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The U.S. Embassy in Seoul did something smart; the Trump administration was having none of it

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Yesterday the White House ordered the U.S. embassy in Seoul to remove its #BlackLivesMatter banner, as well as a Pride flag that the embassy put up in May.

In some respects, the last few weeks have been a drag on the already frayed international image of the United States. They’ve thrust racial inequality and discrimination – both cancers on American democracy – into the spotlight. They’ve treated the world to images of American cops attacking – often without any provocation – protestors and reporters. And if that didn’t remind international audiences of the practices of the authoritarian regimes that Washington often criticizes, then those audiences saw the President of the United States ordering security forces to attack peaceful, legal protestors in order to secure a photo op.

All of this gives comfort to authoritarian regimes, who can point to very real acts of oppression in the United States to distract from and minimize their own abuses.

In other respects, the arc of protests have also highlighted the strength of American civil society and how small-d democratic mobilization can bring about change. Protests in the United States have sparked #BLM demonstrations worldwide, and even spurred mobilization against domestic racial injustice in other countries. This is a stark demonstration of continued American soft power and cultural capital. It contrasts rather favorably with the handling of public dissent in, say, Russia.

Against that background, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea and his civil-service staff made precisely the right call: to highlight support for protests against racial injustice. Call it ‘making lemons out of lemonade’ if you want, but this is the smart way to shape America’s image abroad.

The White House, of course, was having none of that. CNN reports:

The banners stood as a challenge to President Donald Trump and his administration at a time when they have been harshly criticized for their stand on racism and LGBTQ issues. The Pride flag was removed Monday night in Seoul, just hours before the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning sex-based job discrimination covers gay and transgender workers. On Friday, the administration erased protections prohibiting discrimination in health care for the LGBTQ community.Harris posted the BLM sign as the administration has been under fire for its response to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody. Trump has compounded anger about racial injustice with his decision to oppose a Pentagon proposal to start a conversation about renaming bases named after Confederate generals who celebrated slavery and owned slaves.

The White House order underscores the increasing failure of the Trump administration. and Trump himself, to obfuscate its positions. During the 2016 campaign, a number of factors – Trump’s penchant for word salad, his grifter instinct to tell his audience whatever they wanted to hear, his lack of core convictions on most policy issues, and the fact that he had no prior elected record – produced what social scientists call “multivocality.”

Van Jackson has a nice discussion, from January of 2017, of how this works in Foreign Affairs. Henry Farrell also wrote about it in November of 2016. Trump’s ambiguity had a number of effects – including leading some on the left to impose their own preferences to on matters like foreign policy or economic policy onto his ramblings. It also convinced a number of people that he would be friendly to LGBTQ+ rights. That kind of thing. But however much it helped him, it would, I think, have cost him the election if Pence hadn’t done his one, key job: to reassure Christian conservatives that Trump would enact their agenda.

But Trump is fundamentally a demagogue when it comes to ethnic and racial politics. He’s also committed to enacting the reactionary cultural agenda of Christian conservatives – they are, after all, his most loyal marks. Trump has also become addicted to right-wing media sources – they feed his ego – and their conspiratorial depictions of movements like BLM and of the protests. Plus, he’s got an actual record now.

In this context, what that means is that Trump sometimes makes official statements that support the goals of social justice activists and, as he did today, attempts to position himself in ways that are at least somewhat consistent with the signals the U.S. Embassy was trying to send. But because the White House itself, and its base of support, aren’t at all sympathetic to the movement – and pretty much everyone knows where they really stand – the embassy’s messaging amounts to a “rebuke.”

An important undercurrent of all this shows up in the Pew Research Center’s latest report on shifting international views of Trump and of the United States.

In some countries, views of the U.S. have become more positive since 2018. This increase in favorable views of the U.S. is especially prevalent among those who favor right-wing populist parties or place themselves on the right end of the ideological spectrum.

In Europe, positive regard for the U.S. increased among those who favor right-wing populist parties, but the extent to which there has been an increase varies across countries. In the Netherlands, for example, about two-thirds (65%) of those who favor Forum for Democracy (FvD) said they have a favorable view of the U.S., compared to only 42% who said the same in 2018. Similar increases in U.S. favorability since 2018 have come from people who support UKIP in the UK, Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, Sweden Democrats in Sweden, Lega in Italy and both Kukiz’15 and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland.

Positive sentiment for the U.S. has similarly increased among those who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum in some countries from 2018 to 2019. This change is greatest in Greece, where four-in-ten of those on the political right said they had a favorable view of the U.S. in 2018 compared with two-thirds in 2019, a 27 percentage point change. Other countries including Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Sweden saw significant shifts among those on the right.

There are a lot of different things going on here, but one of them is that contemporary left-right politics are increasingly trans-nationalizing (see, among other things, my book). American liberals have generally been more supportive of Labour than the Conservatives, or the SPD than the CDU, or the Liberals and NDP as opposed to the Progressive Conservatives. During the Cold War the left often sympathized with, say, socialist movements in Latin America while the right supported anti-communist authoritarian regimes. But the line of the American government – even as it was supporting right-wing death squads – was always generally supportive of liberal democracy. As were the parties that Republicans tended to identify with in the Global North.

After the Cold War, I remember a former Republican official – I can’t remember which and I don’t really have time to track it down – on NPR talking about how American conservatives sometimes think that they should reflexively support “conservatives” abroad, but that they needed to understand many of those who call themselves “conservatives” overseas didn’t actually support core American values, like liberal democracy. This kind of warning no longer makes sense. Trumpism is, in fact, one version of transnational reactionary populism.

What went down in South Korea is, in this sense, just one piece of a broader pattern of reversing a previously bipartisan commitment that encoded small-d democratic values – again, in often grossly hypocritical ways – in the rhetoric and practice American diplomacy. Trump himself may be primarily concerned with loyalty and the ability to do crimes, but the purge of the ‘Deep State’ in favor of often corrupt, barely qualified loyalists is accelerating this reversal (pay attention to what’s happening at the Voice of America). Indeed, the US is increasingly putting its thumb on the scales of illiberal co-ideologues in countries that number among the ‘core’ of the American alliance system.

So we can add this latest ‘canary in the coal mine’ to the mass avian grave that is the White House lawn.

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