The End of the American Century?
Trump and his supporters champion U.S. exceptionalism but have made us look hostile, weak, and fearful to the world. This perception will linger
This article originally appeared in Salon under a different title on January 10, 2016.
By Brian T. Edwards
The news that an al-Qaida recruitment video prepared in Somalia refers to anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and includes footage of Donald Trump shows the profound damage that the Republican front-runner is doing to America’s international image. Trump’s bearing is all swagger, but he and his zealous supporters project a weak and defensive stance to the world. They have redefined the United States as hostile and fearful.
The “American century” names an intimate connection between the international reach of American culture and the global power of the United States in economic, political and military terms. It is based on the idea that the popularity and attractiveness of American culture has positive political benefits for the United States.
But because of the global reach of U.S. culture and media in the digital age, Trump and his disaffected supporters’ message of rage and intolerance has become the new face of America.
How did we get here?
Over the past decade, from basements and home offices, alienated American voices took shape online. The Internet was the battleground. The skirmishes seemed petty: hostile comments and ad hominem verbal attacks. Some referred to these disgruntled Americans as “trolls,” because their manner is nasty and they seem to work best at night.
Conspiracy theorists, racists, anti-Semites, haters of Islam, and misogynists, these Americans are fueled by a combination of disorientation and resentment. The world has left them behind. They do not speak its languages and barely recognize their new surroundings. The familiarity of stereotypes and hate-filled slurs is their comfort.
They fashion themselves as a cultural right wing and defenders of American values. They support Trump, but other Republican candidates would like their endorsement. Marco Rubio panders to them when he calls liberal arts colleges “indoctrination camps” of the political left.
How could these disorganized and disempowered individuals take down such an edifice? Bringing down the American century is not something you can do by yourself.
This militia of the marginal used the greatest creation of the American century to bring about its downfall—the Internet. They relied on what has been called Web 2.0, the second generation of the Internet, which allowed users to generate content, whether through comment pages, social networking media, or blogs, GIFs and uploaded home videos. While champions of Web 2.0 laud its democratic potential and potential to spur creativity, this was a destructive group, whose manner was negative and goals were to tear down.
The American century was built on a positive aura, not hate. From the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood to Coke’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” America exported the promise of love.
In Henry Luce’s influential 1941 essay “The American Century,” the publishing magnate argued that American culture had a crucial role to play in world politics. Luce argued against the isolationists and the nativists when he suggested that we were already an international power: “American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.”
During the 20th century, those cultural products did work for both the United States and its corporate class, expanding markets on a global scale. There was a downside: the promise of the American dream was frequently but a mirage for minorities and foreigners who found a way to these shores. What’s more, that dream was propagated in large part by corporations who exploited the same world they sold these empty promises to: “Just do it.” “You deserve a break today.” “It’s the real thing.”
But the ingenuity of American creativity and the positive message could inspire and empower too. And some of our greatest corporations, including Google, Yahoo and eBay, were founded by immigrants to the United States.
Luce’s sense that the international reach of American culture had a role to play in creating and maintaining the conditions for the political supremacy of the U.S. was soon taken as a truism. During the Cold War, the State Department funded cultural tours by the so-called jazz ambassadors and exhibits of abstract expressionist paintings in countries where they feared communism might hold sway.
As the Cold War wound down, much of the state-funded cultural apparatus was dismantled. The U.S. Information Agency, which had been created in 1953 to prevent cultural programs from seeming like propaganda, was disassembled finally in 1999. The Cold War was over. We thought we had won.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, some commentators argued that we should bring back our Cold War cultural diplomacy, that in the battle for hearts and minds, we had a great tool.
So, Hillary Clinton could be found championing the hip-hop initiatives that looked a lot like the jazz tours of a half-century earlier. In 2011, commenting on a state-sponsored trip of a hip-hop artist to Damascus, she said: “Hip-hop is America. . . . I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.” As Secretary of State, she was early to embrace what was called digital diplomacy, with young staffers leading the charge.
Over the past decade and a half, I have been charting the fate of American cultural products in the Middle East and North Africa, with extensive research in the region during a remarkable time. From Fez to Tehran, young Arabs and Iranians are intimately familiar with American popular culture. As I argue in my new book, “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East,” a newer generation across the Middle East and North Africa made a distinction between America as a creator of cultural products and the United States as a geopolitical entity. That meant that through the 1990s and 2000s, they could continue to enjoy and consume our attractive culture without contradicting their increasing dismay regarding our policies in their region.
But as the Internet has developed as a space where comment boards and hate speech flourishes, that gap is closing.
As I reported in Salon last month, Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments —and the massive support they are receiving—are heard loud and clear in Muslim majority countries. Whether it is Trump’s, Rubio’s or those of the American governors who deny Syrian refugees entry to their states, these voices wipe out State Department efforts to convince the world that the war on terror is not a war on Muslims.
Supplemented by thousands of hateful comments by the militia of the marginal, and paired with massively influential products such as the hateful “Innocence of Muslims” video from 2012, the new American discourse of hate and fear wipes out decades of more hopeful and inspiring American cultural products.
Ironically, we have the greatest technological success of the American century to blame for the demise of the American century itself. Can we still harness the positive attitude of optimism, hope and ingenuity that represents the best of the previous era and restart a new relationship to the world based on respect, trust, and partnership?
- Brian T. Edwards is Crown Professor in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, where he is also director of the program in Middle East and North African studies. His new book “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East” has just been published by Columbia University Press.