Everything was going smoothly these holidays just past. Then, on the last day of the year, David Ignatius published an opinion piece in the Washington Post that subverted the mood somewhat.
“Making New Year’s predictions is tricky in this turbulent world,” the longtime Post columnist wrote, “but here’s one fairly safe bet: The next president will propose a more assertive U.S. foreign policy.”
I had not boiled things down to quite this extent. So Ignatius got me thinking—precisely what I had looked forward to not doing for a few meager days of guilt-free ease.
Not much to think about on the Republican side, of course: To one or another degree, these people remind me ever more of Mussolini. They promise to feed Americans a more aggressive, militarized foreign policy the way hunters use red meat to bait big game in the jungle. The only interesting aspect of this phenom is why it appeals to so many of us, and I will come back to this.
Then I thought about Hillary Clinton—but again, not for long. On the foreign policy side Killary (as some take to calling her) does not make the grade even by lesser-of-evils logic. She is not the lesser of anyone else’s evil insofar as she offers us a dangerous set of policies that will ineluctably exacerbate the problems of an ever more disorderly world that, as 2016 opens, is undeniably in grave crisis. I find her current assertions that “we must lead” to avoid a vacuum a tired, nonsensical, altogether contemptible trope. I fold my arms, naturally, at the thought of voting for her.
And it is the same for Bernie Sanders, I must say with some reluctance. A picture of a Sanders campaign stop in the New York Times a week ago Monday is enough to break one’s heart. Here are these crowds of supporters, many of them younger than I and all their faces lit with smiles and glistening eyes. It will not end well for these people.
They do not seem to understand something quite fundamental. Sanders is nowhere or nowhere useful—it is one or the other—on the foreign policy questions a serious candidate ought to be answering with urgency, courage and in a loud, proud voice. This is a fatal flaw, rendering the Sanders bid for the presidency uninteresting but for the extent it may influence the conversation in years to come.
Here is the progression his flock appears to miss: Do not begin a radical renovation of our foreign policy, which means asserting control over sequestered policy cliques and submitting policy to the democratic process, and you cannot reduce the military budget. Do not reduce the military budget, and all the talk Sanders cares to indulge as to sensible domestic programs, reining in corporate power and so on will come to no more than the dreams of the impotent.
Sanders is too smart not to understand this, but he is not brave enough to face squarely the inescapable connection between foreign and domestic policies. At Consortium News, David Swanson just reviewed a book called “The Bern Identity,” by Will Bunch, and makes a persuasive case that Sanders is essentially unserious about a constructively alternative foreign policy posture. He stays safely clear of any suggestion he supports the Palestinian cause—strike three right there in my book—and is happy enough to back weapons contractors for the sake of a few jobs in Vermont.
“Bernie accepts the truly sociopathic notion that jobs (and jobs of a particular sort, as if a good socialist doesn’t know that the same dollars could produce more jobs if spent on peace) justify militarism,” Swanson writes. “Is it O.K. that that Bernie excuses Israel’s crimes because he’s Jewish?... Bernie voted against the 2003 attack on Iraq, but then worked against those in Congress trying to block funding for it. Was that the right compromise? Was that authenticity?”
What is Sanders’ point, one has to ask. I will leave this question and all of Swanson’s to the Sanders campaign to address. My point is that he is no exception to David Ignatius’ not-very-daring prediction: In the election to come we are offered only two alternatives: Either one votes in support of a foreign policy framework that has been progressively more militarized since 1945, or one does not vote.
With one exception—instantly regretted—I have chosen the latter of these alternatives since, decades ago, I was first eligible to enter a polling booth.
What have we got in these two fields of presidential aspirants? Why is Ignatius’ simple observation as to our foreign policy to come so regrettably right?
In my read we cannot answer this question without reference to three phenomena. We have 1) the Angry American, 2) the Fearful American and 3) the Exceptional American, the American who continues to believe the Providential hand rests reassuringly on 320 million American shoulders. These are to be considered separately, but they meet at the horizon, and it is only when we get there that we can truly grasp the drivers of this election cycle and what the result next November will give us for a foreign policy.
We have been reading about angry Americans since Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican aspirants took to the field last summer. All the right-ring heavyweights on all the (right-wing) opinion pages have weighed in. George Will, David Brooks, the notably incomprehensible Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal: They are all either angry or writing about those who are angry or both. Often they are angry at those who are angry, for the Angry American is class-identified and is thought to lower the tone among American rightists.
The only one who resists the presence of the Angry American, so far as I know, is Paul Ryan, the new House speaker: “We’re not angry,” Ryan insists in so many words. “We have a serious agenda to put in place.” But Ryan is merely the Angry American with a human face. Harping on the unworkable legislative programs of right-wing extremists is simply his way of sublimating anger.
The grievances provoking legitimate anger among working Americans are simply too many to list. But there is one aspect of this widely shared anger that we must not miss. In the Angry American, anger and indignation coexist with paralysis. It is anger in combination with inaction, such that we can postulate: People who are angry cannot act, while people who can act are not angry. This thought I will revisit.
What rouses the Angry American is perfectly plain: To put the point a little too simply, he or she is amid a class war and he is losing it—primarily because it is said to be un-American to acknowledge class warfare in our great nation, so the Angry American is unable to defend himself properly. Corporations, corporate donors, Congress, the Supreme Court, many state governments, the executive branch by way of its new trade initiatives and other such policies: These entities and institutions wage full-dress class warfare by any other name, and all the Angry American can think to do is vote by way of a system that has been rendered a meaningless reenactment of what was once a democratic process.
The Fearful American is the Angry American’s cousin. But the two face very different circumstances.
The Fearful American has a lot on his mind, of course: There are too many immigrants from Mexico and Central America, there are refugees from countries where terrorists breed, there are terror groups such as the Islamic State, there are national leaders such as Bashar al-Assad and nations such as Russia and Iran.
The problem with this list is it consists of conjured fears. None of what I have just noted stands as a legitimate cause for fear among Americans. To his credit, President Obama suggested as much, if weakly, during his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening. But the fearful American is as right, in the end, as the Angry American. There is a fear worth considering in 2016: It is the fear that America’s claim to exceptional status—in policy terms its primacy—is coming to an end.
This is not a conjured fear. It is a real fear, and precisely because it is real it is the fear that dare not speak its name. All the conjured fears, in my read, are but more sublimations of this, the unconjured one, the one we ought to be talking about but cannot.
Anger rules, then—anger and its cousin. And neither the Angry American nor the Fearful American is permitted to give voice to the sources of his or her anger or fear—which, among those most alert to their circumstances, makes them yet angrier.
This is what the 2016 campaigns come down to. The GOP candidates are all about anger, unabashedly—and this goes for even those such as Rubio, who affect a demeanor of considered thought. The Democratic candidates, as ever, are too gutless to counter the orthodoxy in any consequential fashion. Clinton, stripped of party affiliation, is what we used to call a Rockefeller Republican. Sanders, whose thinking is far superior, nonetheless takes exquisite care to cover himself against any charge from the right that he is soft on whatever it is we must be hard on at a given moment.
Put this in the foreign policy context, and we are talking about a fearful nation firing shots in anger. It remains only who pulls the trigger and how impulsively. (Or do I mean compulsively?) Ignatius’ phrase—“a more assertive U.S. foreign policy”—is the cotton-wool language of corporate media, far too muted. In my read, the new administration is very likely to mark a new phase in our increasingly swift descent into irrational conduct abroad.
This is emphatically so if we assume the election goes either to Clinton or any of the Republicans. As to Sanders, the thought that his spongy, unpersuasive thinking on foreign policy will equip him to bring Pentagon generals and others in our deep state under control is simply risible. Within six months they would have President Sanders fetching the coffee. Maybe Sanders knows this, having served 20-odd years in Washington, and sees little point in elaborating a foreign policy that would be far too sensible to prevail.
If American anger and fear are bound to find expression in our foreign policy, let’s look at what happens when we export them beyond our shores. Once abroad, we note immediately, the cousins travel together as one.
To begin with, we have different kinds of anger and fear. Americans are angry at Vladimir Putin and find him fearful, to take the most obvious example. It is virtually impossible to have a rational conversation with another American about the Russian president unless you evince a reassuring measure of anger and worry at the start. They are angry at Bashar al-Assad, whom we understand to be nothing more than a barrel-bombing slayer of anyone helpless who crosses his path.
On the other hand, they are neither angry at, nor especially fearful of, Xi Jinping, and the Chinese president is a far tougher cookie than Putin on his very crankiest day. They are not angry at Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the latest in the line of Egyptian tyrants, whose brutalities and repressions are the match of anyone’s in the region. They are not angry at Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, who now makes war against the Kurdish minority as he shreds the nation’s secular tradition and all but overtly supports the Islamic State. Or the Saudi monarchs. Or the Israeli prime minister and his openly apartheid administration.
And so on. Neither are they angry, of course, at those in Washington who ally us with all of the above—some of whom they have more or less created.
A top-drawer thinker named René Girard died last November, you may have noticed. French by birth, he taught at Stanford for many years. Among Girard’s most important concepts, developed in numerous books, was the force of what he called mimetic desire: We desire what we desire because other people desire it. We are mimics, in other words: Our wants are acquired.
Borrowing the thought and bending it slightly, we can think in terms of mimetic animosity. We are angry at Putin (or Assad or whomever) because others are angry at him. No need to understand how he may reflect Russian history or culture, or why Russian citizens consistently favor him by a margin of nearly 90 percent, or what he inherited from his predecessor, or what he is actually trying to do (as against what corrupt correspondents and semi-hysterical opinion-page writers have him doing). Being angry at Putin is the thing to do. This is mimetic animosity.
Mimetic animosity has two notable features. One, it is safe. Rarely will anyone challenge it. Two, it is typically, if not always, a sublimation. If you ask someone what he or she actually knows about a figure such as Putin —with certainty, by the evidence, in the proper context, from disinterested sources—the answer (once you get past the astonishing ignorance you have just exposed) strongly suggests you are talking to someone who is unable to direct his or her anger at its true object.
I fear for a world forced to live with the sublimated anger of Americans, which is what our foreign policy seems fated to deliver (if it does not already do so). And so to the true origin of American anger, which is right here at home, in our midst.
I can find no way to separate the anger of many Americans from their apathy—the lethargy that seems to take all the spring from our steps. Anger and inaction: There is no denying the prevalence among us of both, and it is important to consider them together.
Nor is it possible, in my view, to understand the apathetic Angry American unless we recognize in this figure a firm belief in American exceptionalism. Here we reach the horizon where the three things taken up in this essay meet.
One of the bedrock features of our exceptionalist consciousness is a belief in the perfection of our republic. From our Providentially guided revolution emerged a set of institutions that were exquisite in their workings by definition. They were eternal, and hence in no need of further change. De Tocqueville noted this about us in the 1830s: We had our revolution and want no more of it. All that is given us is and will remain as it should be.
Along with exceptionalist consciousness we find our universalism—another pair of cousins. Not only are we God’s chosen, but the rest of the world is fated to follow us. Americans are, in both of these ways, history’s highest achievements.
Our moment reminds me of the 1890s, the Gilded Age, but not only in the way most people make this comparison. Along with the anti-democratic power of rising corporations, the wealth and inequality, the prejudices, the urban squalor and all the rest came a fierce argument.
True-believing Americans asserted that all the Providential nations needed was a little tinkering around the edges, for its perfection remains intact if we simply let it be as God intended. In so many words, the Progressives responded, “Look. Forget about the Providential hand. All the corruption and injustice we see around us are humanly made. Our earthly republic requires us to think anew.” It was the hand of God vs. ordinary human agency.
This is our argument once again. And this is truly why so many of us are angry.
Our expectations have betrayed us. Exceptionalist ideology was a mere dream, the evidence of this being all around us, and many of us find it too bitter to wake up from it: Sleepwalking seems preferable. There is an unwillingness to surrender to the truth: Yes, America is exceptional, but this can be said of all nations one way or another, and ours is in no way exceptionally exceptional.
On Christmas Day George Will—the Washington Post’s truly exceptional pseud-in-residence—wrote a revealing column expressing some of the core assumptions that underlie our exceptionalist consciousness. It will help to note one of these.
Those who think people, by way of their governments, should address humanly made problems are “secular theists,” Will wrote, “gripped by the fatal conceit that they are wiser than society’s spontaneous experimental order.”
Will goes on to note “the secular creationists’ fallacious idea that because social complexity is the result of human actions, it must, or should, be the result of human design.” Citing an author named Matt Ridley, he continues, “Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing.”
Translation: Americans should not have to do anything other than be their exceptional selves in their exceptional republic, and those who think we ought to look at our problems with the idea of addressing them do not understand how, in our great country, all comes to the best all by itself.
This, readers, is why the Angry American, unable to act, walks among us. It is what the Fearful American is afraid of. They are angry and fearful because all is manifestly not for the best. They cannot act to resolve our many challenges because to do so would be to acknowledge that we are an unexceptional people like all others, and our institutions do not endure eternally without effort on our part. Human agency: The compulsion is to prove that the Providential republic does not require it.
There you have it. In my read, the anger and fear that cloak this election cycle like a blanket reflect what is everywhere at issue but nowhere spoken of: Our true subject in 2016 is our claim to exceptionalism. And since no candidate possesses the courage to assert that we and the rest of the world will be far better off when we are able to repudiate this claim, there is no real fight.
All is resistance to the reality. All is either approval or acquiescence as we assert our exceptionalist claims abroad, even as our corresponding claim to universalism rings ever more manifestly hollow. We infuse our foreign policy with these things ever more forcefully the more our uncertainties at home envelop us. If David Ignatius proves right, as I think he will, foreign policy will stand as America’s ultimate sublimation.