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After Trump’s Lies, the Establishment’s Tripe and Self-Deception

The idea of an American-led world order is as detached from reality as Trump’s insistence that he won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

US President Donald Trump makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 15, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

For Donald Trump, truth is a matter of convenience, with facts entirely optional and plenty of space allowed for make-believe. Yet in American public life, our current president is far from being the sole purveyor of fictions and falsehoods. The very institutions that citizens count on to distinguish between fact and fable engage in their own forms of mythmaking. While they may steer clear of telling outright lies, they dispense no small amount of drivel, concealing actual truth behind a veil of illusion.

Allow me to offer an illustrative example in the form of a recent column by the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle, a seasoned journalist now installed in that paper’s stable of political commentators and called upon twice weekly to reflect on the fate of humankind.

The title of Von Drehle’s essay poses a question: “Joe Biden says America is back. Back to what?” Von Drehle then proceeds to spell out his own answer to that what. Yet in doing so, he packages his views in a specific historical context. It’s that context that is instructive.

Let us acknowledge that the Biden team is no more likely to take its cues from some garden-variety pundit than from members of the outgoing administration. Van Drehle’s policy recommendations—that Biden should “end the mollycoddling” of Saudi Arabia, insist that China “play by the rules,” and knit “the Americas into a hemisphere of happiness”—carry about as much weight with the incoming administration as do Mike Pompeo’s opinions, i.e. next to none whatsoever.

Yet this is not to say that Von Drehle’s column is just so much hot air. From his perch at the Post, he is a small, but not inconsequential player in a grand project to which members of the foreign policy establishment swear fealty. The aim of that project is to salvage and rejuvenate claims of American Exceptionalism that Donald Trump mangled and trashed nearly beyond recognition.

The establishment’s preferred version of exceptionalism emphasizes not America as exemplar—that’s for sissies—but America as the instrument chosen by God or Providence to direct history itself. Pumping new life into this hoary old notion requires persuading Americans today that before Trump screwed things up, the United States had history well in hand, with the world taking its cues from Washington.

Von Drehle purports to believe that such a world actually existed. Furthermore, he believes that a sufficiently savvy U.S. president can restore that world—all that’s required is assertive American leadership. Nor is he alone in entertaining the prospect of going “back” to that triumphal time, before Trump appeared on the scene and messed everything up. Indeed, take Biden’s rhetoric at face value and our next president may well share in this fantasy.

So of considerably greater significance than Von Drehle’s policy prescriptions is the historical wrapping in which they arrive. It’s history with a specific and carefully selected time horizon. For Von Drehle (and probably for Biden), the history that matters begins with the end of World War II, a moment that ostensibly inaugurated “seven decades of bipartisan [foreign policy] consensus.” Providing a foundation for that consensus was a “win-win view of America’s role in the world.” Generations of postwar leaders, according to Von Drehle, understood that “the long-term interests of Americans were best served by the gradual expansion of peace and prosperity worldwide.” The result was “an expansive, internationalist approach” to basic policy. This, in sum, is the past that Von Drehle is selling as a roadmap to a happy future.

Now such assertions may not qualify as bald-faced lies in a Trumpian sense, but taken together they amount to a fairy tale. The postwar bipartisan consensus was never more than partial and tentative at best. When put to the test—with Vietnam as the most vivid example—it gave way. Nor did the Cold War and the accompanying nuclear arms race reflect a win-win view of America’s role in the world. The Cold War was a zero-sum game, pitting us against them—“better dead than Red,” remember?

As for the United States promoting the gradual expansion of peace and prosperity worldwide, that claim is difficult to square with Washington’s marriages of convenience with sundry dictators, involvement in numerous coups and assassination plots, and the U.S. penchant for killing people in faraway places, unmatched by any other nation on the planet. Since 9/11 in particular, war and disorder rather than peace and prosperity have been America’s principal exports. All of this predated Trump.

Von Drehle is eager for the United States to resume “its rightful place in the world order” as “the friend of freedom and the scourge of tyrants.” Forget just for a second that the United States befriended a long list of tyrants: Batista, Somoza, Marcos, Noriega, the Shah of Iran, Mubarak of Egypt, and, until 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Of greater relevance to the present moment is this question: who or what assigns nations their rightful place in the world order? This is not a matter upon which columnists in the employ of the Washington Post are inclined to reflect, preferring to assume that history’s decision is irreversible: we are Numero Uno. Period. Full stop. Been that way forever.

Yet this is a form of madness, as utterly detached from reality as Trump’s insistence that he won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Von Drehle is peddling tripe. He pays no price for doing so. In some respects, doing so defines the essence of his job. In a couple of days, he will produce another column, further embellishing the nation’s achievements as friend of freedom and scourge of tyrants, as will his various counterparts at the Post, the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other prestige outlets.

They will collaborate in minimizing the moral ambiguity that permeates America’s past. They will shrug off crimes or lock them away in a box labeled “Sorry. Didn’t Mean To.” They will inhibit learning and bury truth.

And they will get away with it.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and TAC’s writer-at-large.

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