Growing up as a child in the Netherlands, right after the Second World War, a deep admiration and respect for anything American was instilled in me. It did not matter that, in the process of liberating our country from the Nazi’s, a lot of damage was done to our infrastructure (homes, buildings, roads, bridges and railways), for us the America lead Allies were good guys, heroes. They gave us back our freedom that had so brutally and completely been taken from us for 5 years.
As it happened, it was in fact Canadian, not American, troops who drove the German occupiers from our village. They shot our house to pieces in the process (we survived in the cellar). It did not matter to my parents, did not diminish the gratitude they felt towards their liberators.
That gratitude was widened and deepened by the implementation of the Marshall Plan (the subject of an impressive 2018 book of the same title by Benn Steil). The war had left all of Western Europe destitute, bereft of infrastructure and resources. The economies of Germany, Italy and the European Allies were in shambles and the Truman administration quickly recognized that, without American support, its peoples were vulnerably exposed to the communist propaganda coming from the Soviet Union.
I grew up in an austere, scarcity, economy, where essential food, like meat, butter, sugar, and clothing was rationed, but the Marshall Plan saved us from starvation and the threat of communism. All the more reason to think highly of America.
In the austerity climate, we were allowed very few indulgences, but as conditions and family income improved somewhat, I was allowed to subscribe to the weekly, Dutch language, comics magazine “Donald Duck” a Disney creation. In fact, I believe that it was a free bonus item for subscribers to a popular ladies’ magazine my mother subscribed to. Regardless, it shaped my view of America and the American people.
The main character, Donald Duck, was a smart, irreverent free spirit, always looking for adventure, love and opportunity to do good. A model American citizen and a spin off from the American GI’s that had come to our rescue. His alter ego was ‘uncle Dagobert’ in the Dutch edition (Scrooge McDuck in its original American version).
By naming him ‘uncle Dagobert’ it was not so obvious at first that we were dealing with a real scrooge, but story after story he was unmasked as a greedy, self centered son-of-a-bitch, devoid of empathy with the less fortunate and dismissive of the lovable Donald Duck.
Disney was no fool. With Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck he depicted two sides of a split personality that are perpetually and inseparably linked. What I’m saying is that there have always been (and probably always will be) two opposing elements to the American psyche: one benevolent and compassionate and one with a mean streak. These elements are always there, link yin and yang, good and bad, black and white. But they show up with different intensity, with different band width, in different people or groupings and at different times. Sometimes the benevolent, compassionate sentiment prevails, at other times it is overwhelmed by the mean streak.
The mean streak is of all ages and shows strong correlation with populism. It shows up most vehemently and violently when Americans get riled up behind populist causes, as was the case with the witch hunts in colonial New England, the persecution and displacement of native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow sentiment of the Reconstruction, the internment of Americans of Japanese origin, McCarthyism and−one could argue−slavery.
The mean streak rears its ugly head again, this time under the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, subtitled ‘and may everyone else be damned’. The Donald we have to deal with these days is the embodiment of the American mean streak in his callous refusal to wall off the Presidency from his personal and business interest represented by the Trump brand; in his bending of the truth, if not cheating and lying; in his dismissal of science and facts; in his contempt for the less fortunate, refugees and immigrants in particular; in his ridicule and retribution for anyone who dares to oppose him; in his incendiary language used to rile up his populist supporters; in his devotion to other bad characters on the world stage and his disdain for the American Allies who fought alongside our GI’s against absolutism.
The Donald may be the embodiment of the American mean streak, but in that he is far from alone. This is the most distressing reality of today. Give the mean streak a political platform and it will inevitably attract a crowd. There are always more followers than leaders. That is the essence, the hallmark of populism. How much of a crowd, how many followers? That is something we will have to find out in the 2020 election.
Which side of the American split personality will win out in 2020? Which Donald will prevail? The duck who endeared America to the world or the Donald who knows no business but his own business? The long arc of history shows that, also in America, good wins out over evil. But we may be in for a few more years for the mean streak to burn itself out.