The foundational story of the United States of America is its fight for freedom against tyranny. Every schoolchild learns of how the American revolutionaries fought bravely to be freed from the tyranny of King George III of England. They learn the indomitable freedom fighters’ heroic sayings, such as “Give me liberty or give me death!” and “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
The fight for freedom against tyranny is in America’s DNA. To imagine that it could ever become tyrannical itself is unthinkable, like imagining that the American revolutionaries were the tyrants and King George III the freedom fighter. It would be utterly absurd.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail. To a freedom-fighting country many situations can be understood as the fight for freedom against tyranny. It was easy to wage war on Iraq because its leader, Saddam Hussein, looked like a tyrant. Some Americans even see America’s own government as a tyrant to be fought against for the sake of freedom.
When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated as presidential candidates in 2016 the moderator posed a surprise question at the end: What could each of them say that was nice about the other? Trump, not one to say anything nice about an opponent and thrown off guard, let the veil slip a little. He said, “She’s a fighter.” The nicest thing one could say about an opponent.
John F. Kennedy won the presidential debate against Richard Nixon in 1960 by invoking the fight against the tyrannical Soviet Union, claiming the United States suffered from a “missile gap” against the Soviets, even though it wasn’t true. He implied he would be tougher with the tyrant than the last administration was, the administration in which Nixon was the Vice President.
To be accused of weakness in the face of tyranny is the worst thing that can happen to a politician. Therefore, politicians compete with each other for toughness. Typically, Republicans are more performative and speak more toughly. To avoid the fatal curse of being accused of weakness Democrats match Republicans and go them one better. That is why Republicans can sometimes make breakthroughs in international relations, as Nixon did with China in 1972; or as Ronald Reagan did, after calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, by genuinely befriending Gorbachev and earnestly beseeching him, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” They are less vulnerable to the accusation of weakness, even though their strength is often only performance. Democrats are more vulnerable. Lyndon Johnson pursued the Vietnam War despite profound misgivings – and of course, without realising that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong were the real freedom fighters – because he didn’t want to be the first U.S. President to lose a war.
The latest nail to be hammered is China. Donald Trump started it, with his characteristic meanness. When Biden came to the office of President he continued Trump’s policy of China-bashing, lest he and his party be accused of weakness by Republicans, whereupon they feared the freedom-loving and tyrant-hating electorate would throw them out of office.
The process is self-reinforcing. To avoid being weak, the factions grow ever-“stronger”. They have now reached the point of ridiculousness. A Republican-led congressional House Oversight Committee has demanded that Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry release documents pertaining to his negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party. Kerry has come under fire for “dismissing the CCP’s egregious human rights record and antagonism toward the U.S. in order to prioritise climate-change mitigation efforts.” Every effort of any sort must be dragooned into the fight for freedom against tyranny. And of course in addition, Republicans wish to denigrate the pursuit of climate change mitigation. This is partly because, not entirely without reason, they perceive fossil fuels as strong, renewables as weak.
What is in the DNA is difficult to change, especially when there is a servomechanism bringing the genetic characteristic back to its roots whenever it threatens to vary. That servomechanism is the reaction to allegations of weakness. Once the nail, the tyrant to be fought, is identified there can be no dissent from the expressions of strength against tyranny. Volodymyr Zelensky made himself a hero to American people by effectively saying, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Can there be any escape from this dangerous cycle? Donald Trump, repulsive character though he is, opened a door to some possibility, but in a thoroughly madcap way. He expressed fondness for tyrants. There is also a faction of the Republican party that believes in curtailing foreign wars in the name of nationalism, and of reducing the Federal budget. There is a faction of Democrats who see America’s interventions for what they are, represented most prominently by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. But she was removed recently by Republicans from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The hope for at least temporary salvation lies in what Trump referred to pejoratively as the “Deep State”, the largely faceless bureaucrats who staff Federal departments, such as the State Department and Defence. Not being in the public eye as much, and in the case of the Defence Department presumed strong a priori because it is the military, these staffers can behave as reasonable people.
But there is another hope that could cause things to right themselves … democracy. It has shown a certain resilience, rebounding from time to time from bad trends. Democracy can cause surprising corners to be turned. There was no possibility of predicting Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. Autocracies can change too, of course, contrary to the political philosophy of which America has convinced itself; China is the foremost example of this. And yet the long-lasting underlying dynamic of freedom versus tyranny still prevails in the U.S. Let us hope it can change, and soon.