Someone taped a few sheets of Trump toilet paper to my office door at Maastricht University. I know because one of my tutors saw the dangling paper and took it down, later coming to me (a little embarrassed), to show me the offending evidence. We both interpreted it as an anti-American gesture.
This incident and our discussion about who and what the intentions might be, led me to go back to the column that I began to write in August, before the events in Afghanistan propelled me to shift my focus. Certainly, negative views by Europeans towards America are not new to me. But my reflection had me thinking about my own feelings of discomfort about the lethal partisanship that is mobilizing the electorate in America today.
My students know that I think the concept of soft power is one that is undervalued and often misunderstood. It is an idea that dates to the 1990s when the Harvard University professor Joseph Nye popularized the term in his book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. Soft power involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, meaning that anti-Americanism represents the break-down and failure of American soft power. When my students no longer find America attractive, whether for its various strands of culture, its institutions of democracy, its economic engine, including its superior financial organizations, I want to know why.
There are four types of anti-Americanism. The first, labeled liberal anti-Americanism, is often found in advanced industrial societies like Germany and the Netherlands. This version charges that the United States is not living up to its own ideals in conducting its foreign and domestic policy.
The second is social anti-Americanism, which is expressed when others argue that the United States is trying to impose its version of democracy and its definition of rights on others while being insensitive to local societal values and norms. I often hear this as a justification of why the U.S. failed in Afghanistan. Readers may go back to my two columns on this forever war and why it ended badly, which has little to do with the imposition of American ideals.
The third type is sovereign anti-Americanism, which focuses on the threats the U.S. presents to the sovereignty and to the cultural and political identity of another country. Both China and Saudi Arabia have employed these arguments. Radical anti-Americanism is the fourth. In this form, American values are evil, thereby necessitating their destruction. The branding of the U.S. as “the Great Satan,” as Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini did starting in 1979, is a case in point.
I believe the view that prompted my toilet paper critique stems from the first or second variety or perhaps a mixture of both. I know my own feelings of disappointment emerge from a worry that current levels of lethal partisanship are undermining democracy. For instance, today there are overwhelming levels of what political scientists label affective polarization, the existence of feelings of hostility towards members of another political party. In fact, over the past four decades the U.S. experienced a large increase in the levels of aggression towards members of the other main party.
Unfortunately, the rise in affective polarization impacts my own circle of friends and family in South Dakota. Certainly, political affiliations were determining what information was absorbed. For example, the fact that Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on the 6th of January chanted “hang Mike Pence!” and erected a make-shift-gallows for the vice president, was denied because the person had never heard this information. Reading through the local papers that my mother saved for me, I was troubled by Governor Kristi Noem’s column in July 2020 that warned of “sinister threats to America’s greatness” coming from a “radical movement to re-write American history.”
605 Unity JAM
Therefore, it was with some relief that over the course of catching up on the local news, I read columns and Letters to the Editor that emphasized unity. My hometown Rotary Club stressed “World Understanding” and community service. An opinion editorial advocated “collaborative leadership” that “could aid rural communities in creating an ecosystem that seeks out diverse opinions” and “cultivates a culture of trust and inclusivity.” A pastor quoted the book of Proverbs in his regular column. “Hate stirs up troubles, but love forgives all offenses,” he wrote, because he hoped to reduce “the hatred predominating American society.”
Headlines of “We’re in this Together,” “Social Factors Impact Wellbeing,” “We are More Alike Than Different,” were signs that even if there are plenty of people fanning the flames of the cultural wars, there are also a group of leaders in my home state that want to douse those same flames. Organizers in my hometown brought together Yankton Sioux tribal members and community organizations of all types for a 605 Unity Jam, the number being the telephone area code that everyone shared. The good thing is that such efforts really do work. Research from the University of Notre Dame found that imagining a conversation with an opponent can cause a temporary reduction in hostility to supporters of the other party.
Fortunately, we do have leaders willing to combat the shabby tactics of inciting feverish views of the other side for partisan gain. There are still Americans who want to be good neighbors and good citizens and bring back the substance and principle that really was a beacon to the world—and America’s source of soft power.
You might be curious to know what I did with that piece of toilet paper with Trump’s photo stamped several times in descending rows. I pinned it to my bookshelves for everyone to see. It is a good reminder that I must prepare for all sorts of people who hold negative views about America, including myself from time to time. Plus, it is Trump’s visage on paper clearly meant for other purposes.