The Ugly American: A Perspective in 2015

In 1958, The Ugly American was a popular novel. The book told the story of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Sarkhan, a fictional country in Southeast Asia, who lost a battle against communism due to its narrow, chauvinistic American-centric approach to dealing with the culture and conditions of that country.

In 2015, Donald Trump is playing The Ugly American. He is doing so by appealing to the darker side of the American citizenry and to our lesser angels.

This is not a fictional work. But, it does tell a compelling story about the conditions in this country and the battle for the heart and soul of America and the American dream today.

Trump has been the subject of much criticism lately due to his failure to correct a questioner at a campaign event in New Hampshire who maligned Muslims as a group and called President Obama a Muslim. There is no doubt that candidate Trump mishandled this situation.

The underlying and overriding issue, however, is not what this incident reveals about Trump but about the supporters with whom he is so popular. We described those backers, in a recent blog, as follows:

Trump has struck a responsive chord with the angry and the alienated voter who is completely disenchanted and dissatisfied with the performance of the government on all fronts and at all levels. The Tea Party is part of this constituency but it is much larger than that. He speaks for and to many who feel excluded or believe their influence as a majority is diminishing.

Richard Skinner, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins and George Washington Universities, provides insights on the pyschographics of this group in a recent Brookings blog. Skinner puts forward the following hypotheses regarding those attracted to Trump.

They are:

  • Authoritarian -- "Less tolerant of minority groups, more fearful of threats to order, and more likely to see morality in black-and-white terms."
  • Ethnocentric - Favoring their own racial or ethnic group above others. Skinner notes that Trump enjoys "an alarming level of support from white supremacists."
  • Non-ideological -- Less informed voters who are "more likely to have a grab bag of contradictory and incoherent attitudes."
  • Distrustful -- Of all things political. They are "willing to hold on to the government programs that benefit them," but resist initiatives that might help others.
  • Negative Partisans -- More likely to dislike strongly the opposite party.

We should point out that Skinner's characterizations are hypotheses rather than research based. Nonetheless, based upon the various demographic studies that we have seen, they seem to be relatively accurate.

A Real Clear Politics poll indicates that Trump supporters in general are not "ideological" and that they are a "bit older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican." That poll also shows that Trump is drawing his support not from a mainstream conservative candidate such as Jeb Bush, but from those with the strongest appeal to tea party favorites such as Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

Some commentators have drawn an equivalency between the supporters of Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. There is a similarity in that both groups might be depicted as "populist" in nature comprised of individuals who are looking to an outsider for a solution.

But, the similarity ends there. The Trump support comes primarily from voters who see government as the source of most evil and those different from themselves as the enemy. In contrast, the Sanders support comes primarily from those who see government as a potential problem-solver and the enemy as a lack of opportunity and equality.

This dissimilarity brings us to the construct and concept of American greatness. The theme for the Trump campaign is "Make America Great Again."

Trump has offered few substantive positions or policy positions on what would be required to accomplish this. Based upon, his public pronouncements though it appears his actions would include:

  • Building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. and deporting all illegal immigrants
  • Belittling those who disagree with you -- especially those of the opposite gender
  • Elevating and imposing particular religious beliefs over those granted to citizens in the Bill of Rights
  • Talking tough to the rest of the world
  • Eliminating the non-existent connection between childhood vaccinations and autism

Call us skeptical -- cynical even. But, we are not persuaded in the slightest that this constitutes an agenda for greatness. In our opinion, what has made America great is what will make America greater.

The elements of this nation's greatness include: our rights and responsibilities as citizens; our democratic values; immigration; religious freedom; equality of opportunity; upward mobility; an unrivalled system of higher education; entrepreneurs; innovation; and an unending commitment to "creating a more perfect union." (We have written at length on how to leverage these and other factors for greatness in our two books: Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen's Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage and Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again.)

Michael Gerson, national columnist and former top aide to President George W. Bush writes, "The summer of Trump has been a season of toxicity, ugliness and racially charged resentment." It has been a period of transcendence for The Ugly American in one political party

After the CNN Republican debate -- as we move from the Summer to the Fall of 2015 -- there is a glimmer that a shift may be starting from ugliness to constructiveness. It is a necessary shift both for the future of the Republican Party and of this nation.

As we approach 2016: It is time for optimism not pessimism. It is time for seriousness not superficiality. It is time for authenticity not artifice. It is a time for unity not division.

It is time for bi-partisanship and to listen to leaders from both sides of the aisle who have challenged us to work together to realize that greatness that is America.

It is time to remember and heed this admonition from Ronald Reagan:

I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.

It is time to remember and heed this admonition from Bill Clinton:

We need a new spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. If we have no sense of community the American dream will continue to wither. Our destiny is bound up with the destiny of every other American.

It is time for the triumph of the Beautiful American over the Ugly American.

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