As Americans celebrate their national independence today, July 4th, it’s become harder than ever for them to tell their country’s story to the world. Their new president is a big part of the problem.
Donald J. Trump, who took office in January, has asserted that his use of Twitter to circumvent what he considers to be the “lying” media is “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” He has also made a habit of lobbing personal insults at journalists, and even physical threats, drawing widespread, cringing condemnation, even from his own party.
This is a crucial period for American democracy, and whether it can withstand an era of bitter division, digitized. The question for Americans is whether they can maintain their image in the eyes of the world in spite of their president. If they can, it will serve as evidence of who really runs the US: the American people or the American president.
It’s a big responsibility for Americans themselves, with social media exposing their best and worst qualities to the world. As a chorus, it’s up to them to sing a song louder than Trump’s, through billions of posts that humanize them to the world. They’ll be their own, and only, best diplomatic corps.
The image of the US has suffered over the last six months, according to a new Pew Poll. The favourability rating of the country has slipped from 64 percent to 49 percent in the last six months, according to the opinions of thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world. An overwhelming 74 percent of respondents reported “no confidence” in Trump to do the right thing.
A majority of Americans agree. A Gallup chart of Trump’s approval ratings among Americans show him in a serious, months-long decline. Trump’s approval rating stands at just 37 percent.
At the same time, the Pew poll found a generous global view of Americans, and their culture, with a median of 58 percent favourability across the world.
“Over the past 16 years, whatever their views of the United States and whoever sits in the White House, global publics have often maintained a favorable impression of Americans,” the report stated.
The opinions aren’t uniform, however. Europeans and East Asians express far greater approval for Americans themselves than do people in the Middle East or Latin America. A notable standout is Turkey, where 64 percent have negative views of Americans. But even in Turkey, Americans fare better than Trump, found favourable by just 11 percent of Turks, according to Pew.
But this is an unprecedented time in human history, where average citizens have a chance to speak directly and instantly with each other across the planet, a feat only possible for the last several generations, and an ability that has gotten easier and more convenient than ever. Just as Trump can tweet his way around a free press, Americans have the ability to show who they are to the world without ever leaving home.
Over the last month, the editorial pages and magazines in the United States have published thousands of words lamenting the alleged loss of an “US-led international order,” following President Donald Trump’s brash behaviour before European allies and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
There’s reason to be sceptical of these alarming conclusions. In spite of what its current government does, the United States still retains a massive amount of cultural influence that persists even when its president seems to treat the rest of the world with such disdain.
Trump and his nationalist-in-chief Steven K. Bannon might delight in alienating NATO allies, but Netflix subscribers worldwide can’t wait to find out what happens on the next season of House of Cards, where a fictional American president engages in Machiavellian intrigue without all the self-incriminating tweets.
The slogan “America First” that the White House trots out, a term coined first by Nazi-sympathisers, is not one that the American people have to endorse. Indeed, in an increasingly connected world, the American people themselves are becoming the country’s new diplomats. Of course, there are millions of Americans who endorse a fiercely nationalistic ideal of their country, but the next four years will bear out whether those millions are in the minority.
For as much as Trump and the White House want to retreat from alliances and international treaties, the same is not true of the American people. The mantle of leadership rests on them, and they far outnumber Trump’s cabinet.
Only 36 percent of Americans have a passport, and don’t get out of their country much (thanks to an expensive passport and few paid holidays), combined with an array of domestic vacation destinations and being both protected and isolated by two big oceans. But the Internet, a largely American enterprise, has shrunk the world down to the size of a smartphone.
In the 20th century, public diplomacy efforts were coordinated through the now mothballed United States Information Agency, which tried to tell America’s story to the rest of the world through cultural exhibits organised by embassies and consulates. In addition to building good will, the messages from USIA were meant to counter rival Soviet content.
That kind of analog official diplomacy has become a quaint anachronism. Today, a person’s opinion of Americans is more likely to come from the latest Facebook post of that one they met at a hostel once years before, someone they will almost certainly never see again. Now the job of telling America’s story is up to American citizens themselves, and they don’t even realise it.
Jed Shein, co-founder and board member of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, based in Washington DC, said that countries getting their messages out in the Information Age means competing with a vast array of different sources of data. But information that comes with a personal authenticity has a particular punch compared to a press release.
“The value of that information that’s coming from a friend, whether that’s online or in person, that’s always sometimes perceived as being stronger, but that’s no different than if you’re meeting someone in a park or meeting someone by the Eiffel Tower that’s going to resonate you because you have that personal connection,” Shein told TRT World.
Over the last year, America’s story has gotten a lot harder for Americans themselves to understand. Hundreds of millions of them agree that Trump isn’t telling that story, whatever it is.
But a common trait among Americans is that when they have an opinion, they will let you know it. We — uh, and by that I mean they — are not good at shutting up.