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Trump’s power depends on the myth of America as dystopia—but there’s still time to reject it

Trump waving in front of flag
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Trump wants Americans to believe their country is in ruins.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump is a businessman. And his biggest venture yet is his attempt to re-brand the United States of America. The purpose of this exercise remains unclear to the rest of the world—particularly those who loved the original brand, such as myself.

In America 2.0, immigrants are no longer the lifeblood of the nation. They are “bad hombres” who are here to steal American jobs, commit crimes, and wage war on Christmas. “The lamp beside the golden door” now shines in one’s face on entry. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations” are out. “War in the South China Sea” is in. Nor does Trump’s version of the US position itself as a beacon to the rest of mankind. American infrastructure is in decay. Crime is rampant. The middle class is destroyed. Taxes are the highest in the world. Government is corrupt. The press is lying about everything.

There’s no doubt that the US has serious problems, ranging from the widening inequality gap to labor displacement caused by globalization and technological advancement. But Donald Trump’s attempt to rebrand the US is based on a false premise. Can he pull it off anyway?

First, consider the facts. The US is a prosperous country; its GDP per capita, $56,084, remains one of the highest in the world. The US is also the world’s biggest consumer spender and its job market is healthy; February of 2017 was the 77th straight month of job growth. The quality of US infrastructure dipped during the recession that began in 2007-2008, but it is still comparatively high—11th highest in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. Food safety is good. Water and air quality have been steadily improving. The US crime rate remains at a 20-year low.

Ranked by the World Bank’s index of government’s effectiveness, the US is in the top 22 out of 176 countries. It is also among the most innovative nations in the world, ranking fourth in the Global Innovation Index in 2016. And the American populace is not exactly being “destroyed” by government overreach. The US income tax rate ranks 33rd in the world, below most advanced industrialized nations.

All this shows that Trump’s rebranding effort is in fact a large-scale hoax. As someone who grew in the Soviet Union before moving permanently to America, I am familiar with these kinds of hoaxes. Born half a century after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, I was required to wear a red scarf that symbolized “the blood spilled for the happiness of all working people.” All around me—in the streets, in the classrooms, on TV and on the radio—words and images proclaimed the triumph of socialism over capitalism. Yet everywhere I turned I saw grim faces, empty store shelves, ugly buildings, and endless lines. The reality I lived in did not match the state’s narrative. But before it collapsed, Russia’s populist hoax lasted for some 70 years.

Russian history suggests that the government successfully perpetuates a hoax of this magnitude through two methods: coercion and conversion. In 1917 Russia, those who refused to accept the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were purged and repressed. The rest were coopted with the help of a myth-making factory. The myth that received the most care was that of “The Great Revolution,” an alleged mass uprising of peasants and workers who defeated their oppressors in order to achieve true happiness. This myth turned an aberration in Russia’s history—a seizure of power by a relatively small number of radicals riding on a wave of popular discontent—into a unanimous victory by the Russian people.

Almost a century later, Russia’s new autocrat Vladimir Putin repeated Lenin’s feat. His hoax to the people was that the democracy ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, known as perestroika, were to blame for the collapse of the USSR and its citizens’ economic hardships. Only by rebuilding the country along the authoritarian “vertical of power” could the Russians “get off their knees” and make Russia (ahem) great again.

Putin’s preferred methods of coercion and conversion initially involved selectively repressing opposition members and creating a massive TV propaganda effort to denigrate Western democracies. When that proved to be inadequate, following the popular Bolotnaya Street protests, Russia launched a war in neighboring Ukraine, depicting uprisings there as a pro-fascist coup sponsored by the West. Today, the war has sharply polarized Russia. And a divided country is easier to rule.

Could a hoax-making machine yield similar outcomes in the US? Certainly the wheels are in motion. There’s an alternative news factory in place, and it has easy access to Trump’s administration. There’s also a clear effort to discredit democratic opposition, including former president Barack Obama (“wiretapper”), former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (“crooked”), Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (“clown”), and members of the mainstream press (“enemy of the people.”)

This is Trump’s current form of coercion. The president is attempting to smear everything from Planned Parenthood to union leaders, park rangers, actresses, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Affordable Care Act, and even America itself. “You think this country is so innocent?” he responded when pressed to comment on Putin’s alleged crimes. Trump’s attacks—no matter how frivolous they may appear—serve a purpose. They fire up his supporters and overwhelm his detractors, who often feel as if they live in a house that is constantly on fire with no water in sight.

In presiding over this polarization of America, Trump is building the foundation for his hoax. And the longer the idea that the US is in wreckage remains intact, the more likely it is that this narrative will solidify.

One thing that Americans have on their side is a constitutional limit on the duration of the presidency. But one has to take Trump’s comments about election rigging very seriously. Putin raised similar concerns early in his presidency in 2001, launching a series of electoral reforms. By 2017, these reforms amounted to the complete reshuffling of Russia’s electoral system in favor of his party, and constitutional amendments that will allow him to stay in power indefinitely.

Whether the current effort at rebranding the US will ultimately succeed depends on the willingness of the American people to buy into Trump’s dystopian narrative. Brands only survive when they truthfully reflect the essence of the actual product. Whether the US is the world’s dream destination, or yet another empire in decline, is up to Americans to decide.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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