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Paul Fanlund: To foreigners, do we all look like American idiots?

Paul Fanlund: To foreigners, do we all look like American idiots?

Trump Disinfectant Protesters

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

“American Idiot” was a signature song for the rock band Green Day, a pounding, derisive anthem aimed at George W. Bush, the Iraq War and the American public. Among its non-profane lyrics: “I’m not part of the redneck agenda.”

A decade and a half later, an acclaimed London-based author pretty much sees all of us as American idiots. Umair Haque, the son of a Pakistani economist, has been ranked among the world’s top 50 management thinkers by Thinkers50.

His latest essay on the website Medium is headlined: “Donald Trump, American Idiot.” Its subhead: “How ignorance, rage and fear became the ruling principles of American life.”

Now, I suspect most people in Madison, at least those not toting automatic weapons and whining about their right to ignore a pandemic at the state Capitol, would concur that Trump is the paragon of American idiocy.

But Haque suggests we all are idiots for failing to adequately confront Trumpism because we’re too busy, as he puts it, being selfish, self-absorbed, self-concerned and narcissistic.

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“Whenever you try to talk to Americans — seriously — about their collapsing society, they give you the look,” he writes. “Even the good ones — maybe especially the good ones. They don’t want the question asked. They think you a fool for raising it. They can’t believe you just said it. … The look doesn’t lie.”

He adds, “I’m sorry if it sounds harsh. But someone has to be a little bit ruthlessly honest with Americans right about now. It’s true Donald Trump is the ultimate example of the American idiot. But it’s also true that the American idiot isn’t just Donald Trump.

“It’s truest of all, perhaps, that it takes a society of idiots to be led by a Donald Trump, at all.”

Ouch.

Haque eviscerates Trump, of course. Hard to avoid that. Since the pandemic started, Haque writes, Trump has denied there was one, signed inadequate stimulus bills, obstructed any national strategy, encouraged “lockdown liberation” protesters, cut funding to the World Health Organization, and told people to drink Lysol. “That, my friend, will be remembered as one of the textbook examples of what it means to be an American idiot.”

But Haque describes his conversations with others in London about the Lysol story and how Americans routinely carry guns into coffee shops and so forth. He summed up the common view of us from across the ocean: What the hell is wrong with Americans? Are they really this crazy?

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The rest of the civilized world has come to see Americans very differently than how we see ourselves, he writes. When the world looks at America, he contends it sees more than a single “lunatic demagogue.”

“It sees a nation of people quicker to pick up a gun than read a book, who’ll happily deny their neighbor’s kids health care but go to church every Sunday, who will predictably, consistently vote against any improvement to their standard of living.”

Haque’s essay is compelling because it is so unsparing in assessing America from the outside. It’s like in sports journalism when a writer from someplace else writes something unpleasant about our favorite team, an article that the “homers” in the local press might be reluctant to write.

So why does Haque think we are like this?

His theory revolves around how Americans, now more than ever, reject anything resembling the existence of a public good, that our culture embraces individualism as a smokescreen for selfishness. Haque writes that the term “American idiot” has a precise and specific meaning: The Greeks considered those only interested in private life to be “idiots,” and so it fits us.

He cites Americans on both the right and left, and writes, “They are all in it for private gain. There is no sense of a common wealth or of a public interest or a shared good whatsoever. In fact, even that’s an understatement.”

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He writes that “good has become bad when we imagine that … any interest larger than our own narrow material gain is itself foul and harmful.” Furthermore, this thinking goes, what difference can one person really make?

Haque’s characterization of Americans brings to mind the fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” In Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech, he says, “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

Over time, I think the Republican Party has masterfully leveraged the American mindset of exceptional self-interest, exploiting it via racial dog whistles and, in Wisconsin, a decade of pitting “ordinary, hard-working citizens” against “elites” and people of color in the state’s two largest cities.

Haque acknowledges the most strident of Trump’s supporters may be a lost cause: “They’re so mentally broken, regressed to an infantile state where they need a Daddy to protect them. … It would take years of therapy to even begin to approach reality with anything but violence and tantrums.”

Haque contends it is the rest of us, whom he labels the second group of American idiots, as the most dangerous: “That’s the well-meaning person who’s desperately pretending that everything’s OK. That a country in a situation this dire doesn’t need to ask fundamental questions about its values and beliefs, about what the hell went wrong to end up like this.”

So even good and smart Americans are idiots, he concludes, for tolerating a culture embracing the fallacy that individualism and aggression will fix everything, one that always puts private interests over public ones.

I’m sharing Haque’s searing critique of America not because it excoriates Trump as the epitome of venality, because such critiques are ubiquitous.

I’m sharing it for Haque’s take on how the rest of the world sees the rest of us, that they do not regard Trump as anomalous, but as a predictable reflection of who we are.

You don’t have to agree that all Americans are idiots, but I can understand how — viewing the current clown show aspects of American culture from afar — you might get to that conclusion.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.