Can Political Fantasy Remake America?
You don’t need to look far to see that catastrophism is in the air in America. Whether it is widespread analogies between the United States and the fall of Rome, suggestions that a second Civil War is in the offing, or observations concerning the social pathologies characterizing particular social groups (most notably, young white blue-collar men), there is no shortage of commentators from the left, center, and right who believe that America has entered a period of internal decline as a society and external deterioration as a global power. The American experiment in ordered liberty, we’re informed, is visibly falling apart with neither order nor liberty likely to persist, let alone the classical, religious, and Enlightenment principles that provided content and context for the aspirations which drove the American Founding.
What, however, if we are misreading the symptoms? What if, far from terminal decay, we are witnessing a transformation that will create a different America, much as Rome underwent a shift from a divided Republic drowning in civil war to an unmatched Empire that lasted four centuries? And what if this new United States remains just as powerful in world affairs but also at great remove from its European roots?
These are some of the questions addressed and scenarios outlined by the Portuguese political thinker and politician Bruno Maçães in his book History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America (2020). The text is best-described as an extended think-piece (which occasionally lapses into stream-of-consciousness) in which Maçães proposes that America is finally making its own way in a world that is becoming less liberal and in which the West’s saliency as a model for everyone else is fading. This casting off of an old identity inherited from a Europe whose global importance foundered long ago under the weight of its twentieth century failures and internal contradictions amounts, for Maçães, to a process of creative destruction for America. Far from seeing America fall from its peak, he argues, we may be witnessing the emergence of a distinctly American civilization. Europe is no longer to America what Greece was to Rome. A new future beckons.
America is—but isn’t—Europe
Like most reflections on America, Alexis de Tocqueville looms as a major reference-point for Maçães. In Maçães’ case, this is not only because Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was a masterly exposition of political science. It is also because Tocqueville’s theory of why-America-is-what-it-is continues to exert such a hold on those who think about such things. For Tocqueville, American democracy was Europe’s future: a notion which, paradoxically, underscores the idea of American civilization as an extension of that of Europe.
The problem, according to Maçães, is that Tocqueville’s investigation assumed that what was happening in Europe as it inched its way towards liberal democracy would be universal. Tocqueville, he maintains, could not see that “America is meant to outgrow Europe and create its own distinctive path,” not least because the energy and vitality that characterized America could “not be satisfied by imitating an older civilization.”
For a long time, Maçães believes, the distinctiveness of the American path was obscured and held back by various factors. These ranged from the longing of American novelists to immerse themselves in European experiences to the release of energies occasioned by America’s long march across North America to the Pacific. America’s need to defeat Nazi Germany’s bid for European hegemony and then preserve Europe from Communism in the decades following World War II also retarded America’s break from its European past.
The Soviet Union’s fall, however, helped to set in train changes that started to break many of these links. The generation of boomers who took charge of America after 1992 were far less interested in Europe than they were in the Asia-Pacific region. A gap also opened up between the idealist Kantian liberalism that dominates the outlook of so many EU policymakers (any and every recourse to war is a failure), and a growing sense on the American right and American left that the idea of liberal world order is finished. The left see it as a force for neocolonialism that imposes Western norms and institutions on the rest of the world, while the right views aspirations to a rules-based order as undermining America’s ability to act as it deems necessary.
Either way, many across the American political spectrum are wondering why America should play by such rules when the regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran break all the rules all the time (as, one might add, do Paris and Berlin when it suits them). Liberal idealism, it turns out, is precisely that: idealism grounded in unreality.
Overshadowing all this is the most damning indictment of Europe which does not apply to the United States. Auschwitz and all it represents has, Maçães indicates, left Europe in moral ruins, perhaps forever. That particular stain is not one shared by America. Moreover, the experience of industrial-scale genocide, gulags, and National Socialist and Communist totalitarianisms has left Europe imprisoned by self-doubt and “living in the grip of ghosts.” Europeans, Maçães claims, have “lost the heart to be fully free because we fear making the old mistakes.” Such burdens are not those of Americans; it follows that they are less fearful and more capable of thinking—and imagining—anew.
American Unreality is becoming American Reality
What then is the new America which Maçães sees as breaking away from its European heritage in the form of a new civilization? In brief, it is an America in which “Reality and unreality are increasingly coming together.” In part that owes something to America’s technological revolution, one which enables all Americans to escape their immediate circumstances with a click on their keyboard. Maçães, however, sees the style of contemporary American politics as reflecting and reinforcing the ability of Americans to dwell in their own individual unrealities.
The Watergate scandal is presented as assuming the qualities of the first soap-opera writ large on the American political landscape. Six years after Richard Nixon ended that saga by resigning, the former actor Ronald Reagan came to office. Among other things, Maçães claims that Reagan brought with him the ambition of allowing “Americans to live like movie characters, lost in many different identities and relaxed about their ultimate truth or meaning.” This helps explains what Maçães regards as the contradictions marking Reagan’s policies, such as his freeing up of the financial industry while simultaneously seeking to restrict access to abortion.
For Maçães, Reagan’s positions mimicked the type of Hollywood epic that brings together opposites and playing off their tensions: the Western gunslinger and the East Coast banker, the working-class drunk and the high-class lady, the nun and the prostitute, etc. In Bill Clinton’s case, the president played a different role every day, depending on what a given audience wanted the president to say. From this standpoint, the emergence of Barack Obama—who portrayed himself in his various autobiographies as the embodiment of a particular story about America (with shows like The West Wing serving as prequel to the real thing of his two-term presidency)—or the rise of an actual reality-TV figure to the presidency in the person of Donald Trump, reflect the continuation of unreality’s triumph in American politics and many real Americans’ minds.
American political commentators and journalists, Maçães maintains, have become participants in this recitation of stories, so much so that they consider themselves bound to start talking about a different “narrative” whenever “the story” changes. In this world, journalism has transmogrified into a type of script-writing in which facts assume peripheral importance.
At different points, realities can and often do come-a-knocking, illusions dissolve into thin air, and people find themselves facing often painful truths. Nor is it obvious that countries can escape their heritages so easily.
Herein lies, for Maçães, the key to understanding why unreality may well be the new source of American power. Increasingly, he argues, the action is to be found in the realm of the unreal, not least because unreality is often more exciting for people and thus apt “to conquer or colonize reality.” To the extent that America remains dominant in the world of the unreal, the more dominance it can exert over those throughout the world who seek to escape reality. Thus we see epic wars of words on a mortal-combat scale being waged on Twitter in which the protagonists address each other in crude and hyper-aggressive ways (often via contrived identities) that they would never do in person, while the internet-based Amazon absorbs companies like Whole Foods that produce tangible things. Such examples show us, Maçães believes, why “the fantasy is destined to win.” Thus, the argument seems to go, whoever controls the making of fantasy wins. For the moment, the epicenter of unreality-production, the digital, and the imaginary lies in America. Ergo, America rules.
The power of myths, metaphors and stories is not to be doubted. From biblical and classical times, kings, politicians and governments have understood this. But does fantasy generally overcome reality? The answer to that question, I’d suggest, determines whether Maçães’ thesis holds true.
On one level, there are numerous instances in which movements, parties, or collections of determined individuals have appealed, often successfully, to unreality to buttress their position, advance their agenda, bewilder their enemies, or fill people’s minds with falsehoods. The Soviet Union, for example, did a very good job at convincing people around the globe—including plenty of American intellectuals—that socialism worked and would, as Khrushchev said, “bury you.”
Yet no matter how many lies Communist regimes told about the workers’ paradises of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, the reality of severe economic weaknesses and growing legitimacy problems helped undo the Soviet regime. Despite all the film-reels of endless parades highlighting Soviet military might, the facts of the inherent flaws of a planned socialist economy and the fact that fewer and fewer people believed in Marxism-Leninism played a major role in undermining what turned out to be a weak-kneed colossus. The gaps between the Soviets’ proclamations of bountiful plenty, the empty shelves in Moscow and Leningrad, and the West’s actual economic prosperity became too great to deny. People cannot, after all, feed themselves on illusions.
My point is not to deny that fantasy can go a long way in establishing and maintaining regimes in power or shape perceptions of what matters. It clearly does, and the medium through which this occurs is constantly magnifying—from mass newspapers and books, to film and television, and now to the internet and social media. Maçães points out that, by their very nature, “imaginary worlds . . . are better than reality.” That is why they are so attractive to so many people.
But such worlds have their own limits. At different points, realities can and often do come-a-knocking, illusions dissolve into thin air, and people find themselves facing often painful truths. Nor is it obvious that countries can escape their heritages so easily.
No doubt some would like America to abandon the particular conglomerate of ideas and institutions brought to the fore during the Founding period and whose significance has been unfolded over time. Every day, many among America’s intellectual class beaver away in our universities, schools and media articulating demonstrably false accounts of American history. They’ve been in the propaganda game for a long time. But what’s remarkable about this is that so much of the country has proved resistant to turning itself into a European social democracy ruled by a hybrid of Rawlsian philosopher-king and Davos Man. That points to a persistent attachment, however attenuated, in the American mind to some particular truths about reality which coalesced together in the late-eighteenth century: truths unquestionably bequeathed by Europe to America and which, for millions of Americans, continue to be a decisive reference-point today, no matter how many woke postings on Facebook tell us to look elsewhere.
Yes, rhetoric, symbols, images and lies can shape reality. But there are many truths—whether of the logical, empirical, historical, or human nature variety—that no amount of make-believe or tweeting can overcome, including in America. And sometimes individuals and communities, even entire countries, decide to re-attach themselves to reality. That is when real history is made.