The Ugly American's road trip: Donald Trump and America's declining culture

Even if Trump has managed to avoid major embarrassment on his foreign foray, he's still a national humiliation

Published May 23, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump embarked on his first trip overseas as president over the weekend, and it was only fitting that the president began the first leg of his trip in Saudi Arabia, the theocratic monarchy that American presidents — both Republican and Democrat — have long cozied up to in spite of its atrocious human rights record. President Trump arrived in Riyadh on Saturday, commencing a nine-day tour that will make stops in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily this week. Although the president has been reportedly dreading this trip and was reportedly “exhausted” by the end of the weekend, getting out of his own country at this moment may be a blessing after the terrible few weeks he’s had in Washington.

Foreign trips have always provided plenty of uncomfortable and cringeworthy moments (for instance) for the press corps, and a certain degree of awkwardness is inevitable when leaders from different cultures travel abroad. But many Americans seem to be feeling extra embarrassed by Donald Trump representing their country overseas, especially after eight years of a coolheaded cosmopolitan like Barack Obama, who was largely immune to awkwardness. Trump is, in many respects, the archetype Ugly American, and possesses all the worst qualities that have come to be associated with the stereotype. The president is vulgar, anti-intellectual, arrogant, vain, materialistic, shallow, racist, sexist, loud, offensive and deeply ignorant. And like the bumbling Ugly American tourist who lacks even the slightest interest or respect for the culture around him, Trump makes the rest of his compatriots look bad.

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So Americans are right to feel embarrassed. On the day the president’s trip began, Politico international affairs columnist Susan B. Glasser reported that the international community has come to increasingly view Trump as a clownish, blundering idiot who is in way over his head. “People here think Trump is a laughingstock,” a German said to Glasser, while Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told her that he was surprised “how rapidly the American brand is depreciating over the last 20 weeks.” According to Glasser, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reportedly told a former senior official that Trump “has a 12-second attention span,” and at this weeks NATO session, speakers have been told to keep their remarks to just two to four minutes for the attention-deficit president.

It is hard to overstate the damage Trump is currently doing to America’s global image, and though many thought the United States’ reputation couldn’t possibly sink any further than it did during the George W. Bush era, that was before the buffoonish billionaire arrived on the scene. The irony here, of course, is that Republicans constantly derided President Obama for apparently destroying America’s global standing in the world. Indeed, possibly the loudest critic was candidate Trump, who regularly declared (or tweeted) that nobody respected America under the leadership of Obama, and complained about “how poorly we’re perceived throughout the world.”

In reality, Obama slowly but surely rebuilt the country’s international reputation after the Bush years, and according to the Pew Research Center, America’s image improved markedly everywhere except Russia and the Middle East during the Obama era. One has to assume that when Trump told everyone that the world was “laughing at us,” this was a classic case of what psychologists call projection — because the world is definitely laughing at us now.

Truth be told, the United States merits the mockery and scorn and lack of respect. Though the majority of Americans who disapprove of President Trump doubtless feel embarrassed and dejected by what he is doing to their country’s reputation, the sad truth is that America largely deserves its bad name. And the loathsome Trump may be a more authentic representative of the United States and its culture than an intelligent, cosmopolitan and articulate man like Obama. (Whether you agree with his politics or not, it’s hard to deny those terms fit the former president).

Indeed, Trump’s meteoric political rise told us a great deal about American culture and society, and the billionaire reality TV star was and remains a uniquely American figure. What separates Trump from the rest of the pack of Ugly Americans is not any talent or innate ability, but his wealth and fame. These two qualities are revered more than anything else in the land of the free, and this enabled Trump to convince millions of voters that he was somehow qualified to be president. If he could run a successful business and make billions of dollars, the reasoning went, then surely he could run a government. (Trump, who knew nothing about government, genuinely appeared to believe this himself, and last month announced with apparent surprise that he thought the job would be easier than it is).

Of course, one doesn't have to be particularly intelligent to make a lot of money — especially not when you inherit a fortune from your father. In fact, Donald Trump would be much wealthier than he is today had he simply invested his money in the stock market 30 years ago. But in American society today, where businesspeople are idolized and money is seen as an ultimate value and measure of success, Trump was automatically thought fit for the highest office of the land.

Trump’s fame was just as essential to his political success as his businessman status. While the latter gave him undeserved credibility, the former earned him gratuitous attention. Celebrities are worshipped in America, and Trump’s “entertainment factor” was what originally made him frontrunner in the Republican primaries. The media covered the reality TV star for ratings, and the consuming public, ever eager to be entertained, ate it up (while his polls inexplicably surged). This was, simply put, the result of a superficial culture in decline that has become utterly obsessed with celebrity and fame; a phenomenon that was presciently described decades ago by social philosopher Erich Fromm:

In present-day Western society there is a peculiar interconnection between the narcissism of the celebrity and the needs of the public. The latter wants to be in touch with famous people because the life of the average person is empty and boring. The mass media live from selling fame, and thus everybody is satisfied; the narcissistic performer, the public, and the fame merchants.

Donald Trump is a product of American culture and society, which have been shaped and molded by our corporate capitalist economy over the past century. It was only fitting, then, that on Trump’s first day in Saudi Arabia he signed a $110 billion arms deal with the theocratic and oppressive monarchy, providing a nice shot in the arm to the military-industrial complex. The mighty dollar, it seems, can unite vastly different cultures — or at least the elites within those cultures who stand to benefit, whether it be billionaire plutocrats or feudalistic princes.

On his first trip overseas, Trump is displaying what a blithering and incompetent man-child he is, and in the process showing the world what a shallow, anti-intellectual and narrow-minded culture he comes from. Donald Trump is the quintessential Ugly American, and he was elected by an ugly America indeed.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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