By Daniel Lazare
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most right-wing presidential candidate of all?
The answer used to be Donald Trump, famous for his naked bigotry toward Mexicans and Muslims. But that was before Hillary Clinton supporters took a page from the old Joe McCarthy handbook and began denouncing their Republican opponent as “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” or arguing that criticism of Clinton and NATO somehow emanates out of Moscow.
Now comes Clinton’s speech at an American Legion convention in Cincinnati, her most bellicose to date, in which she savages Trump for failing to embrace the ultra-imperialist doctrine of “American exceptionalism.”
“My opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world,” she said Wednesday. “In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him, saying, and I quote, ‘if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.’ Well maybe you don’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Good people, she went on, do not take exception to the doctrine – only enemies do:
“When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values. Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void.”
It’s either American tutelage or Armageddon, in other words, which is why countries that are smart and sensible know better than to resist. To round out her pro-war package, Clinton also promised to respond to foreign cyberattacks with military means – perhaps sending out drones to bomb Wikileaks? – and promised to deal with the world’s bullies as well.
“I know that we can’t cozy up to dictators,” she said. “We have to stand up to them.”
All this from a woman whose family foundation has received up to $25 million from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most repressive government on earth, plus up to $50 million from other Persian Gulf sources. (The Saudis also donated $10-million to the construction of the Bill Clinton presidential library.)
American Legion’s Dubious History
Moreover, it was before an organization, born amid the post-World War I Red Scare that:
–So admired Mussolini that it invited him to address its annual convention in 1923.
–Proclaimed to the world that “the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is the United States,” in the words of founder Alvin Owsley.
–Took part in the notorious Centralia massacre in Washington State in which Wesley Everest, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, was lynched from a railway trestle and then shot for good measure.
–Called for Communists to be tried for treason in the 1950s and pushed for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning in the 1990s.
Although Salon.com, yet another member of the mighty Clinton propaganda Wurlitzer, recently described Trump as a latter-day Mussolini, it’s actually Clinton who is pandering to the Black Shirts. Somehow she has gotten it into her head that the best way to attack Trump is to bash him from the right. Hence her Cincinnati speech lambasting him not for being too extreme on the question of America’s foreign policy, but for not being extreme enough.
“American exceptionalism” has become a battle cry because it neatly sums up the imperial ideal of a global hegemon that is so unchallengeable that it supersedes law and morality.
Ironically, none other than Joseph Stalin coined the phrase in 1927 to describe a thesis advanced by U.S. Communist leader Jay Lovestone – later to become a close collaborator with the CIA – that American capitalism was so youthful and vigorous as to be exempt from the usual Marxist laws of crisis and decay.
The term went into hibernation following the Crash of 1929 for obvious reasons. But it re-surfaced half a century later among neoconservatives, many of them ex-Marxists who still remembered the old party controversies. But now it was used to describe a country that was not only exempt economically, but morally and politically.
In classic political terms, the U.S. was now the global sovereign, a supreme authority that imposes law on others but not on itself. Whatever the U.S. does is legal because it decides what’s legal and what’s not. The actions, whatever they are and however they seem to violate legal and ethical boundaries, are moral because the U.S. sets the moral rules.
Bashing the ‘Anti-Exceptionalists’
Clinton is in love with the phrase because it allows her to draw the line against enemies near and far. On one side are those countries that submit to U.S. sovereignty because they know it is “a force for peace and progress” and thus exist on the good side of the moral-legal boundary, while on the other are those that balk at American control and, as a result, are beyond the pale.
Domestically, it allows her to draw a bright red line as well between “patriotic” Americans who embrace the doctrine and a few naysayers who don’t.
Among the latter, remarkably enough, is Trump. At a Texas Tea Party event in April 2015, Trump confessed that he didn’t “like the term.” As he put it:
“People say, ‘Oh, he’s not patriotic.’ Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, ‘Why are you exceptional? We’re doing better than you.’ I never liked the term. And that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that. Honestly.”
For Clinton, this is pure heresy. Since “defending American exceptionalism should always be above politics,” as she put it in Cincinnati, Trump is plainly at odds with the new U.S. consensus.
Since another person who rejects American exceptionalism is Russian President Vladimir Putin – “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” he declared in 2013 – the two men must somehow be in league.
None of this is to let Trump off the hook. His neo-isolationism is hardly less pugnacious than Clinton’s interventionism since it sees the world as ganging up on the U.S. in order to rob its wealth and weaken its economy.
As he also told the Texas Tea Party gathering: “I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much.”
Thus, he also draws a bright red line – not between the American empire and its enemies, but between America and the entire outside world, all of which is seen in its entirety as hostile and ungrateful.
It’s an echo of the “Little Englander” movement of the Nineteenth Century, one that held that Britain had no need of faraway colonies filled with unappreciative black and brown people and that it should therefore withdraw into the cozy little world of yesteryear. It’s an insular and conservative viewpoint.
But those who opposed it did so not because they were less racist, but because they were more. The upshot was a new explosion of imperialism that culminated in the “scramble for Africa” in which 90 percent of the continent came under European domination, the “great game” for control of Central Asia, and so on.
The competing sides were caught up in a dialectic of destruction that culminated in the bloody debacle of 1914 in which the Great Powers, running out of places to plunder, fell to plundering among themselves.
A Dangerous Tipping Point?
Is America at a similar inflexion point? Evidence is growing that it is. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s successful push for U.S. bombing operations against ISIS in the coastal city of Sirte is one indication that the tide is now turning in the neocons’ favor.
A second was the Pentagon’s establishment of a de-facto no-fly zone in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah where U.S.-backed Kurdish nationalists were seeking to oust pro-government forces. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Hawks Advance a War Agenda in Syria.”]
A third was Vice President Joe Biden’s enthusiastic endorsement of Turkey’s recent Syrian incursion, an act so flagrantly at odds with international law that long-time liberal interventionists like The Guardian’s Martin Chulov were left aghast.
A fourth, finally, is the Russophobic propaganda barrage led by The New York Times,with The Guardian and Washington Post pulling up the rear. Putin is out to steal the November election! He’s taken over Wikileaks and is using it to his own advantage!
No Putin-bashing story is too thinly-sourced, unlikely, or one-sided to be disbelieved. The result is a hysterical atmosphere reminiscent of the 1950s in which dodgy doctrines like American exceptionalism go down all the more easily.
Of course, the fact that Trump is indeed a bigoted, sexist know-nothing makes Clinton’s job all the easier. If the anti-exceptionalists are so awful, then her argument that law and morality are all on the side of U.S. imperialism becomes slightly more plausible.
But it shouldn’t. The U.S. has helped destroy at least four Middle Eastern nations – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – while it is now busily reducing a fifth, i.e. Syria, to smithereens.
Perhaps the most important line in Clinton’s Cincinnati speech referred to U.S. troops reductions in the Middle East: “We have redeployed well over 100,000 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan so they can go home, rest, and train for future contingencies.”
What might those contingencies be? Another round of intervention in Syria is the likeliest, although neocons no doubt have their eyes on other targets as well: the eastern Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics, and the Pacific as well. The more Clinton’s election prospects brighten, the bolder the neocons’ ambitions will grow.
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Yes, Hillary Clinton Is a Neocon.”]
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).