The Universal Notebook: The rise of the ugly American

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There is an ugly new America I no longer recognize as the land I love. It is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s the land of the creep and the home of depraved.

Not that this is really anything new.

“By the end of the nineteenth century,” British historian Simon Schama wrote in a brilliant 2003 article in The New Yorker magazine article entitled “The Unloved American,” “the stereotype of the ugly American – voracious, preachy, mercenary, and bombastically chauvinist – was firmly in place in Europe. Even the claim that the United States was built on a foundation stone of liberty was seen as a fraud. America had grown rich on slavery.”

Well, at the beginning of the 21st century, these ugly Americans are everywhere in evidence and power. I now understand what Europeans have known for a century.

The president of ugly America, Donald J. Trump, is a standard-bearer for the self-righteous self-interest that is the animating concept of the insecure ugly American. Imagine the leader of a democratic republic who thinks he is above the law, that even if he is found guilty of collusion or obstruction of justice, he can just pardon himself in an act of tyrannical infallibility.

The ugly side of America is clear to the rest of the world when they see ICE and border patrol agents separating 10,000 immigrant children from their families in an act of hatefulness and cruelty that ugly Americans like Attorney General Jeff Session say is required by law. Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it isn’t.

But this act of official xenophobia is in keeping with the agenda of the new ugly America, which has abrogated its leadership role in the world, alienating our allies, pandering to our enemies, and failing miserably on the foreign trade, environmental protection and human rights fronts.

There is a simple-mindedness to the ugly Americans that do not allow them to recognize their own bigotry. Archie Bunker was a satire of bigotry, folks. Roseanne Barr is just a bigot. But this emboldening of the ignorant and the prejudiced is what you get when the president of ugly America is the head cheerleader for racial division.

Trump sees racial animus as a winning strategy with his base. Some National Football League players sought to call attention to the plague of police violence against black people and Trump made political hay with the demonstrations by perverting the message.

It is no more disrespectful to kneel during the national anthem than it is to kneel while praying. Americans did not fight and die for a flag or a song, they fought and died for freedom, including the freedom to stand, kneel or lie down during the national anthem. Flag-waving pseudo-patriots of ugly America dishonor the dead when they insist we must all do as we are told.

Ugly America is led by people who not only do not believe in America and the rule of law, but actively work against it. EPA head Scott Pruitt hands America over to polluters while his staff pursues a Chick-Fil-A franchise with his wife and he protects himself with a small army of security guards.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is every bit as incompetent and self-serving as Pruitt. Her latest outrage is the admission that her school safety commission, empaneled in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead, will not actually be considering gun violence. Why not? Because if there is anything an ugly American values more than God and country, it’s guns.

This soulless, morally bankrupt ugly America pays lip-service to Christianity, but, as Simon Schama observed in “The Unloved American,” “Just as obnoxious as the fraud of liberty was the fraud of Christian piety, a finger-jabbing rectitude incapable of asserting a policy without invoking the Deity as a co-sponsor.”

The spiritual leaders of ugly America are mega-church millionaires who fleece their flocks of frightened followers. Billy Graham was beloved. Franklin Graham is bereft, a putative “Christian” who reveres a heathen. Trump has had serial affairs, pays hush money to porn stars, and brags about groping women, but Brother Graham says Trump’s philandering is “nobody’s business.”

“I believe Donald Trump is a good man,” Graham said. “He did everything wrong as a candidate and he won, and I don’t understand it. Other than I think God put him there.”

God so loved America that he gave us Donald J. Trump? I don’t think so. I’m not a big believer in divine intervention in national affairs, but it seems more likely that a far more evil being might have had a hand in the rise of the ugly American.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.