The American idiot” isn’t an insult. It’s a term with a precise and specific meaning
“Hey, Umair. Did you inject yourself with Lysol yet?”
Ben, the London copper, shouted from across the dog park.
I looked up, confused.
Massimo, the Italian doctor, grinned, and cried: “Maybe he drank it already!”
“Wait, what?” It was too early for this. I’d just woken up. Snowy looked up at me, smiling, too. I grumbled, irritated.
And then they told me, shaking with laughter, unable to contain themselves. My jaw dropped, and I laughed, too.
You’ve heard, by now, I’m sure, the statement that most of the world greeted with shock and hilarity. Donald Trump suggested…to fight a deadly pandemic…people should…drink disinfectant…or maybe inject it. LOL, what?
That of course led to numerous manufacturers of disinfectant urgently telling people, no, please, please, don’t drink it, and certainly don’t inject it.
There’s a comedy of errors, and then there’s what you might call the slapstick comedy of idiots. Donald Trump, my friends, exemplifies a certain kind of person, renowned the world over: the American idiot.
Immortalized in a song by a SoCal punk band, the American idiot is a figure everyone knows — and Americans, too often, don’t want to admit exists. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone in my dog park, everyone in the world.
Consider, for a moment, the actions of the American President since the beginning of the pandemic.
— Denying there was one
— Passing an inadequate stimulus bill
— Obstructing any kind of national strategy
— Encouraging “lockdown liberation” protesters
— Cutting funding for the WHO
— And finally, telling people to…drink Lysol
That, my friends, will be remembered as one of the textbook examples of what it means to be an American idiot.
So what does it mean, really? This morning at the dog park, I got ribbed by Massimo and Ben for the above. Yesterday, when I was at the dog park, I got asked, puzzled, by Wolfgang, the funny and gentle German, if it was really true: did Americans carry guns to Starbucks? I looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching freight train. Then I nodded and shrugged. “But why?!” he asked, astonished.
He had a point. The point is made to me every single day now, in baffled conservations, in bewildered questions, in shocked and stunned observations: what the hell is wrong with Americans? Are they really this crazy? They can’t be. But they keep on…so are they? What the?
The world, you see, looks at America, and sees something very different than Americans do. It doesn’t just see a lunatic demagogue telling people to drink Lysol after cutting funding for the WHO. It sees a nation of people quicker to carry a gun than read a book, who’ll happily deny their neighbor’s kids healthcare but go to church every Sunday, who predictably, consistently vote against any improvement to their standards of living…which by now have reached standards that people in most of the rest of the world literally don’t believe, and neither do Americans.
If I tell you, for example, the simple fact that a 15 year old boy in Bangladesh now has a higher chance of making it to old age than an America, would you believe me? And yet…it’s true.
American life is made up of a series of abuses and exploitations and degradations that shock the rest of the world — all of it, not just some of it. You’re a kid, and you go to school, where armed, masked men burst in, and fire fake bullets at you — “active shooter drills.” Maybe you go into “lunch debt.” When it’s time to go off to college — good luck, it’s going to cost as much as a home. Therefore, you can forget about every really owning much, because you’re trying to pay off a series of mounting debts your whole life long. By middle age, like most Americans, you’re simply unable to make ends meet — who can, when going to the hospital can cost more than a mansion? Therefore, forget retirement — it’s something that vanished long ago. Maybe you’re working at Walmart in your old age, maybe you’re driving an Uber — but you’re still where you always were, being exploited and abused for pennies, to make the ultra rich richer.
Nobody — and I mean nobody — in the rest of the world thinks this is sane, normal, or desirable. Nobody. It’s so far right that even the hardest of European right eschews such a social model. The left, of course, points out how badly capitalism has failed — and it’s right. America is off the charts — a society so far into collapse that it can’t see normality at all anymore. It doesn’t even appear to vaguely remember that it’s not OK for everyone, more or less, to be exploited their whole lives long.
That brings me back to the American idiot. I don’t say the above to write a jeremiad, but to explain the American idiot to Americans, which is a job that I think sorely needs doing. Not for any lack of trying, perhaps — but certainly for a lack of success.
“The American idiot” isn’t an insult. It’s a term with a precise and specific meaning. The Greeks called those only interested in private life “idiots” — that is what the term really means. So it is for Americans.
What unites those “lockdown liberation” protesters, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, McKinsey and Co running concentration camps, and Faux News? 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.
This way of thinking stems from Ayn Rand, who was an acolyte of Nietzsche’s harder, later more embittered thinking, and to it, the idea of any kind of common good is itself a lie. To even imagine a common good or public interest is to do damage. To what? To the Uberman. To the Zarathustra. To the “master morality”, which must dominate the “slave morality”, is the world is to be fair.
Do you see the sleight of hand there? In that little philosophical parlour trick, every virtue has been perverted. Selfishness has become generosity. Cruelty, compassion. Brutality, kindness. Vanity, humility. Good has become bad when we imagine that to conceive of any interest larger than our own narrow material gain is itself foul and harmful — because what good can we really then do in the world? Instead, we pervert ourselves, and believe the foolish lie that only our own narrow enrichment matters, only our own existence counts, and only our own “opinion” is truth. That leaves us with a very big problem.
If I believe that any form of collective action, public interest, or common good is inherently bad — then all the following things become flatly impossible. Morality. Ethics. Society. Decency. Modernity. Civilization itself.
That’s because civilization and modernity are made of public goods. Think of Europe — and you imagine grand public squares, broad avenues, wide open parks, art on the streets. All these public goods are the essence of modernity — as is the expansive healthcare, retirement, education, and so forth, of European social contracts. These are the things which civilize us, and keep us civilized. I bump into you in the town square, and we chat. How has the day gone? I see you. You are not just my rival in a capitalist contest. We are equals for a moment on this ground. Just like I am at the dog park, with the grizzled London copper, the Italian doctor, the German accountant. But where does that happen in American society? That levelling? That equality? That freedom from capital and role and status? Nowhere.
The end result is that, as much of the world says now, America’s a society which never became civilized. That might sound unkind if you’re American, but how else, really, is one to speak of a place where kids are made to pretend to die at school, where going to the doctor can bankrupt you, and whose leader tells you to…drink Lysol?
The American idiot, then, is a certain kind of person, who believes in a certain kind of quasi-philosophy. I say “quasi” because of course it doesn’t make sense when you actually think about it, but the whole point of this game is not to think very hard. That quasi-philosophy is just the above: greed is good, brutality is better, cruelty is excellent. I am in a contest to dominate and subjugate everyone else. Sure, I must play by the legal rules, perhaps — but the point is to exploit before I’m exploited, to prey on before I’m preyed on.
Maybe that’s not you, but it’s certainly vast swathes of America. It’s Ivy League kids swooning over Wall St jobs — where they’ll never do a damned thing useful with their lives. It’s Red States jeering at Blue States — while, ironically, living off the public purse. It’s HMOs and stock markets. It’s Jeff Bezos and every aspiring Silicon Valley magnate. It’s elites inside the Beltway, cackling as the country falls apart.
So far as I can see, nobody — and I mean nobody — in American public life challenges the way of thinking above. Even calls it out for what it is. Instead, Americans play a strange game. They pretend. They pretend that their society hasn’t become a predatory machine run by sociopaths, that exploitation is the force which rules life, that it’s gone to the absurd degree of “active shooter drills” and Presidents putting kids in camps run by giant corporations. They sanitize all that, whitewash it, pretend it away, with Hallmark stories of white picket fences and romances in small towns that somehow never had a post-industrial implosion into drugs, gangs, crime, and chaos.
That’s a deeper kind of American idiot. The first kind actively, loudly espouses a kind of aggressive, hostile individualism — “lockdown protesters.” They make a lot of noise, but the truth is they’re a small fringe. It’s the second kind of American idiot who’s truly dangerous. And that’s the well-meaning person who’s busy 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.
That second kind of American idiot is the dangerous one because the power to change lies in their hands. The first kind — the Trumpist — is a lost cause. They’re so mentally broken, regressed to an infantile state where they need a Daddy to protect them, that it’d take years of therapy to even begin to approach reality with anything but violence and tantrums. But the second kind isn’t mentally broken yet. In my estimation — and this is going to hurt — they’re either cowards, or fools.
Think of a Chris Hayes or an Ezra Klein or someone of that ilk. They’re good guys, sure. But they’re also American idiots. They’ve never used the word fascism once to describe kids in cages in camps and raids and purges. The word authoritarianism is something they might have begun to use recently. They’ve never taught you the last living Nuremberg Prosecutor called Trump’s actions crimes against humanity…years ago. Never taught you that the entire rest of the world more or less wanted to be a social democracy, and America bombed about a quarter of it, and then installed dictators in countries it couldn’t bomb. Never taught you that American economics is about 99% bullshit, and 1% horseshit — how’s that Coronavirus Depression working out?
The result is that even the good and smart among Americans tend to be mostly idiots, too. Again, I don’t mean that as an insult — I mean that they tend to think in ways that are not just profoundly ignorant and empirically obviously false, but are ignorant because they’re selfish, self-absorbed, self-concerned, narcissistic. What really trickles down in America is the idea that individualism, cruelty, brutality, and aggression will fix everything — all we have to do is slap prettier labels on them, whether “gender pronouns” or “corporate wellness programs.” The way of thinking, though, remains precisely the same: an overweening concern with the private over the public.
The Chrises and Ezras stopped teaching Americans anything actually true or resonant in a larger global or social sense long ago because they’ve been raised so much on myths of exceptionalism that they can’t bring themselves to look reality square in the eye, and say: “Man. Were we ever wrong. Let’s fix this.” They’d rather go on believing the myth — it’s more comfortable, a narcotic in a time of distress. The net result, though, is that they end up acting just like…idiiots…in that classical sense all over again: only interested in their private gains.
There’s a question all my European friends ask me, incredulously — which I put to my American friends. “How on earth did Americans — even the so-called sane ones, the Dems — vote against better healthcare in the middle of a literal global pandemic?” It’s a fair question.
Do you know what my Americans friends respond with? Sorry, guys. They give me the look. Do you know the look? It’s the look a fratboy gives you when you ask him what the last book he read was. It’s the look an Instagram influencer gives you when you ask them if they might really be deeply unhappy inside. The look a Wall St analyst gives you when you ask them why they don’t do something that matters with their life. The one that Donald Trump gives anyone who asks him a real question, for just a moment, before he erupts in wet, florid rage.
The look. The face muscles go slack. The eyes go blank. The mouth purses. The brow knits and furrows. The jaw sets tight. The arms fold. Students of body language know exactly what the look means. It’s a mind going into furious denial and repression. The pursed lips repress the rage that’s been sparked. The furrowed brow signals furious thought. The blank eyes say here is a person who’s not really here at all right now. The slack face says this person has nothing but contempt for you in this moment.
Whenever you try to talk to Americans — seriously — about their collapsing society, they give you the look. 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’ve just said it. They don’t want to hear it. They want to annihilate you where you stand. The look doesn’t lie.
The look is the sign of the American idiot.
I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. But someone has to be a little bit ruthlessly honest with Americans right about now.
It’s true that 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.