Donald Trump, Ugliest American Ever?
How a Cold War novel captured an enduring American tendency
With complete confidence that Donald Trump’s recent outrage — calling Haiti and nations in Africa “s***hole countries” — will soon be matched by another, and having suffered a bellyful of outrageousness for a full year of his presidency, by now we can safely nominate our hot mess of a president as the definitive definition of the once-upon-a-time-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs epithet, “the ugly American.”
In fact, as there’s no close contender, real or fictional, let’s be done with it: Donald J. Trump is Ugliest American Ever.
Not an insult about one’s looks, which is how the ignorant Trump might take it, the “ugly American” epithet connotes a condescending attitude on the part of the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, toward the rest of the world, notably the “underdeveloped” part. It attaches to those Americans interacting directly with the nationals of other countries — diplomats, international business people, and tourists, perhaps most often the latter: Recall the movies and TV shows featuring the obnoxious American tourist who demands service pronto?
Trump’s “s***hole” insult takes the prize for condescension, oozing with a white supremacist’s disdain for non-white peoples, also a turbo-capitalist’s disdain for the poor. Quite rightly, the world’s reaction has been blistering. If conscientious Americans hoped, post-Trump, to repair the damage done by Trump to America’s stature in the world, this abhorrent racist slur may prove fatal to repair. Rule №1 in international relations: Thou shalt show respect for your human counterpart.
Not to forget, the week before, Trump boasted about his nuclear button being bigger than the North Korean leader’s, “and my Button works!” — a bad parody of the “ugly American” leader as power-mad and knocking recklessly about the world’s biggest arsenal. Ugliest American, deadliest American.
But enough with the exhibits, since, as Trump is the Ugliest American Ever, they are endless. Better to go to the source itself — the novel, “The Ugly American” — and ask: How did this epithet become so enduringly popular?
In 1958, when the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was heating up, two veterans of World War II — one a writer of popular books, William J. Lederer (he also wrote “A Nation of Sheep” and “Our Own Worst Enemy”) and the other, Eugene Burdick, a political science professor at the University of California — wrote a series of cautionary vignettes, first as nonfiction, then, at their editor’s urging, as a novel. In it they depicted various American officials as they operated in southeast Asia, the area American policymakers believed must be kept from going Communist, because, per the domino theory, once one country went, they all would.
The novel opens with the American ambassador to the fictional country of Sarkhan, Louis Sears, irate because the editorial cartoon in the local newspaper depicts a short and fat American, obviously him, leading a Sarkhanese man by a tether around his neck to a Coca-Cola sign. In his ire we see the ugly condescension emerge: Sears refers to the Sarkhanese as “monkeys” who “always lie”; he does not speak the language nor interest himself in local customs. Instead he focuses on socializing and hosting American dignitaries who come to “see for themselves” the situation, biding his time until he can snag a judgeship stateside. Sears typifies “the ugly American.”
By contrast, the Soviet ambassador focuses on the people: He speaks Sarkhanese, knows local customs, engages the Sarkhanese in what they most like to do — talk philosophy — all with an objective of establishing Sarkhan and Russia as friends and allies who’d stand by each other, because “the colonial and capitalistic countries would not assist another nation unless they could profit from it.”
The new American ambassador, Gilbert MacWhite, shows promise: He arrives having studied the language and, understanding he had a “fatal amount of faith in his own, unsupported judgment,” he travels the region — the Philippines, Vietnam — to study firsthand how they handle the insurgent Communist threat. The keenest insight comes from the Philippine defense minister:
“The simple fact is….that average Americans….are the best ambassadors a country can have. They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad…. Many of them….feel they must live up to their…big cars and cocktail parties. But get an unaffected American, sir, and you have an asset. And if you get one, treasure him — keep him out of the cocktail circuit, away from bureaucrats, and let him work in his own way.”
These “beautiful Americans” (my term, not the authors’), few in number, MacWhite finds. The aforementioned defense minister wins the Philippine presidency because an American liaison officer, Col. Edwin Hillandale, took his harmonica and lived among the people of a key Communist province, convincing them not all Americans were “rich and bloated snobs” and turning their vote anti-Communist. In Vietnam Major James “Tex” Wolchek persuades MacWhite and a French major to study Mao’s principles of guerrilla warfare — too late in the major’s case, as the French soon go down to final defeat at Dien Bien Phu, but will America learn from France’s error?
Another “beautiful American,” engineer and businessman Homer Atwood, and his wife (both described as physically ugly), do great good in Sarkhan by going local. Disdaining the big aid projects Americans usually construct, like dams and highways which are of little benefit to people in an agrarian society, Atwood engineers a bicycle-powered irrigation pump for the terraced rice paddies. His wife, noting the village’s elderly women become bent after a lifetime of sweeping with brooms only two feet long, goes looking for a longer reed enabling the sweeper to do the job standing up (though isn’t it condescending to portray the villagers as not having figured this out themselves?). Another American businessman peddles powdered milk among the peasants. Finally, there is Father Finian, a Catholic priest who lives among the Sarkhanese, talking philosophy with them and hearing them out (“The white man has not always been just”), while also organizing grassroots resistance to the insurgent Communists and ultimately setting up a small nondenominational college.
MacWhite is persuaded. At novel’s end, he cables Washington urging that American diplomacy be reformed in the direction of these smaller-scale, human-centered projects: “The little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need — not just in the interest of propaganda.” He also recommends all diplomats learn the language of the country of their posting, leave their big cars at home, and study Mao, Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Sadly, his request is denied as “highly impractical” and he is called stateside.
Highly critical of U.S. policy, “The Ugly American” caught a cultural moment of post-World War II questioning and became a runaway bestseller. John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, ordered copies for all his Senate colleagues; as President he established the Peace Corps, reportedly as a counter to the influence of “the ugly American.”
Tragically, Kennedy also set us on the path to the unwinnable Vietnam war — and one could say it was the vestigial “ugly American” traits that took us there: hubris, grandiosity, condescension toward the “gooks.” The fictional American ambassador MacWhite, in his final cable to Washington urging reform, put it aptly: “To the extent our foreign policy is humane and reasonable, it will be successful. To the extent that it is imperialistic and grandiose, it will fail.”
If there’s any doubt that those ugly American traits still endure, Trump’s “s***hole” racist insult makes the case, full stop. And, troublingly, they appear to endure in his base — they are one-third of the American electorate — who still stand by him.
In this era when America is seen to be in decline, when our own chaos (and not Communism) is our nemesis — chaos Trump too-brilliantly exploits — conscientious Americans have a momentous task. By virtue of our booming economy and booming military, America remains the world’s most powerful country. But: We Americans were never tutored in the responsibilities of exercising the immense power we have, neither at the personal nor national level. To save ourselves from Trump’s autocratic tendencies and reverse our decline, we conscientious Americans must not only win at the polls, but tutor our fellow Americans in the responsibilities of power.
This is the test: Can Americans quit the ugly condescension and become beautiful?