Trump and American Mythology

As a Canadian, I am at once horrified and bewildered by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. While, I find the Republican Party’s policy problematic, and in some cases deplorable, I find the prospect of Donald Trump leading the USA to be disturbing, frightening and unfathomable.

This leads me to ask the question of how to understand Donald Trump against the background of American mythology. In particular I want to highlight the fact that Donald Trump embodies the mere negation of the humanistic elements of the mythology of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream. By humanistic in this entry I mean the attitude that all humans have dignity and are entitled to respect. Trump, consequently represents the negation of the elements of American mythology that are compatible with equal freedom for all human beings.

While Trump’s politics, as far as they can be rationally understood, are more broadly aligned with the American right than the left, in that they focus on America’s greatness in the world and defending jobs for real Americans, rather than those of a darker hue, his politics are radically distinct from the jingoistic neoliberal imperialism of the Republican Party since Reagan. While George W. Bush is hated for his ill thought out and highly interventionist foreign policy and was often associated with authoritarian nationalism, George W. Bush was continuing a tradition in American foreign policy of beneficent imperialism. For Bush, American power served American interests, but his rhetoric also focused on the fact that American power was something that served to free people from backwards authoritarian tyranny. Consequently, American power for Bush was a strategic instrument for the defense of American interest, but also a means of spreading good. Reagan’s stance towards the Soviet Union was quite similar to Bush’s towards Iraq and Afghanistan. Now one can argue that Bush and Reagan were simply masking the pursuit of American interests behind moralistic rhetoric about America as a force for good, but as a political phenomena the rhetoric that politicians use is important to understanding them, even if that rhetoric is inauthentic or deceptive. Trump on the other hand has no pretensions that America is a force for good in the world, American foreign policy instead is a force for regaining American greatness and supremacy. On the world stage America should be acting like a business. It should maximize its interest and focus on winning, rather than worrying about improving the state of the world as a whole.

It is important to note Trump’s focus on greatness as opposed to goodness. Greatness in contrast to goodness is something that in the history of the Occidental world is associated with the pre-Christian martial and political virtue of Rome, Athens and Sparta. The great are manly, courageous warriors and politicians who defend their homeland and its interests, rather than generous spirits helping the vulnerable and marginalized. Arendt has noted how greatness is related to immortality, in being remembered and immortalized and thereby overcoming the fate of death that all biological creatures face, whereas goodness by its very nature cannot be concerned with remembrance. Christ, the supreme emblem of goodness, is only Christ because his actions were motivated by love, or more specifically agape, rather than to excel before his peers and be immortalized. Christ like Socrates is concerned with being, rather than appearance. Whereas for Trump appearance, rather than being is what is fundamental. Appearance is what determines the course of events in the world, as people act on perceived interest, goods and risk, rather than actual interests, goods and risks. In this kind of world, for Trump, and his supporters, we need a “clever man” who will annihilate the existing traditions that are leading to atrophy in USA and build its strength anew based on his effective business acumen.

This is all the more ironic because Trump’s supporters and Trump himself praise the fact that Trump calls it how he sees it, rather than worrying about appearances. But his entire claim to effectiveness as a businessman depends on the ability to effectively make use of appearances. The Trump brand of off colour, xenophobic authenticity is one of the most effective appearances to make alienated voters feel like he is unlike other politicians. Nothing is sacred to Trump, not even his deplorable authenticity. The only thing that matters is coming out on top. This deeply colours his foreign policy, as far as he has one.

In this sense Trump has negated the humanistic element of the myth of American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism has often been used to argue that ethical requirements that apply to other countries do not apply to America, because America is a country founded on reason, rather tradition, and is a unique force for good that cannot be chained to the requirements of international law. Trump still sees America as exceptional, but it is exceptional because it has the capability of dominating the rest of the world, and staying on top rather than because it is a force for good premised on dictates of reason that are self-evident to all human beings. America is not the Socratic shepherd who has authority over his flock because he has knowledge and will take care of their well-being, but rather the Thrasymachean shepherd who has authority because he is stronger and will take advantage of his flock where it profits him to do so. Trump therefore negates the element of American Exceptionalism which is bound up with respect for the dignity of all. Expediency in Trump’s world determines where respecting human dignity is called for.

In regard to the American Dream, Trump has famously said that this dream is dead, but his campaign “to make America great again,” is an attempt to restore that dream by restoring America’s economic status and providing jobs to real Americans. But the circumscription of the American Dream to real Americans, as opposed to Muslims and Mexicans, is an inherent contradiction of the fundamental egalitarianism of the myth of the American Dream. The dignity of the American Dream is that it sees all people who come to America to build a better life as equally capable and entitled to do so. The dream never was actual, but it is part of the horizon of what America means. America is constantly working towards the end of the actualization of the myth of the American Dream. Therefore, the transformation of the American Dream as the pursuit of a better life to anyone who seeks it, to the pursuit of a better life to a specific subgroup therefore constitutes the negation of notion of human dignity encapsulated in the American Dream. It means that this dream can be systematically excluded to people without any pretense or masking of this tactic as a legitimate exclusion. The exclusion is justified based on the mere otherness of a particular group of people.

Similarly, while the myth of the American Dream is typically related to economic well-being it is also related to spiritual, moral and intellectual health. The better life that America holds is not just that there are good jobs and more money, but that people are able to pursue their own good in their own way without being oppressed for being different. Similarly, due to the fact that America represents the coming together of diverse peoples and cultures, America has developed a uniquely rich cultural landscape that is a significant good to Americans at large. Again, modern America fails to live up to this myth, but this myth is present as a distinct ideal of the culture.

Trump on the other hand ultimately associates the failure of the American Dream with the decline in the American economy, rather than the emergence of poverty, misery, social hatred, ennui and anomie among the populace. This reveals another facet of the negation of the humanistic element of the myth of the American Dream in that the American Dream is reduced to a matter of returning America to the top of the economic ladder and ensuring “real” Americans are able to get a steady paycheck, rather than building an inclusive society where all can build a fulfilling life.

As a result, Trump’s place in American politics is to remove any pretense for a concern with human freedom, dignity and equality, with a concern for worldly success and domination. In this sense, his politics have more in common with authoritarian nationalism than they do with the traditional American conservatism which is deeply related to notions of freedom, equality, and human dignity, no matter how flawed.

3 thoughts on “Trump and American Mythology

  1. I’m wondering if the Republican party ultimately has this question to answer: Is Trump malleable? Can he be controlled? Evidence so far is pretty slim, but when you have someone who doesn’t know anything (but will get some really smart guys on the job) and someone who doesn’t seem to believe in anything, you have a recipe for a puppet. On the other hand, you have a puppet with a temper, a loudmouth, someone for whom you’d have to do damage control on a regular basis.

    His bigotry doesn’t seem genuine to me. I understand the outrage over his comments, but I think we should take everything he says with a grain of salt. He stands for nothing. That’s dangerous in a more insidious way…that’s not the way a president should have to be interpreted.

    Many democrats are assuming Trump will be Hitler II. They forget that our political system does have certain checks and balances, but I can see that point. And if Trump does manage to become a force to be reckoned with, there’s the problem of having no way to see in advance, to prepare…and yet preparing for the worst seems unfounded.

    As a Canadian, have you thought of what to do with all the American migrants? Maybe a wall? 🙂

    • An insightful comment as always Tina.

      Your second paragraph is exactly what I was getting at. He says many off colour things, but it seems calculated, which goes more to him being an opportunist than a purveyor of racialized nationalism. His appearance of being authentic and anti – politically correct are just that: convenient appearances.

      I tend to agree also that even if Trump were to get in as president, the damage that he could do in domestic policy would be substantially limited by the checks and balances that are present in the US. It might be scarier for me as a Canadian that he could get in, as Canada struggles to have much of an independent identity apart from the US, and a Prime Minister has far greater powers in terms of domestic policy because of the fusion of executive and legislative authority that the PM holds. Cabinet and Parliament are technically the legislative authority in Canada, but given that the PM selects Cabinet and can exercise a great deal of control over the amount of freedom his Cabinet and party has, in the context of a majority government, the Canadian PM has pretty far reaching powers and can generally guide the direction of lawmaking.

      No wall would be needed. We would welcome American migrants back to their true home in the British Commonwealth. 😛

      Even though Trump may be less of a threat than some people are making him out to be, the fact that his rhetoric seems to be somewhat effective is what is more horrifying. To me, his appeal signifies something deeply wrong among the American populace more than anything else. Furthermore, when I see the popularity of Kevin O’Leary and the late Rob Ford in Canada I can’t help but think we will have our own Trump.

      Also, how is life going with you?

      I have not been posting a lot because I work on a project and the last few months have been ridiculously busy.

      • You hit the nail on the head. Who are we? Back to that conversation we had about education. 🙂

        No, it’s really terrible. It’s embarrassing. I realize that some of those people are not morons, they don’t take him seriously and find his political incorrectness refreshing. Hell, I find it refreshing…but not when it seems he can’t control himself and he’s running for PRESIDENT. Good lord. I still can’t believe this isn’t a reality TV show. It certainly feels worse than a lot of the satire that’s been written about demagogues.

        I’m reading Infinite Jest (for an infinite amount of time, apparently) and the point you made about Canada’s identity really hits home in that novel. (The two countries unite, except Quebec.)

        You sure you’d welcome Americans? I don’t think I would if I were Canadian. 🙂

        I’m doing well. In fact, we’re in Pebble Beach, California on vacation…for the whole month! It’s wonderful. Cold, but I’m loving it, especially when I think of the triple digit temps back home. I’ve been meaning to post about CA, but I’ve been busy hanging out at coffee shops and walking on the beach. Glad to hear from you again. I’ve been wondering about you.

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