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Lost in Translation

Peter Rough

The German press today is saturated with news from America. What was a regular stream of reporting has transformed over the past fifteen months into a tsunami of information crossing the Atlantic every single day. Little of it is substantive, however. America’s new insurgent president, Donald Trump, has dazed the media with one twitter barb after another. For much of the German press, the reaction has been to focus on Trump as the ugly American – the living embodiment of what must be stopped.

Of course, the president of the United States is always news; after all, he is the most powerful person on earth. But to understand the rich mosaic of American life one must go beyond the latest presidential tweet. It is simply too easy to categorize Republicans as cowboys (Bush) or charlatans (Trump) and Democrats as magnetic (Clinton) or worldly (Obama). In truth, the powerful historical forces that shape the American psyche defy such caricatures. If one is truly interested in understanding the U.S., it is far better to grapple with what makes the U.S. an exceptional nation to begin with.

America has no state religion. Instead, its holy texts are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively. Every year, millions of Americans make the pilgrimage to the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives to pay homage to the documents that draped the newly formed United States in liberty and established the checks and balances that protect it.

That first American generation is held in such high esteem because the country attributes its incredible success to its founding creed. To be sure, the sin of slavery was an abomination. But in sharp contrast to the Europe of the time, the newly independent American colonies exemplified a rugged self-reliance free of government oppression linked to an optimistic frontier spirit. As a result, socialism never found fertile soil in a country brimming with opportunity. As the American author John Steinbeck described in America and Americans, in the 1930s “we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” In a mostly unbroken chain dating to our founding, Americans have chosen equality of opportunity over outcome so long as social mobility could be guaranteed.

Moreover, from its earliest days, the United States has embraced democratic governance. It has generally expressed skepticism of the type of technocratic safeguards found in modern Europe, judging them antithetical to America’s democratic spirit. Therefore, when the Supreme Court redefined marriage to include same-sex partners and President Obama extended protections to certain illegal immigrants, many Americans disapproved on procedural grounds. For them, those issues should be settled by lawmakers in the states and Congress, respectively. In America, neither the executive nor judges should supplant the will of the people no matter what elites deem appropriate for a rapidly changing world.

Alas, such disagreements have led to a visceral clash in American politics that has many Germans worried about the future of the Republic – and understandably so. But America is far more resilient and cohesive than understood abroad. We share habits, mores, and sensibilities that, in the past, spread among immigrants as they assimilated into our founding ideals. Even today, those centripetal forces remain stronger than the centrifugal pressures of American politics and globalization.

As losers and victors of two world wars, Germany and the United States have also drawn different lessons from the twentieth century. While Germans recoiled from patriotic nationalism, Americans felt strengthened in their exceptionalism; similarly, while Germany shunned strategic culture, the United States was thrust into the global spotlight. America learned from the disaster of interwar isolationism that it must take up the burden of leadership. But it has always been a reluctant superpower because our patriotic nationalism and strategic culture are firmly embedded in a worldview that abhors imperialism.

Trump made the decline in social mobility and skepticism toward elites key themes of his presidential campaign. Relatedly, he pushed America’s unique form of nationalism as a solution to globalization’s negative externalities. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the United States is likely to embrace neither isolationism nor internationalism, but to stake out more competitive positions abroad. For example, over the decades, American leaders have highlighted with increasing frequency imbalances in defense spending and trade in goods with Europe. Rather than react with scorn, the transatlantic community should formulate solutions that address America’s concerns while channeling its competitiveness against truly revisionist actors. This may not be as satisfying as deriding the latest tweet, but the future of transatlantic cooperation depends on it.

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