Another week, another disaster, which is the way it goes in America nowadays. Just before Memorial Day, it was President Trump’s unwillingness to reaffirm America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which calls for mutual protection among the allies. Last week it was his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, which puts the country in the company of Syria and Nicaragua as the only nonsignatories. The consensus was that the latter decision put ideology above science, and politics above everything. Trump was delivering on a promise he made to his base, and God knows he needs that base because he doesn’t have anyone else. The planet can go to hell.
The Trump Doctrine, if you want to call it that, has nothing to do with a global strategy, and everything to do with cultural resentments, which is why it appeals to the Trumpistas. In flipping his finger at the world, Trump was tapping into two deep and longstanding strains in America: going-it=alone-ism and anti-elitism. The miracle is that no demagogue has come along before Trump to work the same angles and wreak the same havoc. The tragedy is that now one has.
Here is what Trump draws upon: Americans have never much liked the idea of acting in concert, either with their fellow citizens or with citizens of the world. We prefer to go it alone. Indeed, the argument over what constitutes the bonds among Americans was one of the paramount issues at the nation’s creation and never quite went away. Back then, the initial tension was between the idea of a nation bound by customs, laws, language, culture and identification, and the idea of a confederation of states loosely bound by pragmatism.
The Founding Fathers not only debated this vigorously; Americans later fought a civil war over it, in which, as Carl Sandburg once said, the fundamental question was deciding whether the “United States are” or the “United States is.”
The same sort of argument—over fealty to some larger entity or only to oneself—has raged ever since in this country. Tocqueville thought individualism was one of the unique characteristics of America. It “disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends,” he wrote. “With this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the larger society to look after itself.”
If you want to understand why America has the shoddiest social safety net of any Western nation, you can start with the deep and abiding faith that you don’t owe anything to anybody. And if you want to understand why liberalism, with its emphasis on community, has had such a hard time gaining purchase here except when Americans are desperate, you can start there, too. You can’t afford health insurance? Too bad. I can. Comparing America to Europe, Toqueville noted that this overweening individualism was ruinous to a healthy, well-functioning society. He was right. It is also ruinous to a healthy, well-functioning world.
But this doesn’t mean Americans would wise up. Instead, a good many of them seem to have wised down. Conservatism subsists on the idea that it is every man for himself, both as a political proposition and as a moral one, and we have seen the consequences. But you don’t have to look at the political sphere to see the hold this idea has on the American mind. You can see it in the pop cultural sphere, too. While European and Asian films often feature communities, our movies generally disdain collective action, except in heist pictures and war movies, and even then there is typically a leader rather than a democratic ensemble.
Our heroes are loners, men against the world, facing down the odds and their enemies. Even the basic visual unit of our films is the close-up, which separates, rather than the group shot, which unites. Our most iconic archetype may be the Western gunman, and our most iconic actor John Wayne, in whom cultural individualism and political conservatism conflated. This is how we are taught to think of ourselves. It is only because studios must attract world markets to offset the films’ gigantic budgets that the Marvel Universe and the Star Wars movies centralize collectivity. Still, this is a concession.
You have to give Trump credit. As a product of popular culture himself and a beneficiary of the lone man appeal, he grasped the power of this idea and politicized it. His invocation of America First, its pro-Nazi, isolationist antecedents notwithstanding, is an extremely appealing blandishment for people imbued with a sense of individualism and going-it-aloneness. Playing upon the American predisposition for singular heroism, Trump, by scorning NATO and pulling out of the Paris accord, was effectively turning America itself into a John Wayne movie. It was America against the world, which is just the way a lot of us seem to like it, though, thankfully, not most, according to polls.
But Trump did something else. He heaped onto individualism another, equally powerful piece of cultural exceptionalism: the idea that we not only didn’t need anyone else, but also that when we did act in concert with other nations, America was always being taken advantage of.
In effect, he said, we were being played for suckers. That touched a nerve. Americans, observed Henry James, who wrote movingly about American innocence and European deception, are the “most addicted to the belief that other nations in the world are in a conspiracy to undervalue them.” Or as Trump put it, the other nations were “laughing at us,” even if they were only laughing at him.
Like going-it-aloneness, this distrust has deep American roots. Despite the essential help France provided during the Revolution, Americans were suspicious of Europe, and the new country was in a way designed to be the Anti-Europe, without European affectations, airs or aestheticism. Americans were honest and plain-spoken; they despised elites and their condescension. “They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism,” Tocqueville wrote, “but they will not endure aristocracy.”
This anti-elitism has its pop cultural manifestations, too. One of the staples of American film comedy, from Charlie Chaplin to the Marx Brothers to Bill Murray to Melissa McCarthy, is the ridicule of one’s alleged social betters and the upending of the prevailing social order. Just think of A Night at the Opera. Then think of Trump withdrawing from the climate accord: America was not only exercising its individualistic brawn, but it was also showing all these arrogant smarty pants, including Barack Obama, who signed the accord, that this country wasn’t going to let them tell America what to do. They could all go shove it.
Of course, it is ignorance to think you can go it alone in the world, and petulance to think that every other nation is some cagey manipulator bent on soaking us Yankee rubes. But it is nevertheless rather amazing that when it comes to foreign policy, at least, our government has almost always resisted the old-fashioned individualist/isolationist/anti-elitist impulse in favor of a more modern and expansive one. I am sure our previous leaders realized that know-nothing populism sounded great: the United States against the world. And in the super-rhetorical, nonsensical political environment in which we now live, it can certainly rouse a big chunk of the populace. But common sense, of which our president has none, suggests it just isn’t viable. What works in the movies doesn’t necessarily work in the real world—as we are about to discover.
Trump’s supporters are right when they say the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord didn’t have anything to do with climate. They are wrong, however, when they say it has to do with jobs, the economy and American autonomy. What it really is about is asserting that America is bigger than the world and can do whatever it wants, by itself, without any other nation’s help, and with demonstrating that America under Trump will treat every nation as if it were populated by a bunch of elitists trying to outsmart us. It isn’t nationalism Trump is selling. It’s “up-yours-ism.”
Of course, it won’t bother Trump’s supporters that America, in shunning the world, is shredding the fragile fabric that united us with Europe and more or less kept the peace since World War II. And it surely won’t bother them that their president, in dissing the Germans and French and other nations and tearing up an accord promoted by liberals who are perforce among those snobby elitists, will be threatening the future of the earth.
We live in a time when policy is superseded by attitude, when America’s own interests, however much our president may proclaim them, are superseded by his whims. It is a new and dangerous time. And the demise of the planet is a small thing when weighed against America’s wrong-headed proclivities and Trump’s own overwhelming resentments.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.