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Donald Trump in Washington, DC on 1/4/2019 © Michael Candelori / Shutterstock

In US Politics, Is Anyone in Control?

As the elected leaders of the ongoing match of wills that pundits call Washington politics, Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump desperately try to affirm their capacity for control.

The intercultural expert Robert Kohls has identified as many as 13 core values that define US culture. At the top of his list is “control.” In contrast with other cultures that, to different degrees, accept a certain level of outside influence or even fatality around the events of their lives, Americans begin to feel uneasy whenever they sense that they are no longer in control.

As is so often the case, President Donald Trump’s exaggerated behavior and rhetoric reveals some of the deeper trends of American culture. In the latest of his never-ending litany of creative insults directed against Democrats — and indeed anyone who disagrees with him — he offers us some helpful evidence of what the notion of control means in US culture.

On April 15, Trump tweeted: “Before Nancy, who has lost all control of Congress and is getting nothing done, decides to defend her leader, Rep. Omar, she should look at the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ungrateful U.S. HATE statements Omar has made. She is out of control, except for her control of Nancy!”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Control:

The ability to mold all aspects of the environment, including the people one associates or works with, in a way that is consistent with the dictates of one’s own ego

Contextual note

The first feature that foreigners — and Asians in particular — notice about Americans is the importance of “self.” American individualism (the focus on oneself) easily morphs into egoism and, if allowed to go further, narcissism. The more Americans feel a pressure to control their surroundings, the more likely it will be that they display narcissistic behavior.

In his tweet, President Trump pulls out all the stops on the notion of control. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, has “lost all control of Congress.” As majority leader, her job is to control her party, which ideally means to dictate her will to the others, rather than debate.

Pelosi herself, as an exponent of US culture, agrees. In her 60 Minutes interview this past week, when asked about the resistance of members of her own party, and especially the young progressives, she countered: “By and large, whatever orientation they came to Congress with, they know that we have to hold the center. That we have to … go down the mainstream.” The interviewer, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, replied: “But it doesn’t look like that. It looks as if it — you’re — it’s fractured.” Pelosi then used a sleight of hand to affirm her control by claiming “I’m a progressive.”

For the average viewer this may have created the confusing impression either that Pelosi believes mainstream and progressive are synonyms or that she has the rare talent of being able to shift from one identity to another in only a few seconds. For Trump, who must have watched this interview on TV, this was proof that Pelosi had “lost all control of Congress.”

Trump then takes a step further to call Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar the “leader,” the one who controls Pelosi and, therefore, the Democratic Party majority. This enables Trump to push his barely nuanced Islamophobic insults against Omar, whom he represents as an enemy of America’s true values, which happen to be identical with Israel’s. To any attentive observer, this might appear to be an admission that it is Israel that controls Trump’s policies.

President Trump’s comments to a reporter concerning Omar confirm this impression: “She’s been very disrespectful to this country. She’s been very disrespectful, frankly, to Israel. She is somebody that doesn’t really understand life, real life. What it’s all about.” In Trump’s mind, there is a total equivalence between “this country” and Israel.

But Trump is well aware that he doesn’t control Israel, since he is the one to adopt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies — including the recent example of annexation of the Golan Heights — rather than the contrary. Time magazine points to Trump’s curious attitude of obedience to Netanyahu. It has led to “the ironic consequence that the American president appears to support the Jews of Israel more than the Jews of the United States.”

Addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition on April 6, Trump boasted: “I stood with your prime minister at the White House to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” But Netanyahu is not the prime minister of American Jewish Republicans. The Times of Israel points out that Trump appears to have adopted the very “accusations of dual loyalty toward the Jewish state” that he and others blamed Omar for suggesting might in certain cases play a role in politics. The difference is that Trump assumes that dual loyalty is the case for all Jews, whereas Omar suggests that the sentiment of dual loyalty may influence certain individuals, which is certainly true (Joe Lieberman being a well-documented example).

Historical note

National and regional cultures develop over time. They are natural outgrowths of the history of their people and the modes of communication and collaboration. They exist as a set of shared expectations about how people interact. Out of the patterns of interaction emerge what we call “core values.”

What do we mean by core values when we speak about any culture? Contrary to what some people believe, cultural values are not abstract ideals that people attempt to live up to. Instead, they are assumptions about effective forms and styles of behavior that, at worst, will always be tolerated and excused and, at best, encouraged and even required for anyone who wants to achieve an image of excellence. Another easily recognized value in US culture is the notion of speed. “Time is money,” it must not be wasted. Getting the job done beats talking about even why you’re doing the job.

But this doesn’t mean that all Americans are speed demons. Many take things in a relaxed, cool, laid-back way, which of course frustrates those who are obsessed by speed. But even laid-back Americans consider that speed and rapid achievement of goals are virtues and a desirable feature of “normal” behavior. They have simply opted out of the norm. They may even consider themselves in some sense — to use one of Trump’s favorite terms — losers.

On the other hand, the speedsters, who get things done, the “makers” rather than the “takers,” the active builders versus the passive consumers, judge those who are more relaxed about time and the ambition to achieve as inferior members of the culture. In other words, both groups agree on what is theoretically preferable. The slow ones are, in some sense, grateful that the speedsters keep the show running.

In an identical way, US culture tells all Americans that control is a virtue to be cultivated. Perhaps the best explanation of Trump’s victory in 2016 may be that with the evident weakening of an American empire that no longer controls the way the rest of the world thinks, enough Americans (in the swing states) felt that Donald Trump had a personality that was focused on control. They were right in their analysis of Trump’s personality. They were wrong to think that his obsession with control would produce any positive results.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.