With our powerful founding story, our unusual reverence for our Constitution, our geographic isolation, and our two centuries of relative economic success, modern Americans have long been convinced that liberal democracy, once achieved, was impossible to reverse. The founders themselves were not so certain: their beloved classical authors taught them that history was circular, that human nature was flawed, and that special measures were needed to prevent democracy from sliding back into tyranny. But American history, to most modern Americans, does not feel circular. On the contrary, it is often told as a tale of progress, forward and upward, with the Civil War as a blip in the middle. Cultural despair does not come easily to a nation that believed in the Horatio Alger myth and Manifest Destiny. Pessimism is an alien sentiment in a state whose founding documents, the embodiment of the Enlightenment, contain one of the most optimistic views of the possibilities of human government ever written.
More than that: optimism about the possibilities of government has been coded into our political culture since 1776. In that year it was not at all “self-evident,” in most of the world, that all men were created equal. Nor was it obvious, in 1789, that “we the people” were capable of forming a “more perfect union,” or even that “we the people” were capable of governing ourselves at all. Nevertheless, a small group of men clustered on the eastern seaboard of what was then a wild continent wrote those words and then built a set of institutions designed to make them come true. They were sanguine about human nature, which they did not believe could be perfected. Instead, they sought to create a system, stuffed with checks and balances, that would encourage people to behave better. Neither then nor later did their lofty words always reflect reality. Neither then nor later did their institutions always function as intended. But over time, the words proved powerful enough and the institutions flexible enough to encompass ever larger circles of fully vested citizens, eventually including not just men but women, people without property or wealth, former slaves, and immigrants from every culture.
When the institutions failed, as they sometimes did, the words were recited and repeated in order to persuade people to try again. Abraham Lincoln spoke of America as the “last, best hope of earth.” Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ ”
From the very beginning, there was also a conviction that this new nation would be different from others. Thomas Jefferson believed that democracy in America would succeed, even when it had failed in France, because the unique history and experiences of Americans had prepared them for it. He thought Americans, “impressed from their cradle” with the belief in democratic self-government, were special precisely because they were isolated from Europe and its cycles of history—“separated from the parent stock & kept from contamination.”
Others, from de Tocqueville to Reagan, reinterpreted this “exceptionalism” to mean different things. But what really made American patriotism unique, both then and later, was the fact it was never explicitly connected to a single ethnic identity with a single origin in a single space. Reagan’s 1989 “shining city on a hill” speech, remembered as the peak moment of “American greatness” and “American exceptionalist” rhetoric, clearly evoked America’s founding documents and not American geography or an American race. Reagan called on Americans to unify not around blood and soil but around the Constitution: “As long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours.” But from the beginning there were also alternatives available, different versions of what America is or should be, different definitions of “the nation.”
Like a dissonant voice inside a swelling chorus, there have always been groups whose dislike of American ideals ran very deep, reflecting more than mere exhaustion with the government of the day. Since 1776, some have always found the American project naive, frightening, oppressive, or false. Tens of thousands of Loyalists fled to Canada after the Revolution; the Confederate states seceded. For some, disappointment with America was so profound, and rage at America was so intense, that it led them to draw drastic conclusions and take drastic actions.
In the past century and a half, the most despairing, the most apocalyptic visions of American civilization usually came from the left. Inspired by European thinkers and movements—Marxism, anarchism, Bolshevism—the American radicals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries mourned the arrival of a hellish modernity and deplored the failure of American capitalism to ameliorate it. The anarchist Emma Goldman gave voice to a whole class of intellectuals and activists when she wrote in 1917 of what she saw as America’s sham institutions: “A free Republic! How a myth will maintain itself, how it will continue to deceive, to dupe, and blind even the comparatively intelligent to its monstrous absurdities.”
Goldman was especially disgusted by American military adventures abroad, and by the American patriotic language used to justify them. “What is patriotism?” she asked in an essay published in 1908: Is it “the place of childhood’s recollections and hopes, dreams and aspirations?” No, she concluded, it is not:
If that were patriotism, few American men of today could be called upon to be patriotic, since the place of play has been turned into factory, mill, and mine, while deafening sounds of machinery have replaced the music of the birds. Nor can we longer hear the tales of great deeds, for the stories our mothers tell today are but those of sorrow, tears, and grief.
She believed the American dream was a false promise and America itself a place of “sorrow, tears, and grief”—beliefs that led her, initially, to extreme forms of protest. Her comrade and partner, Alexander Berkman, went to prison for a failed attempt to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick; Berkman was also associated with a failed attempt to bomb the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Though she later repudiated violence—and was deeply shocked by the realities of the Bolshevik revolution, once she encountered them—Goldman expressed some understanding, in 1917, for the “modern martyrs who pay for their faith with their blood, and who welcome death with a smile, because they believe, as truly as Christ did, that their martyrdom will redeem humanity.”
That kind of language found its way, 50 years later, into the thinking of the Weather Underground. In 1970, this group of radicals threw Molotov cocktails at the home of a New York Supreme Court justice, issued a “Declaration of War” against the United States, and accidentally blew up a Greenwich Village town house while making bombs. Like the anarchists of an earlier era, they had no faith in the American political system or its ability to deliver meaningful change. In their most famous statement, Prairie Fire, they wrote of the “deadening ideology of conformism and gradualism,” which “pretends to reassure the people” by spreading conciliatory, centrist ideas. This “reformism”—by which they meant the normal activities of democratic politics—”assumes the essential goodness of US society, in conflict with the revolutionary view that the system is rotten to the core and must be overthrown.” The Weathermen did not assume the essential goodness of US society. They believed the system was rotten to the core. Sharing Lenin’s contempt for elected politicians and legislatures, they were frustrated and bored by the idea of building constituencies or seeking votes.Since Trump doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.
They were even more angered by the notion of “American exceptionalism,” which they denounced, in Prairie Fire, by name. In their minds, America could not be special, it could not be considered different, it could not be an exception. The iron laws of Marxism dictated that, sooner or later, the revolution would arrive in America too, bringing to an end America’s pernicious influence on the world. Their anger at the very word exceptionalism has its echo in the language found in a part of the political left today. The historian Howard Zinn, the author of a history of America that focuses on racism, sexism, and oppression, has gone out of his way to denounce the “myths of American exceptionalism.”
Dozens of articles have been published with variations of that same headline in the past two decades. That dislike of America echoes and resonates in endless colloquia and seminars and public meetings, wherever those disappointed with the American idea now gather.
But there is another group of Americans whose disgust with the failures of American democracy has led them to equally radical conclusions, and these also have an echo today. If the left located its gloom in the destructive force of capitalism, the power of racism, and the presence of the US military abroad, the Christian right located its disappointment in what it perceived as the moral depravity, the decadence, the racial mixing, and above all the irreversible secularism of modern America.
The writer Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian as well as an acute, critical analyst of “political” Christianity, has argued that a part of the evangelical community now genuinely believes that America is lost. Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter who is another person now estranged from former colleagues, describes the views of his former friends like this: “A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can hasten that day, or ultimately save a doomed world.” Until Judgment Day itself, in other words, there is no point in trying to make society better, and indeed it is probably going to get worse. Eric Metaxas, an evangelical talk radio host, argued that a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 would herald the end of the republic: “The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the Revolution when the nation began.”
Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the president of Liberty University, used even more elaborate language during the Obama presidency: “I believe we are in the midnight hour as far as God’s clock is concerned or we may be in the last minutes when you see how quickly our country is deteriorating, how quickly the world is deteriorating morally, especially during this administration, we have seen that it has taken like a nosedive off of the moral diving board into just the cesspool of humanity.”
This strand of deep right-wing pessimism about America is not entirely new. A version of these same views has been offered to Americans repeatedly, over a period of three decades, by many other speakers and writers, but most famously by Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan is not an evangelical Protestant, but rather a Catholic who shares the same apocalyptic worldview. In 1999, Buchanan announced that he was resigning from the Republican Party and running for the presidency at the head of the Reform Party. In his announcement speech, he lamented the loss of the “popular culture that undergirded the values of faith, family, and country, the idea that we Americans are a people who sacrifice and suffer together, and go forward together, the mutual respect, the sense of limits, the good manners; all are gone.” In more recent versions of this lament, he has been more specific about his cultural despair, as he was in the spring of 2016:
In the popular culture of the ’40s and ’50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific. The world has been turned upside-down for white children. In our schools the history books have been rewritten and old heroes blotted out, as their statues are taken down and their flags are put away.
Buchanan’s pessimism derives partially from his sense of white decline but also, like some of those diametrically opposed to him on the left, from his dislike of American foreign policy. Over the years he has evolved away from ordinary isolationism and toward what seems to be a belief that America’s role in the world is pernicious, if not evil. In 2002, he told a television audience, using language that could have equally come from Noam Chomsky or a similar left-wing critic of America, that “9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted.”Beneath the surface of the American consensus, the belief in our founding fathers and the faith in our ideals, there lies another America—Buchanan’s America, Trump’s America—one that sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship.
Stranger still, a man who resisted false Soviet narratives for many decades fell hard for a false Russian narrative, created by Putin’s political technologists, that Russia is a godly, Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity. Never mind that only a tiny percentage of Russians actually go to church, or that fewer than 5 percent say they have ever read the Bible; never mind that Russia is very much a multiethnic, multilingual state, with a far larger Muslim population than most European countries; never mind that Chechnya, a Russian province, is actually governed by sharia law, or that its government forces women to wear veils and tortures gay men; never mind that many forms of evangelical Christianity are actually banned.
The propaganda—the photographs of Putin paying homage to an icon of Our Lady of Kazan, for example, or the incorporation of religious services into his inaugurations—worked on Buchanan, who became convinced that Russia was an ethnic nationalist state of a sort superior to America, which he describes with disgust as a “multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual ‘universal nation’ whose avatar is Barack Obama.”
Like those who live on the extreme edges of the American far left, some of those who live on the extreme edges of the far right have long been attracted to violence. There is no need to rehearse here the history of the Ku Klux Klan, to tell the stories of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, or to describe the myriad individuals and militia movements who have plotted mass murder, and continue to plot mass murder, in the name of rescuing a fallen nation. In 2017, an Illinois militia set off a bomb at a Minnesota mosque. In 2018, a man who believed Jews were plotting to destroy white America murdered eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
In January 2019, a group of men calling themselves “the Crusaders” plotted to put a bomb in an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, because they hoped to murder a large number of Somali refugees. These groups and movements were also inspired by a conviction that democracy is worthless, that elections cannot bring real change, and that only the most extreme and desperate actions can stop the decline of a certain vision of America.
By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left—their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change—met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy. Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump. Two years earlier, Trump had railed against American failure, and called for a solution Trotsky would have appreciated: “You know what solves [this]? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have . . . riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
Four years before that, his adviser Steve Bannon, who has openly compared himself to Lenin, spoke menacingly of the need for war: “We’re gonna have to have some dark days before we get to the blue sky of morning again in America. We are going to have to take some massive pain. Anybody who thinks we don’t have to take pain is, I believe, fooling you.” In a 2010 speech, he even made a direct reference to the Weathermen, referencing Prairie Fire and quoting from the Bob Dylan song that gave them their name:
It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie and lighting a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November.
Trump’s inaugural address, written by a team of his advisers—Bannon among them—also contained both left and right strands of anti-Americanism. It included left-wing disgust for the “Establishment,” which had “protected itself, but not the citizens of our country”: “Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” It also reflected the evangelical despair about the dire moral state of the nation, “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
The inaugural speech did not directly express a longing for a cleansing episode of violence. But the speech on “Western civilization” that Trump delivered in Warsaw a year later, in July 2017—the one Bardaji and his friends helped write—most certainly did. Trump, who seemed surprised by some of what he was reading from the teleprompter (“Think of that!” he marveled at a mention of the Polish origins of Copernicus), was clearly not the author.
But the real authors, including Bannon and Stephen Miller, used some of the same language as they had in the inaugural: “The people, not the powerful . . . have always formed the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of our defense,” they wrote, as if Trump himself were not a wealthy, powerful elite businessman who had dodged the draft and let others fight in his place. In a passage describing the Warsaw Uprising—a horrific and destructive battle in which, despite showing great courage, the Polish resistance was crushed by the Nazis—they had Trump declare that “those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense.” The ominous overtone was hard to miss: “each generation” means that patriots in our generation will have to spill their blood in the coming battle to rescue America from its own decadence and corruption too.
Trump himself contributes new elements to this old story. To the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the far left he adds the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world. Trump has no knowledge of the American story and so cannot have any faith in it. He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.
In a 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, he expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, using a classic form of “whataboutism.” “But he’s a killer,” said O’Reilly. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied. Two years earlier, he expressed a similar thought in another television interview, this time with Joe Scarborough. “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader,” he said of Putin, “unlike what we have in this country… I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know.”
This way of speaking—“Putin is a killer, but so are we all”—mirrors Putin’s own propaganda, which often states, in so many words, “Okay, Russia is corrupt, but so is everyone else.” It is an argument for moral equivalence, an argument that undermines faith, hope, and the belief that we can live up to the language of our Constitution. It is also an argument that is useful to the president, because it gives him the license to be a “killer,” or to be corrupt, or to break the rules “just like everyone else.” On a trip to Dallas I heard a version of this from one of the president’s wealthy supporters. Yes, she told me, he is corrupt—but so, she believed, were all of the presidents who went before him. “We just didn’t know about it before.” That idea gave her—an upstanding citizen, a law-abiding patriot—the license to support a corrupt president. If everybody is corrupt and always has been, then whatever it takes to win is okay.
This, of course, is the argument that anti-American extremists, the groups on the far-right and far-left fringes of society, have always made. American ideals are false, American institutions are fraudulent, American behavior abroad is evil, and the language of the American project—equality, opportunity, justice—is nothing but empty slogans. The real reality, in this conspiratorial view, is that of secretive businessmen, or perhaps “deep state” bureaucrats, who manipulate the voters into going along with their plans, using the cheesy language of Thomas Jefferson as a cover story. Whatever it takes to overthrow these evil schemers is justified.
In Prairie Fire, the Weather Underground inveighed against “the Justice Department and White House–CIA types.” Now Trump does the same. “You look at the corruption at the top of the F.B.I.—it’s a disgrace,” he told Fox and Friends two years into his presidency. “And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from—but at some point I won’t.” Later on, he didn’t.
This form of moral equivalence—the belief that democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy—is a familiar argument, and one long used by authoritarians. Back in 1986, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a scholar, intellectual, and Reagan’s UN ambassador, wrote of the danger both to the United States and to its allies from the rhetoric of moral equivalence that was coming, at that time, from the Soviet Union. Guns, weapons, even nuclear warheads were dangerous to democracies, but not nearly as dangerous as this particular form of cynicism: “To destroy a society,” she wrote, “it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions.” If you believe that American institutions are no different from their opposite, then there is no reason to defend them. The same is true of transatlantic institutions. To destroy the Atlantic alliance, the community of democracies, she wrote, “it is only necessary to deprive the citizens of democratic societies of a sense of shared moral purpose which underlies common identifications and common efforts.”
Trump’s victory in 2016 was the victory of exactly this form of moral equivalence. Instead of representing the shining city on the hill, we are no different from the “killers” of Putin’s Russia. Instead of a nation that leads “the citizens of democratic societies,” we are “America First.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the heart of a great international alliance for good, we are indifferent to the fate of other nations, including other nations that share our values. “America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe,” wrote Trump, or his ghostwriter, back in 2000. “Their conflicts are not worth American lives.” That’s not an indictment of the Iraq War. That’s an indictment of America’s involvement in the world going back to the beginning of the twentieth century, an indictment of America’s involvement in two world wars and the Cold War, a return to the xenophobia and inward-looking isolationism of the 1920s, the era when Trump’s father was arrested for rioting with the Ku Klux Klan.
And this is what Trump has proven: beneath the surface of the American consensus, the belief in our founding fathers and the faith in our ideals, there lies another America—Buchanan’s America, Trump’s America—one that sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. This America feels no attachment to other democracies; this America is not “exceptional.” This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described. The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair.
The surprise is not that this definition of America is there: it has always existed. The surprise is that it emerged in the political party that has most ostentatiously used flags, banners, patriotic symbols, and parades to signify its identity. For the party of Reagan to become the party of Trump—for Republicans to abandon American idealism and to adopt, instead, the rhetoric of despair—a sea change had to take place, not just among the party’s voters, but among the party’s clercs.
From Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Anne Applebaum.