When I was a college student in the 1980’s, I spent a semester abroad in Paris. Early in my trip I entered a bank on the Champs Elysees. In front of me in line was a middle aged couple, speaking twice as loud as necessary in English with what sounded like a Texan accent, to a teller who didn’t understand them. They wore fanny packs and white sneakers, trademarks of American tourists at the time. They raised their voices as if that would make their arrogance more understandable. They became increasingly agitated and disdainful of the woman trying to help them. Their voices filled the bank as if a train had rammed the front door, drowning out every other sound and turning all heads in their direction. I was so embarrassed I left the building.
It was my first of many encounters with The Ugly American abroad. I’ve encountered The Ugly American many times in this country too, although more often than not on social media rather than in my neighborhood. Like a cockroach, The Ugly American seems to have been multiplying at a staggering rate since Donald Trump became president, and is now ubiquitous.
With the ultimate Ugly American’s invasion of the White House, ugly Americans have taken the form of the president’s advisors, the president’s spokespeople, the president’s cabinet, and the president’s family. One belligerent, outspoken, ethnocentric, lowbrow, lying American after another is in charge of this country, and it is painfully embarrassing. And equally frightening.
Their ascendency, aided and abetted by the media’s ugly American extraordinaire, Sean Hannity, has enabled the ordinary Ugly Americans who populate our country in greater numbers than I ever thought possible to become more visible. It is as if we turned out the lights and all the cockroaches and trolls came out from their hiding places behind refrigerators and in their mother’s basements. We can hear their unfiltered, angry voices shouting, declaring to the stunned world that this is America 2017: a land of hate for the LGBTQ community, hate for Muslims, hate for immigrants, hate for the media, hate for the rule of law, hate for anything that smacks of education, and most of all, hate for the truth.
The term Ugly American apparently dates to a mid 20th century photograph of a sombrero wearing American tourist in Havana by Cuban photographer Constantino Arias. It became a household expression with the 1958 book titled The Ugly American. However you define it, The Ugly American is obnoxious, flashy, brash, often incompetent, and always unconcerned about how his words and actions are received.
We have traded in the cultured, thoughtful, and intellectual world of the Obamas for the uncultured, tacky, loud, bullying, racist, misogynist, puerile and deceitful world of the Trumps. They are the definition of ugly Americans, and now the world can say, “See, Americans didn’t really change just because they elected a sophisticated black man. They’ve always been the same – uninterested in the rest of the world, dismissive of anything different or foreign. They were just hibernating for while.”
Oh but they are awake now. At political rallies, in workplaces and schools, and all over social media, we hear their voices grow more confident, more determined even as each new truth about Russian connections and possible obstruction of justice are unveiled. Ugly Americans don’t care. The Ugly American in the White House is their ugly American, and they will stay by his provincial, ignorant side to the bitter end. Ugly Americans respect disdain for sophistication, subtlety, diplomacy. They respect condescension and bigotry toward other, even when other is a transgender soldier fighting for their country. They respect a street fighter, even if his cause is unjust or non-existent. They have found the perfect embodiment of their ugliest desires.
With the rise of The Ugly American, I have begun to have the slightest inkling of what black people and Latinos and transgender people and other minorities have felt for years in this country. I don’t claim that my anger and frustration and fear compare in any way to their experiences. But I do have a modicum more understanding. Because now I feel that I am on the outside, looking in at something unfathomable, unjust and unbreakable. I feel powerless.
I love this country, but I don’t like it in its 2017 iteration. I don’t recognize this nation where stupidity has been elevated to an art form and education is considered elitist, where civil rights are stripped away one painful decree at a time by the man who would be king. There is still beauty everywhere to be sure, and there are good people all over this country. But I strain to hear them over the authoritarian in the White House whose loud and demeaning voice drowns out the voices of reason, logic, compassion and democracy. We can only hope that the rest of the world sees us, hears those of us who have disdain for our president, and that we will not become isolated in our increasingly ugly patch of the world.