Is America becoming a developing country? We’re seeing increasing evidence of reverse convergence. We used to think that the developing world would in time become like America, but it now seems that the United States has developed an emulation complex of its own. What has not been explained are the reasons.
In some fundamental areas America does resemble a traditional society, with its belief in transcendence and its quaint ways of enforcing justice and delivering public goods. The US executes prisoners on a scale matched only by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Guns are more readily available than in Pakistan and more than half of Americans pray every single day. No other state spends so much money on health care, yet Americans’ life expectancy keeps falling.
Not long ago, it was hoped that Barack Obama could play the role of modernizer, an Ataturk of the South Side. When Obama accused his countrymen of clinging to guns and religion, progressives hoped he could convince them to release their grip. Under Donald Trump, they have embraced them all the more fervently.
‘This is not decay. This is organized destruction,’ attorney general William Barr recently said, echoing the rhetoric of Tehran. ‘Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.’
More obviously, asking the president of Ukraine to investigate a rival for political reasons goes against everything that Washington has been promoting in the developing world for decades: the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Trump thinks elections are a fight with no or few rules and never tries to hide what he does.
And yet this is only half the story. Obviously the United States has not yet become one of the developing countries it so often resembles. William Barr may speak like an ayatollah, but homosexuals are not ritually executed in the National Mall. Though Trump’s tricks are those of aspiring autocrats worldwide, Americans don’t have to toe an official line. The opposite may be the case: when Trump plays the role of the aspiring autocrat, others must play the role of the resistance. As the Chinese joke goes, when a Chinese and an American journalist meet, the American boasts that in America he can attack the president without fear.
‘Yes,’ responds his Chinese colleague, ‘but can you praise him without fear?’
In the American liberal tradition, the presidency is under strict constitutional limits. Once entertainment takes over, however, once politics becomes a game. The purpose of entertainment is to develop the conflicts and drama that keep an audience hooked. Limiting what contestants can do is the last thing you want. Normalcy, regularity and procedure become hindrances to success.
A presidency built on high drama inevitably leads to a final confrontation for the ultimate prize. Could this become the most addictive presidency in history without a cracking season finale? Hardly.
America sometimes resembles an exotic land where people still believe in angels or the Devil and where politicians have no sense of limits. If America is losing its institutional bearings, is it becoming a traditional society — or something newer and stranger?
When modern societies purged themselves of religious piety and autocratic politics, they chose to sacrifice some of what makes life interesting. Better to live in Switzerland than in Russia or Iran. But maybe it is in contemporary America that we see the ultimate bargain.
America ceaselessly depicts its own collapse in historical fictions: superhero movies, and movies of disaster natural and manmade. Its current political travails are in the same genres. Entertaining and even engrossing as these fictions are, they are not reality. America is becoming not Russia or Iran, but a television show about a place much like Russia or Iran. The images may be shocking and spectacular, but American life continues more or less as before.
While in China or Italy the new coronavirus was regarded as a technical problem to be solved, in America it quickly became a great dramatic narrative. The country seemed to take its cues from movies such as Contagion. The president repeating nothing is wrong while events on the screen show otherwise, the race against the clock to avert catastrophe, and even that Hollywood classic: how divisions must be overcome by means of a common endeavor.
For weeks, Trump was criticized for his attempts to create an alternate reality where the outbreak was not taking place, but in a very obvious way the whole country was doing exactly that. Comparing the reaction in the United States to that in other countries, what strikes me is how the virus is almost irrelevant. What matters is what the different characters think, say and do. The clash between those characters and the world, and their mental conflicts. The narrative digressions: on whether Trump himself has been infected, for example. Just like in a disaster movie or television series, the epidemic provides a backdrop for action.
Trump offers Americans the virtual experience of a nationalist regime without its real-world consequences. Perhaps this is just the beginning. Trump is not new: what is new is the theme park Trumpland, which may well be replaced by something similar in the future, a Trumpland of the left.
Democrats are deeply divided on how to respond to Trumpland. Joe Biden describes the Trump presidency as an existential threat to the American regime while simultaneously arguing that removing Trump from office will make it all go away, as if fixing the collapse of the liberal system is like turning off the television or the computer. Bernie Sanders offers a highly structured simulation that is just as complex and rich as Trumpland. He seems to me a better response to Trump because he is playing the same game. To the virtual experience of nationalism he has responded with the equally virtual experience of a socialist regime.
The new dispensations opposes the exhausted medium of liberalism and its logic of destruction. Rather than sticking to neutral procedures and promoting institutional frameworks devoid of substantive content, new generations of Americans are in love with the idea of designing and building imaginary worlds.
In contemporary America there is something for every taste: techno-utopians dreaming of the colonization of space and eternal life, but also those convinced they can finally prove that the earth is flat. Socialism is popular for the first time in a century, but so is the anarchism of crypto currencies. The left praises the intelligence community, while the right lionizes trade tariffs. Local communities are in many cases thriving, even as more and more people lose hope in national politics. As larger chunks of policy come under the effective control of local governments, companies and universities, American life may enter a new era of radical experimentation.
After liberalism, the goal of the state resembles that of a scriptwriter: to bring together all the different characters and stories, deciding which should have room to grow and which should play a supporting role or be moved to the background. Within the democratic process, these choices are constantly open to revision, just as a television series is constantly trying to adapt to viewers. Democracy becomes less about the incorporation of input from voters, and more a constant appeal to viewers with new content, new projects and new possibilities. As former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said, ‘We need to change the channel from the show that we have all been watching.’
Bruno Maçães was Portugal’s minister for Europe and a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. His book History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America will be published in the US in September.