The Trump effect is obliterating America’s international prestige

We live in an age of toxic American exceptionalism, says veteran BBC correspondent Nick Bryant

June 3, 2024 6:00 am(Updated June 5, 2024 1:13 pm)

As a young child with a fixation on America, I felt an especially magnetic pull towards the US presidential elections. The razzmatazz of the road to the White House. The pomp and all-American circumstance of inaugural celebrations, with their flowery speeches, thumping military music and showbusiness flourishes. Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” at Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inaugural gala. Aretha Franklin at Bill Clinton’s 1993 swearing-in belting out “My Country ’Tis of Thee”, wearing a giant hat whose circumference seemed almost to rival the dimensions of the Capitol dome.

Now, though, US politics has become a sad and sorry spectacle. Not so much pass the popcorn, as watch from behind the sofa. Certainly it is not something I want my kids to see. Rather, I try to shield them from the country where, during Donald Trump’s first term in office, they spent their early childhood years. America’s fabled city upon a hill looks more like a madhouse. A country that prides itself on being a beacon of democracy emits the noxious fumes of a bin fire.

Now, we face the real possibility of a convicted felon becoming president. The 34 guilty verdicts are neither legally or politically disqualifying. They have energised Trump’s base, boosted his fundraising and demonstrated his complete control of the Republican Party. The cliche trotted out in 2016, that he mounted a hostile takeover of the party, was never right. From the moment he descended his golden escalator, there was always massive shareholder buy-in from American conservatives.

Back then, Trump famously predicted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still his supporters would vote for him. Even following January 6, 2021, when he incited an American insurrection, he remained a right-wing anti-hero. Less than two months afterwards, I saw him address a conservative conference in Florida where he was hailed like a messiah. This, however, was no political resurrection, for it was clear by then that his role in the storming of the US Capitol had not killed him off politically.

At that conference in Florida, supporters even put a golden statue of Trump on display, which they treated like a shrine. What should have been a moment of Trumpian rejection instead became a moment of further Republican radicalisation. Rather than the billionaire being exiled, it was conservative detractors, such as the then congresswoman Liz Cheney, who were purged. As the reaction to the guilty verdicts has underscored, there are few Republicans left brave enough to criticise him.

However, it is the wavering Republican voters, alienated by his criminality and all-round craziness, who will decide this election rather than his rusted-on supporters. A poll from Reuters taken after the verdict came in showed one in ten Republicans would be less likely to vote for him as a result of his conviction. Given the wafer-thin margins that will decide this race, that could be enough to lose him the election.

When, for American democracy, did things go wrong? Paradoxically, victory in the Cold War, and the triumph over communism, ushered in an era of US democratic decline. Without the Soviet Union acting as a common enemy, Republicans and Democrats took more vicious aim at each other. Washington became the new Berlin, the place where the country fought its ideological battles. Members of the Second World War’s greatest generation, who had dominated post-war politics, were supplanted by baby boomers like Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, whose political views were forged during the culture wars of the 60s. Internationally, America was enjoying a unipolar moment. At home, it was becoming more bipolar.

The first presidential election of the 21st century, between George W Bush and Al Gore, became a national embarrassment. The recount in Florida descended into farce. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe even offered to send election observers. The conservative-leaning Supreme Court ultimately handed victory to Bush, demonstrating how the judiciary had become so partisan. Gore won the popular vote but lost the election, revealing the absurdities of the electoral college.

For sure, the victory of Barack Obama revived America’s democratic brand. Given that the country’s grand narrative is one of progress and advancement, many assumed the first Black president would be superseded by the first female president. Instead, Obama was followed into office by a racist misogynist.

The Trump effect, and the rottenness at its core, continues to sully America’s international prestige. We live in an age of toxic American exceptionalism.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict with Itself, published by Bloomsbury on 6 June