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The spectre of Reagan or Winthrop?

Jul 31,2016 - Last updated at Jul 31,2016

While watching the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions, I could not help but notice the strong presence of Ronald Reagan, especially his invocation of the “shining city upon a hill”. In his 1989 farewell address, Reagan brought that image into focus when he said, “I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life.”

According to him, the city — the epitome of the US — “was a tall, proud [one] built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here”.

The phrase “shining city upon a hill”, as Reagan then told his viewers and listeners, comes from John Winthrop, one of the foundational figures in American history. Winthrop in turn derived it from the Bible, Book of Matthew 5:14, invoking it in a well-known sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity”, which he gave onboard the Arbella in 1630.

Addressing his companion pilgrims or immigrants — “illegal” ones at that, to use current pernicious terminology — Winthrop highlighted the importance of establishing a new community that is diametrically opposed to that of the “Old World” and that imagines its members as constituting a chosen people.

Winthrop and company further suggested that such a vision is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, as it brought into being a “new Israel” that is based on egalitarianism rather than hierarchy. 

The city should be exemplary: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

It is clear that the construction of the city is far more important than any other factors, including the Native Americans who inhabited the land. 

The inhabitants were considered inexistent or disposable because of their alleged “savagery”; they were part and parcel of the wilderness that the newly arrived wanted to domesticate — a vision or a desire that the American historian Perry Miller called “an errand into the wilderness”.

The repercussions of the errand were grave: genocide, displacement, and deprivation of the Native American inhabitants — the resemblances between the provenance of the US and Israel are striking. The groundwork for such depredations was laid by Winthrop’s sermon and other similar ones, ideological groundwork that led in the 20th century to the rise of American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is predicated upon two main principles: first, the US is unique in that it is more humane and less hierarchical than all the previous imperial powers; that is, it is not an empire, and second, whatever it does in the name of saving humanity is divinely ordained. To put it more clearly, the notion of exceptionalism entails that the US assumes a superior position to all the “Others” of the world, who constitute its wilderness.

The borders and shape of that wilderness kept shifting as the American juggernaut changed its course over time. At the time of Winthrop, it included Native Americans and African Americans. 

Reagan, who was greatly influenced by Winthrop’s words, added the Russians and Arabs to his wilderness. Likewise, other presidents would replace one group with another or add one group to the already existing ones. (Incidentally, Trump’s wilderness is so sonorously expansive that it adds Muslims and Mexicans.)

Despite minor differences, most American politicians dreamed, and still do, of establishing a city on a hill and its concomitant wilderness. The hill is intended to underscore US upper position and authority, and the wilderness is constructed to better “contain” the hill’s “Others”.

Why does one need to know about American history all the way back to 1989 or even to the 17th century? Because much of what is happening now stems from and is inspired by that moment in American politics; the construction of the “shining city” does occupy a fundamental position in the American imagination — with different iterations such as the American dream.

Reagan and his “shining city upon a hill” were mentioned several times in the two conventions, most prominently by President Barack Obama and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence. Their mentions of it reinforce the establishment of the city, the exceptionalism that comes with it, and its wilderness.

But maybe an oft-neglected aspect of the dreamed-of city is that it is “shining”. The word “shining” privileges appearance over substance. What better word than spectacle can aptly describe both conventions, and more broadly the US political class from the “founding fathers” onwards?

Winthrop skilfully used the sermon as a spectacular performance. Reagan himself was an expert on the spectacle: he worked early in his life in the entertainment industry and was described by many as a great orator.

More recently, the two conventions lived up to their roots. Trump’s theatrics are a piece of evidence: from his wrestler-like entrance, via his name appearing in gold, to his acceptance speech. On the Democratic side, the carefully choreographed speeches, the balloons, and the alleged unity and affection all attest to an overemphasis on the spectacle.

How should one then think of the American spectacle? Not to be deceived by it and to see what it covers, as Guy Debord and William Spanos cogently suggest in their Society of the Spectacle and Redeemer Nation respectively.

Thus, while it behoves observers of American politics to read against the grain the retrieval of the Reagan era, it is crucial to call into question the fanfare in both parties, and not only in the Trump campaign.

Too much attention is being paid to Trump, especially when Reagan is mentioned. It is true that Trump’s policies mirror to a large degree Reagan’s, and Margaret Thatcher’s for that matter, especially when it comes to trickle-down economics and walls, as the quotation above shows. Following Reagan, Trump — along with most Republicans and Democrats — simply subscribes to a more unfair, nefarious form of capitalism, which is now referred to as neoliberalism, a policy that has little to do with collective and individual freedoms.

Deliberately omitting any reference to Reagan in his speech, Trump wanted to change the convention and perhaps the entire political process into a one-man show. Yet, he just added demagoguery and protectionism to Reaganism. Should one think of the new version as neo-Reaganism, Trumpism, a combination of both, or even Winthropism? It is too early to tell.

On a deeper level, it might be dangerous to reduce entire political processes to single individuals or -isms. Perhaps it is more urgent to study processes — without underestimating their human agents — so that one can better approach US politics. One helpful way of doing that is through fathoming the depths and underlying logic of the spectacle.



The writer, a Fulbright scholar, contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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