Back when the US Congress was contemplating an $85 billion bailout of the financial industry, when the housing bubble burst in 2008, I happened to be on a tour with a bunch of journalists from Europe and Canada. I and a young man from Texas were the only representatives from the US. It was an enlightening experience on many fronts, but the most intriguing was to see the other journalists’ response to the many issues that were breaking in US news, at that moment.
If what we saw on that trip was any indication, then to say these journalists are obsessed with all things US, is an understatement. They were more riveted by each round of daily news from the US, than were I and the young man from Texas. But for all that focus, to think they knew very much about the fundamentals of the US would be a mistake.
They knew little about how the three branches of government were meant to function and kept inserting assumptions based upon the structure of their own country’s government. Fortunately, they were sublimely unaware of how much they didn’t know, so they were in no way encumbered by this lack of knowledge.
But the one thing that became glaringly apparent is that they really don’t “get” the American people. The misunderstanding is a subtle one, and is something I had read about before, but only saw how real it was as the Texan and I listened to these journalists chatter, with no compunction about telling us what and who WE really are. They became silent, and were rendered bewildered, only in the moment, that the first vote by the US Congress rejected the bailout. They were all very much supportive of bailouts, anytime, anywhere.
“Why would they do that?” asked one woman, about the US Congress, as we sat in a lounge around a big coffee table. They were all looking at us in sincere surprise.
“Because they are concerned about getting re-elected,” I replied, “They know that most American people don’t like the idea of bailouts.”
“But, how can the people think they know more than the experts and Congress?” asked a journalist from Finland. I and the young man from Texas just looked at each other for a moment in amazement, as the other journalists waited in unusual silence for an answer. Finally I said, “Everyone in America thinks they are smarter than Congress.” I saw a slight smile on the Texan’s face, and I understood that not only is that true, but there is an element of pride in it.
In making that statement and seeing that those from the other countries were genuinely dumbfounded, I suddenly realized how profound the fact really is and how much it defines our culture. I also felt an internal twist of sympathy for what would surely be a diminished sense of self-worth for anyone who holds themselves to be inferior to “superiors.”
Seeing themselves as an equal to all is a uniquely American attitude that stretches all the way back to the Colonial era, at least. It was probably the underlying angst of the colonists as they objected to specific acts by the King of England. But the King was impervious to the colonists’ attitude, since he couldn’t have imagined that there might be humans who did not recognize his superiority.
This American trait is hinted at in grade school history, about how Benjamin Franklin refused to bow to the King. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized it in his psychoanalysis of Americans in “Democracy in America” in 1835. It is what is referred to when critics lament the brashness or arrogance of Americans. Some Canadians have seen it up close and have written about it. It was inculcated in President Trump’s recent proclamation that “We can do anything,” to enthusiastic applause and cheers.
It is interesting that the Americana “can do” attitude, which we so celebrate, can be perceived so differently by others and rejected as a negative.
But it is a deeply engrained American trait that emerges sooner or later in almost everything that happens involving US citizens. Americans are not fatalistic in their perspective about anything. The attitude emerges from Americans in a thousand ways in everyday life. It is integral in fighting wars, building communities, exploring space, conducting business, dealing with politics, saving a child hopelessly trapped deep in a well. It shapes our lifestyle, which has elicited criticism from those “across the pond” who consider themselves more practical. Not long ago, commenting on the health and exercise craze in the US, an author being interviewed on public radio was heard to exclaim in exasperation, “Americans seem to think they are not going to die.”
As so many in Washington DC and the media continue to misunderstand the reason why Donald Trump was elected president, one has to think that the elitism that afflicts so many socialist countries is not unknown in the US. There is an obvious disconnect between people in Washington DC who believe they are superior, and the average American who never acquiesces their ability to make judgement calls regarding their political leaders.
One has to believe that that was the loss of understanding by Hillary Clinton in referring to “deplorables", and it is what prompted push back by President Obama attempting to diminish individual effort in saying, “You didn’t build that.”
Observing how greatly they fail to understand this point, one has to conclude the talking heads, our politicians and media folks aren’t as smart as they think they are, nor as brilliant as we are commonly told. We certainly must be left scratching our heads about their brilliance as we see unveiled before us their lack of understanding about the advantage and power of honesty and truth, as they conducted illegal, corrupt manipulations of law enforcement, in their bumbling efforts to undermine our political processes. This is brilliance?
Theirs is a blind spot that prevents them from understanding that Trump didn’t create his base… his base has been there all along, looking for Trump. They have been looking for Trump since Ronald Reagan. In fact, they were there before Ronald Reagan. I remember listening to interviews of members of the Young Republicans in Texas a few years before Reagan’s election. That was the first time I thought, “Whoa, now this is something.” And, it is something that has persisted and grown.
This otherwise undefined group, was for a while referred to as the “Silent Majority.” They then seemed to morph into the “Tea Party,” which many on the Left declared was dead after the election of Barack Obama. They were proven so very wrong as the movement surged behind Trump, leaving the elite sages flat-footed and open-mouthed on election night.
Considering how deeply imbued in our culture is this attitude, one must suspect that after President Trump, they will still be there, seeking the next champion of what must surely be the definition of “the American Spirit.”