If Trump Can Do This for Foreign Policy, Imagine National Identity

Damon Linker welcomes President Trump’s refusal to portray American greatness in moral superiority:

Americans love to think well of themselves, especially when it comes to questions of moral purity. We imagine ourselves on the side of the angels, an exceptional nation that stands for human rights and democracy and against tyranny in all of its forms. Because of these assumptions, we like to divide the nations of the world into two categories: those belonging to the “free world” (of which the U.S. is the undisputed leader) and everyone else, ranging from the merely corrupt to the actively malevolent.

For the nations we place in the latter, most sinister category, the only supposedly acceptable outcome is isolation, quarantine, reprimand, and denunciation. The message is: We’re too good for you; you’re too foul for us. We won’t even talk to you. Or if we do talk to you, it will be in the form of chastisement and hectoring demands. And we certainly won’t trade with you. More likely we’ll impose economic sanctions, ensuring your people suffer and remain poor, because the internal workings of your country are our business, and the way we’ll force a change is to goad your people into rising up and overthrowing your government, and maybe even by helping them to do this through various covert means.

These moralistic assumptions frame discussion and analysis whenever an American president dares to gesture toward engaging in normal diplomatic relations with the leadership of non-democratic countries. Barack Obama faced it for talking with the governments of Iran and Cuba, and so did Ronald Reagan in his efforts to reach arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. Such acts of engagement are invariably ridiculed as telegraphing weakness or, worse, a capitulation to evil.

Does this mean that the United States is ordinary or even as depraved as any other country, like Russia or Korea?

The United States has many admirable qualities, but it does not belong in a distinct moral category from the other nations of the world, just as no one has appointed it judge, jury, and executioner of international justice, or authorized it to separate the righteous nations from the wicked.

That relative absence of moralism also helps Trump to avoid the hypocrisy to which America is especially prone. You know, the hypocrisy of lecturing other countries about their moral failings when we cultivate friendly and mutually advantageous ties with the theocratic totalitarians of Saudi Arabia, who are currently pummeling the poorest country in the Middle East (Yemen) with our blessings and logistical support. Never mind our own history of morally dubious actions at home and abroad, including the only battlefield use of atomic weapons in world history (against a civilian population no less), the dropping of incendiary bombs on city centers in Germany and Japan, the carpet bombing of Korea and Vietnam, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in violence unleashed by our invasion of the country. Even the relatively antiseptic drone warfare of the past decade has killed thousands of civilians in a long list of countries.

The point isn’t to suggest that the United States is exceptionally evil. It’s to suggest quite the opposite — that the United States isn’t particularly exceptional at all. We’re a well-meaning and extremely powerful nation that’s prone to the same faults as any other, including arrogance, hubris, foolishness, and callousness.

Linker doesn’t mention it, but the flip side of this moralism is the kind of moral outrage that now swamps evangelical commentary about the White House. They may not realize it, but to condemn Trump as wicked and perverse and his supporters as hypocritical is to claim implicitly that he is beneath the United States’ moral superiority, the city shining on the hill. If those who condemn Trump for moral failings (as opposed to illegal activity or unwise policy) could accept that the president is an crude New Yorker serving a nation that has all the challenges other countries face in a fallen world, they might find relief for their “redeemer nation” complex.

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