Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War, which suddenly feels extremely relevant – especially after Charlottesville. In my last post, I mentioned David Blight’s Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It brilliantly shows how, during that period, a sectional reconciliation took place that was based on Southern terms and thus entrenched racism in America. But as a foreign policy analyst, I was particularly interested in Blight’s discussion of American imperialism at a time of worsening race relations in 1890s, which it seemed to me raises difficult questions about the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America.
In February 2017, a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, the veteran U.S. diplomat Dan Fried gave a much-covered retirement speech that included the following line: “The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox.” It was an extraordinary thing for a senior American diplomat to feel the need to say in 2017 and the line was on my mind a lot as I read more about the American Civil War in the months that followed and visited Appomattox last autumn. But increasingly it seemed to me that Fried was wrong. The “option of a White Man’s Republic” should have ended at Appomattox. But what was happening in America, and in particular what happened in Charlottesville (60 miles from Appomattox) in the summer of 2017, showed that it hadn’t – at least in the minds of some Americans.
During the last year countless commentators have made the point that Donald Trump embodies the “paranoid style” in American politics that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his famous 1964 essay. A central feature of the style, which Hofstadter thought was “all but ineradicable”, is a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – a tendency Trump certainly has. Moreover, with his election as president, the style seems to have a had what Hofstadter called a “consummatory triumph” in the United States – something that, he wrote, had up to that point only occurred in Germany. Thus it seems to me that we now have to rethink some of our assumptions about the differences between Europe and the United States. But what struck me reading Hofstadter’s essay now was not just the way Trump embodies the “paranoid style” but also something altogether stranger: he is in reality exactly what previous practitioners of the “paranoid style” feared.
In the last few months, the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa seem to have transformed President Obama from a realist into an idealist. What is remarkable about this trajectory is how similar it is to that of his predecessor. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he disdained Bill Clinton’s idealist “nation building” tendencies and in particular the idea of humanitarian intervention. But after September 11, Bush pursued his own hyper-idealist “freedom agenda”, the centrepiece of which was the Iraq war. When Obama took over in January 2009, he also repudiated the hubris of his predecessor and promised more humility in American foreign policy. During the first two years of his presidency, the United States seemed to have tilted towards realism. But just as Bush reinvented himself after 9/11, so Obama seems to have remade himself since the Arab Spring.
My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.
Most Americans think you’re crazy if you tell them you are going to visit Detroit, just for the hell of it, which is what I just did. Detroit – a city that had its heyday in the 1960s at the latest – is the last place they’d actually choose to go to. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in Britain in the 1970s, but I’ve always been weirdly drawn to cities in decline like Detroit. It’s true that Detroit is almost a model of what can go wrong in cities, as described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But despite that, or maybe because of it, it’s still a fascinating place.