In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last year (7/28/16), Hillary Clinton forcefully rebutted President Donald J. Trump’s call to “make America great again”: “America is great because America is good,” Clinton declared, repeating a truism that has been misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville and invoked by Democrats and Republicans since Eisenhower (Weekly Standard, 11/12/95).
The implication of this phrase, of course, is that the United States derives its greatness from a presumed moral authority. Corporate media are now sounding the alarm that the US’s moral authority is suddenly under attack by the Trump administration.
New York Times Paris bureau chief Alissa J. Rubin (3/10/17) lamented “another step by the Trump administration away from America’s traditional role as a moral authority on the world stage,” noting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s absence at the release of the US’s annual human rights report. Citing interviews with diplomats, she warns that “the United States under President Trump was poised to cede not only this global role, but also its ability to lead by example.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press (3/5/17), Times columnist Thomas Friedman alerted the audience, “This president has formal authority, but every day you see him eroding his moral authority,” and by extension the moral authority of the nation. US News & World Report (3/1/17) complained that Trump’s travel ban “has simultaneously undermined America’s moral authority and national security.”
In the course of advancing this critique, however, corporate media could not avoid admitting that the presumption of US moral authority is for the most part rhetorical. Rubin noted that “Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture on suspected terrorists [and] the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan” have “already eroded [the US’s] moral standing.” Yet media are now looking back on, for instance, George W. Bush’s insistence that the US was not anti-Muslim—rhetorical cover for those virulently anti-Muslim policies—with nostalgic longing (FAIR.org, 1/7/16, 3/7/17).
Verizon’s Huffington Post (2/28/17) comforted readers by arguing that, notwithstanding Clinton’s electoral defeat, the popular vote shows that her agenda “continues to be the prevailing moral authority in the nation.” That authority was seemingly undiminished by, for example, Secretary of State Clinton’s gleeful celebration of the torture and murder of a leader she targeted for regime change in Libya, or her readiness as a candidate to “kill a lot of Syrians” if she had her way with that country.
Back at the New York Times (3/5/17), the editorial board scored Trump’s claims about former President Barack Obama tapping his phones not for being unsubstantiated but for their “sheer indifference to…the moral authority of the American presidency.” Meanwhile, as Time (2/17/17) reported, less than a month after he vacated the office, academics ranked Obama the 12th best president in history, citing his “public persuasion and moral authority.”
There is a subtext to the concern for Trump’s impact on the nation’s moral standing: The US’s self-proclaimed moral authority is good for business. Huffington Post recently ran an open letter from Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim (2/17/17), who argued that Trump’s travel ban “undermines our moral authority as the leader of the free world” and precludes “a more dynamic and inclusive economy.” The Los Angeles Times (3/12/17) confirmed this fear, warning that the US could forfeit $10.8 billion in spending by tourists disinclined to travel here (though the specter of Trump has so far been great for the news industry).
This would certainly not be the first time the US’s “moral standing” has been deemed problematic insofar as it interferes with global capitalism. Official concern over the US image in the world marketplace and its persuasive power in geopolitics stretches back generations.
As the Cold War ignited following World War II, the US Foreign Service began to notice that state-sanctioned segregation and the frequent lynching of black Americans did not play well in the ideological battle between Communism and Western democracy. “The United States has been embarrassed in the conduct of foreign relations by acts of discrimination taking place in this country,” the US solicitor general noted in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in 1947, which was set to hear the Shelley v Kraemer case on racial segregation in housing. “The gap between the things we stand for in principle and the facts of a particular situation may be too wide to be bridged,” he warned.
The Court ruled for the plaintiff in that case, effectively outlawing racial housing covenants by finding their enforcement to be a violation of the 14th Amendment—thus starting a process of chipping away at the legal basis for segregation, culminating in the celebrated Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision seven years later. Rather than cementing America’s moral authority in the world, however, the slow establishment of racial equality as a principle of law revealed an altogether different phenomenon, according to Derrick Bell, a Harvard law professor and progenitor of critical race theory who passed away in 2011.
“What accounted for the sudden shift in 1954 away from the separate but equal doctrine and towards a commitment to desegregation?” Bell asked a Harvard Law symposium in 1978 (Harvard Law Review, 1/80). “The decision in Brown to break with the Court’s long-held position on these issues,” he argued,
cannot be understood without some consideration of the decision’s value to whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.
Thus Bell introduced his famous concept of interest-convergence, according to which such accommodations are made “so long as policymakers find that the interest of blacks converges with the political and economic interests of whites,” as he later wrote for the New York Law School Review. “The Brown decision,” Bell noted, “advanced US interests because racial segregation was hampering the United States in the Cold War with Communist nations and undermining US efforts to combat subversion at home.”
By this time, Bell could point to research by Mary Dudziak, a professor of law at Emory University. In response to his initial 1978 commentary on interest-convergence, Dudziak wrote in the Stanford Law Review (11/88) that “neither Bell nor other scholars have developed this approach historically.” Her article, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” presented an exhaustive survey of official correspondence (including the amicus brief quoted above) that, in Dudziak’s view, “demonstrates Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence thesis: The consensus against racial segregation in the 1950s resulted from a convergence of interests on the part of whites and persons of color.”
Almost 70 years later, Obama’s election as the US’s first black president was in the eyes of many a historical triumph for racial progress and US moral authority on the order of Brown. Clinton was expected to quickly build upon that feat by becoming the US’s first woman president, somehow setting an example for a world that has already known dozens of female heads of state.
In its endorsement of Obama in 2008, the New York Times (8/23/08) wrote of a “battered and drifting” country with “a scarred global image” at the end of Bush’s tenure. Upon Obama’s election, the Times (9/4/08) celebrated “a strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history,” which produced “a national catharsis—a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies.”
The symbolism of Obama’s presidency was even enough to satisfy Dudziak, who wrote a Times op-ed (7/22/16) prior to the 2016 election, headlined “Donald Trump and America’s Moral Authority,” which cautioned against Trump’s “war on American values, and his effort to hollow out the nation’s image in the world.” While she recalled her research on civil rights and the Cold War, Dudziak failed to mention that this project was undertaken to corroborate Bell’s thesis that our country’s moral authority was not quite what it seemed.
The modern “gap” between US rhetoric and particular material conditions is evidenced by Obama’s drone wars. In 2014, the human rights group Reprieve (11/24/14) found that US drones had killed over 1,100 unknown people in Yemen and Pakistan during unsuccessful attempts to assassinate 41 named targets. Yet when Trump asked Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 2/5/17), “Do you think our country’s so innocent?” MSNBC (2/8/17) characterized that as “the most anti-American statement ever made.”
More broadly, the historians surveyed by Time lauded Obama’s role in “extricating America from two protracted, inconclusive wars,” despite the fact that he expanded America’s “war on terror” from two nations to seven. Remiss to leave out the economic angle, they also noted “an economy that is in far better form than it was when he took over,” even though Obama himself admitted nearly all of the gains were going to the richest, and economic anxiety is seen as a significant factor in sweeping Trump to power.
Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight, 3/10/17) recently concluded that “there really was a liberal media bubble” in the run-up to Trump’s election. “The conditions of political journalism,” Silver argued, “are poor for crowd wisdom and ripe for groupthink.” Over and above the failure to predict Clinton’s loss, however, is the more widespread groupthink behind the US’s so-called “moral authority” that Trump suddenly throws into doubt, as though he came from nowhere.
Alexis de Tocqueville—the 19th century French sociologist who did not say “America is great because America is good”—did offer insights into the American mindset in his prescient book, Democracy in America. Noting that democratic societies “plunge the greater part of man in constant active life,” Tocqueville observed that an American
has perpetually occasion to rely on ideas which he has not had leisure to search to the bottom; for he is much more frequently aided by the opportunity of an idea than by its strict accuracy; and, in the long run, he risks less in making use of some false principles, than in spending his time in establishing all his principles on the basis of truth.
The truth of the US’s “moral authority” is at the very least questionable—but, as Obama demonstrated, even a false principle presents rhetorical opportunities, in domestic discourse and on the world stage. Truth be damned, those opportunities are threatened as Trump applies a more ghastly veneer to the nation’s image.
If Tocqueville is right that ordinary citizens in a democracy cannot be expected to have time to search such an idea to the bottom, this responsibility must fall in part on an independent media—the so-called Fourth Estate. Indeed, Tocqueville said “the sovereignty of the people and the freedom of the press may therefore be looked upon as inseparable institutions.”
What he neglected to make clear is that the press must also be willing to do the work. According to Dudziak’s study, foreign media played a pivotal role in pushing the United States to practice what it preached on the issue of civil rights. “Newspapers in many corners of the world covered stories of racial discrimination against visiting non-white foreign dignitaries and Americans,” she reported, having surveyed examples from Haiti to China.
Lately, our corporate media seem more interested in simply declaring the United States’ moral authority rather than thoroughly investigating the basis for such a claim. This approach may be less risky, as Tocqueville predicted, but it is not likely to bridge the historical gap between the idea of US moral authority and its realization any time soon.
John C. O’Day is a graduate philosophy student at Texas A&M.