avoidance mechanism is to stress systematically those features of other nations or situations that conform to the requirements of the American national narrative while neglecting or downplaying opposite features.
Currently, we are witnessing the unfolding of an almost clinical example in the treatment of China. The emergence of the country as a great power with the potential to surpass or eclipse the United States poses a direct threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism.
The very existence of that threat is emotionally difficult to come to terms with. Psychologically, the simplest way to cope is to define it out of existence – to deny it.
One would think that doing so is anything but easy. After all, China’s economy has been growing at double-digit rates for almost 30 years. The concrete evidence of its stunning achievements, despite all the drawbacks and undeniable challenges, is visible to the naked eye.
Necessity, though, is the mother of invention. Our compelling emotional need at the moment is to have China’s strength and implicit threat subjectively diminished.
So what we see is a rather extraordinary campaign to highlight everything that is wrong with China, to exaggerate those weaknesses, to project them into the future, and – thereby – to reassure ourselves.
Seemingly nothing is too inconsequential to escape front page, lengthy coverage.
We read of new satellite cities that remain largely uninhabited due to faulty demographic assessments, of jaded consumers who are turning away from luxury products, or a widespread epidemic of stress among children exposed to the rigors of a Confucian style testing regime.
We read of rural communities losing their sense of solidarity and common identity as people move to the cities and the stay-at-homes spend hours watching newly acquired televisions, of the uprooting of Beijing’s traditional narrow lanes and houses squeezed out by real estate development.
The current signs of economic weakness and financial fragility have generated a spate of dire commentary that China’s great era of growth may be grinding to a halt – not to be restarted until its leaders have seen the error of their ways and taken the path marked out by America and other Western capitalist countries.
Editorials go so far as to lambast Beijing for failing to meet in its responsibilities to the global economy as a whole by being so obtuse in its economic management.
These judgments are passed without reference to an eight-year world slowdown produced by the recklessness of American authorities in creating conditions that led to the financial collapse of 2008.
As Richard Fisher, who recently stepped down as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, pointedly has noted: Turbulence in the world’s financial markets should be traced to Washington: “It is not China.” Yet everyone else relishes blaming China,
This latest upwelling of China-bashing could well serve as a clinical exhibit of avoidance behavior. For it goes beyond sublimation and simple denial.
It also reveals the extreme vulnerability of the American psyche to the perceived China “threat,” and the compelling psychological need to neutralize it – if only by verbal denigration.
There is not the smallest sign of inhibition about ignoring the weaknesses and failings of the American experience according to the criteria so rigorously applied to China.
Implicitly, the point of comparative reference is some idealized standard derived from no historical record – much less present realities in the United States.
Indeed, if we are to speak of feckless economic policies with deleterious effects on the world economy, it is those of the United States and its partners that stand out in bold relief. Here, we may be seeing a classical example of “projection” behavior.
There is a similar pattern of denial in the systematic disparagement of Russia’s intervention in Syria – by official Washington, by the media and by the commentariat.
Whether we like it or not, Russia’s remarkably effective air campaign, coupled with the Russian coordinated ground campaign, has transformed the situation in Syria both militarily and politically. Yet, one would hardly notice that salient truth by limiting oneself to American sources.
Instead, we are submitted to a steady drumbeat of criticism that Russia has not concentrated on ISIL (as if al Qaeda, their preferred target, were now a “good guy”). And Putin’s diplomatic efforts were derided, although they are more realistic and promising than anything the Obama people have undertaken.
This type of avoidance behavior smacks of wishing thinking. The reactions to Putin’s move into Syria form a pattern of behavior reflecting insecurity and anxiety about the appearance of an unexpected rival.
That party’s display of military capabilities thought to be an exclusive American asset, in particular, undercuts the air of superiority so central to the nation’s self-image and prowess.
A level-headed interpretation would focus on these elements:
- the failure of Washington to prevent violent jihadist groups from exploiting the rebellion against Assad to advance their own program hostile to the United States;
- the absence of a countervailing force ideologically acceptable to us;
- the threat posed to Russia by the expansion of terrorist groups that have Russian affiliates and that have recruited large numbers of fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere, and
- the opportunity that Putin has opened to find a resolution that squares the circle of our opposing both Assad and the Salafists.
That attitude, though, would require an agonizing reappraisal of the foundation stones of American policy set in place over the past five years. It also would require modifying the prevailing view of Russia as an intrinsically aggressive state challenging the West from Ukraine to the Middle East, and Putin as a thug.
So instead of a sensible, realistic assessment we get hostile rhetoric, denigration of the Russian effort, and the indulgence of dreamy scenarios dissociated from anything actually happening in the real world.
Avoidance is easier than resolution
Avoidance is easier than resolution. Its mechanisms are devices for pushing away discomforting, complex realities. Reiteration plays an important role in this strategy for coping with cognitive dissonance.
Unfortunately, the constant reaffirmation of presumed verities only ends up sounding like the recitation of a liturgy. We thereby reassure ourselves that nothing basic has changed.
Cherished notions of who we are, of what we are capable, of our primordial virtue, of our exceptionalism are preserved. In the United States nowadays, the examples of a compulsive reiteration of the American creed are profuse.
Just consider the obligatory Stars & Stripes lapel pin. There are the outsized flags that proclaim Old Glory wherever we look. There are the uber-patriotic pageants at sporting events. There are the endless declarations that America’s greatness still has its best days ahead of it.
Excepting the United States
That is a stunning assessment given:
- the backdrop of sharpened racial tensions,
- the takeover of the Republican Party by the angry and haters who detest the President personally,
- a world reaction to our degenerate presidential politics that alternates between dread and mockery,
- rampant economic inequality undercutting standards of living,
- unabated and unpunished financial criminality,
- declining life expectancy,
- floundering in the Middle East punctuated by the emergence of grave new terrorist threats – among other worries.
This stark list suggests that what we are witnessing is not considered appraisal of the nation’s health or a calculated message intended to lift American spirits. For there is something compulsive about the exaggeration and overblown rhetoric.
Rather, it is the emotional reaction to circumstances of a profound dissonance between the fundamental elements of the collective national self-image and reality.
We are close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept reality as it is for deep-seated emotional reasons.
In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanisms in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress – including conflict. Dissociation can involve dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma (9/11?).
This phenomenon can also manifest itself through a sense that the world is unreal, a loss of memory or a loss of logic.
Depersonalization is another variant: “I am completely disconnected from all of these actions and their consequences. Therefore, it makes no difference whether I remember any of this. I’m all confused between virtual reality and what is actually going in. Anyway, it’s all above my pay grade.”
Thankfully, the constant flow of commercial breaks when I watch TV helps me escape. But I’m prepared to be fully attentive when the next Olympic Games roll around. Where’s my flag – I’m going to watch and will faithfully and instinctively chant: USA! USA! USA!
Americans are struggling with a growing gap between their exalted self-image and reality.
We Americans lack the means to exercise decisive influence. Our response has been avoidance & evasion
Fading prowess is one of the hardest things for humans to cope with, as an individual or a nation.
We Americans prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction.
China’s emergence poses a threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism.
The US is collectively, emotionally approaching the psychological condition of dissociation.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]