“The Ugly American,” a 1958 book by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, depicted the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia during the height of the Cold War. While the one hero, Homer Atkins, was a "beautiful" and deeply dedicated person, America’s image suffered at the hands of the rest of the organization. To those of us back home, America seemed healthy and robust, but in other parts of the world we were seen as ugly, obnoxious, arrogant and rude.
In the following years under Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, a softer, more gracious national image emerged, and around the world we were greeted with kindlier eyes. Maybe we weren’t the ogres so many others had painted us to be. And then came our invasion of Iraq and our avowed intention to recreate the world in our own image, supported by our troops lodged in scores of other nations. So the image of the ugly American — or the ugly America — resurfaced from the dormancy that had existed during our less belligerent years. While dormant, it may have only been a hibernating grizzly bear.
Now comes Donald Trump, and around the world it has become obvious that the grizzly has now emerged from his nap. What much of the world is now telling us should get our undivided attention. If for a while we put on a gentler, kindlier face, the suspicion is that underneath, Trumpism is a belligerence that proves what we have been all along; The Ugly America.
If the effort of the Trump administration is aimed at making us safer, so far the opposite has been the result. To live in a world that fears us because we have the strength to obliterate anyone or any nation or collection of nations in our way, does not make us safe. Beefing up a military establishment whose strength now equals the rest of the world combined, generates fear, suspicion and an increase in hostility everywhere.
Securing our nation’s southern border with a massive wall, keeping out refugees seeking to escape the terror in Syria, excluding from our shores everyone from a list of Muslim countries, parroting “America First,” withdrawing from international alliances, treating other nations as economic adversaries, and other demonstrations that we are the biggest bully on the block do not make us safer. Suggesting that the world out there is our enemy is the most self-destructive image we can present. And it may just be America’s self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is how we see the community of nations, a world of enemies is what we may end up having.
That image is not the America most of us love. It is a perversion of all that is decent about our national life. And it may eventually lead some other nation — maybe China — to assume the role of giant killer, and the American dream will come crashing down.
How do we demonstrate to a troubled world that the America they see in Trump is not who we are at heart? It will take a continual flood of street demonstrations modeled on what was produced by American women the day after the inauguration. But that is not enough. The intellectual community — our scholars and writers — must continue to keep us focused on interpreting the meaning of the current disaster. Students must increasingly hold before us a new better image. The press and other forms of communication must keep the pressure on by publicly calling disastrous policies for what they are. “Saturday Night Live” and other venues of ridicule must continue to hold a mirror reflecting the absurdity of what Trump is doing.
While having a decreased role, the Democratic Party must keep its foot on the brake and do the local work necessary if it is to win a sufficient set of victories in the 2018 election. And eventually we must trust the sane Republicans to resurface and retake control of the national agenda now in the hands of their dangerous and ignorant president.
Somehow the world needs to know that what currently appears to be the ugly side of America is not who we are. We are better than what they are now seeing — far better!