On Feb. 17, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) delivered remarks to the Munich Security Conference on the subject of the declining West. In a rejection of nativism and isolationism, McCain called for the West to double-down and fight for the preservation of western, post-war values. McCain’s remarks offered a cleaned-up version of Western history. Yet, McCain rightly characterized America as the leader of the free world.
Some look at this statement as one of resources; but, America’s role as a cultural hegemon is more potent. No figure more clearly represents this culture than American President Donald Trump. In clipping the last threads of commitment to moral leadership, the new president has placed his influence behind figures and forces historically-opposed to the modern American ideal. Though that ideal rarely aligned with reality, the damage from its destruction would be disastrous.
Under the leadership of President Obama, America regained a favorable view amongst many European and developed nations. Obama, a global citizen and the child of an immigrant, understood the power America holds abroad as a symbol of opportunity and democracy. Though Obama’s use of drone warfare, surveillance and other tools of the modern state undermined his commitment to moral leadership, his successor has abandoned all efforts at maintaining a favorable American image.
While we have to face up to past and present maladies, debates over moral superiority can’t ignore America’s role as a hegemon. This outsized influence now promotes explicit isolationism and nativism and aids in their spread. The new president is using the influence of his office, while also providing a vacuum of leadership ready to be filled by anti-democratic powers.
Sen. McCain argued fellow Western leaders “need to face up to these realities, but this does not mean losing hope and retreating.” With the American president endorsing the alternative-fact universe and extremist positions, “Western leaders” will likely find it hard to counter domestic enemies of democracy.
The president’s seeming capitulation to Russia, hatred of the press and bigotry have erased the credibility regained since Nixon’s departure. In recent decades, no American president explicitly rejected the moral values to which Sen. McCain alluded. There was at least a façade of dedication to an expanding moral influence. Since Jan. 20, that façade has been replaced with outright support for the darkest influences of the post-war era. This new president has chosen to scrap the last remnants of America’s reputation as a home of opportunity.
In the opening scene of “The Godfather,” Italian immigrant Bonasera comes to Don Corleone to ask a favor. Before recounting how the system had failed to aid him in seeking justice for his daughter, the victim of assault, Bonasera says “I believe in America.”
Bonasera has faith in the romantic dream of America. Though the justice system failed him, he still sees America as undeniably great. There is a sense of the plausibility of the impossible in America. Romantic notions of a limitless land are core to domestic and foreign visions of America. The untapped potential of American cities and expanse of the bucolic heartland create a paradoxical dreamscape. Though resigned to fantasy for most, the image of America as a land of opportunity is unmistakable.
The age of instant connectivity and the ubiquity of media has made it so that even those far removed from this country are tuned in to the daily dumpster fire. Whereas those outside of the country could have an unobstructed, rosy view of America in the past, there is little to veil the current state of things. Instead of leading the world forward, Americans voted to seal that dream between two oceans and a concrete border-wall.
American politics, policy and culture will continue to influence. The new president’s preference for a nativist, isolationist stance puts this influence behind a dark reality and message. As America has fallen into the ideological trap that ravaged Europe decades ago and is in resurgence, the remaining glimmer of that dream is fading. In recognizing American influence, there has to be an organic rejection of these politics, a recognition of our sins and a restored appetite for social progress and leadership.