THE Ugly American is the title of a 1958 novel by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It is a lightly fictionalised account of US diplomatic failures in Southeast Asia that became a runaway bestseller and was distributed among his colleagues by a young senator by the name of John F. Kennedy.
The title refers not to the diplomatic corps but to an engineer who lived among the locals and understood why they were attracted to communism; it nonetheless rapidly became a byword for American arrogance abroad. The novel was set in a country called Sarkhan, which was assumed to represent Vietnam — well before it turned into a full-fledged disaster, partly thanks to precisely the kinds of bluster and betrayals portrayed in the book.
It is claimed that The Ugly American played a key role in persuading Kennedy, as president, to launch the Peace Corps. The book was turned into a worthy (but unsuccessful) film starring Marlon Brando the same year that JFK was assassinated. Within days of the murder, Malcolm X, defying an order from the Nation of Islam hierarchy to make no comment about the tragedy, called it out as an instance of “chickens coming home to roost”.
I was reminded of that remark when I came across one of the jokes doing the rounds in the wake of last week’s antics at the Capitol in Washington, which said that in view of current travel restrictions, the US had been obliged to attempt a domestic coup.
The Capitol crisis was just part of a trend.
And yes, it’s not hard to imagine the glee among many of those who have been loudly decrying the invasion of the hallowed chambers of Congress in Washington had similar events unfolded, for instance, at the Venezuelan national assembly in Caracas.
There have, inevitably, been plenty of wisecracks since last Wednesday’s events, but they have been drowned out by the relentless self-righteous hyperbole about coups, insurrections, sedition and domestic terrorism, capped by the disclaimer that “this is not us”.
Whether or not any of the other descriptions hold much water, ‘this’ is undoubtedly a large part of who you are. Sure, the mob inspired, instigated and unleashed by Donald Trumpelstiltskin was seeking to thwart democratic processes. But since when has it been un-American to do so?
The long list of postwar US interventions, military or otherwise, in every part of the world suggests that murder and mayhem in the interests of subverting the popular will is as American as apple pie. But there’s no dearth of domestic precedents either, even though they have invariably taken different shape.
The 19th-century American Civil War and its aftermath have repeatedly been cited in comments over the past week, and not without cause. The sight of a Confederate flag fluttering for the first time in the Capitol justifiably stirred up some angst. (Incidentally, there were also Israeli and Indian flags — at least one each — seen among the congregation, while one of the Capitol invaders was dressed in a hoodie that bore the legend ‘Camp Auschwitz’.)
But it’s hardy a secret that the Confederate cause has remained a part of American politics ever since a very different Republican Party’s attempted Reconstruction shuddered to a halt a dozen or so years after the Union triumphed in the Civil War. Liberated slaves and their descendants were effectively excluded from the electoral process — and frequently from civic life — for the next 100 years.
There was a similar, albeit more subtle, backlash after the civil rights movement scored some legislative successes in the 1960s. Particularly in the southern states, varying levels of voter suppression have been the norm in recent decades. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Georgia has been wrested from the Republican grasp in this month’s senatorial run-offs, albeit by narrow margins.
The two new seats mean the Senate will be equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, with incoming vice president Kamala Harris’s casting vote giving the Biden administration a potential majority. Hurrah? It has been suggested Joe Biden would rather have done without the extra pressure to act on any number of fronts that a congressional majority brings.
The early days after next Wednesday’s inauguration may be overshadowed by Trump’s trial in the Senate, once his second impeachment — a proud record, no doubt — proceeds through the house. Beyond that there’s a period as grey as Biden’s hair, and although the incoming administration will likely be far less incompetent than the outgoing one, it would be too optimistic to expect the healing touch that America requires, let alone the kind of salvation that would repair the damage that Trump has thrived on, wreaked almost without a break since the Reagan era.
The dystopian nightmare may noticeably recede with Tantrump’s exit, but it’s unlikely to disappear. Not least because, to paraphrase the sudden social media pariah, there are very ugly Americans on both sides of the overwrought (and overestimated) partisan divide.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021