During the absolute doldrums of the first lockdown last spring, I tried watching the first Jack Ryan series on Amazon Prime. Forgive me, but there was a lot of television to watch and my social life wasn’t looking too good.
I normally quite like mindless action films full of explosions but this time I just couldn’t get past the second episode. There was nothing wrong with it; I’m sure it was fine — I just didn’t want the protagonists to win. We were, of course, supposed to see what drove some Middle Easterners to hate Americans, one having lost a brother in an air strike as a child; American entertainment has moved beyond the “reel bad Arab” caricatures of the 1980s.
I actively wanted them to win, though, and found myself muttering “What are you even doing in their country?” at the Yankees as they ran around some forsaken place in the desert. Before last year I never would have felt that way.
My father was a refugee in the United States. His parents had sent him and his older brother to North America in 1940 because they wanted their children to grow up free. They spent Christmas that year in Manhattan staying with family friends in the Upper West Side, where they were doted on by all the neighbours and friends who came to visit and showered the two English boys with kindness.
But then America was a country famous for its incredible generosity, the welcome it gave newcomers; once you crossed that ocean no king, tsar or Führer could bother you again. Many enjoyed similar welcomes; a friend of dad’s remembered arriving around the same time and being picked up by a New York taxi driver who told him in a broad Nu Yoik accent: “Don’t worry, son, Uncle Sam’s gonna look after you now.” He never forgot that.
To my generation, growing up in the Cold War, that sense of America The Protector still lingered. I remember as a child seeing US troops at Checkpoint Charlie and being aware that it was thanks to them that we didn’t have to keep our eyes down like the poor prisoners of East Berlin. As a British child, when you watched American films or American TV, you identified with the Americans against our common enemies around the world.
Like many people here, I considered 9/11 as an attack on us too, and not just because of the dozens of Britons killed; I was furious when the BBC aired a panel show a couple of days later in which various (mostly Muslim) guests and audience members shouted about how the Americans had it coming, in front of a distraught-looking American diplomat.
And yet a lot has happened since. There is now a feeling, and I suspect it is growing on the British Right, that America is no longer a force for good in the world — quite the opposite. “Civilisations die from suicide,” as Arnold Toynbee famously said, and the United States, or at least its Ivy League-educated elite, is the Rev Jim Jones of the West.
The overwhelmingly Atlanticist wing of the British Right is, I suspect, going to experience a long retreat — one that will slot right into the long history of anti-Americanism on the Right. America, after all, was a revolutionary society founded by Whigs, and the country’s Tories were largely driven out, to Canada or Britain.
Conservatism, as it began in France and England around the time of the French Revolution, was defined by throne and altar, and so some American intellectuals argued that the country didn’t really have an authentically native conservative tradition. Yet paradoxically America, while being a young country, also has the most ancient of constitutions, and the deepest political roots. It really has something worth conserving. For that reason, until now, it always resisted utopian and revolutionary ideas, while Europeans could never resist them.
The European Right once had a strong anti-American streak, viewing it as a country filled with mediocrity and an absence of high culture. Those on the extreme Right disliked it as a land of racial degeneracy and Jewish influence; Hitler in particular hated everything the United States stood for.
But as America’s empire grew, however, it was the Left who came to see the US as the chief enemy of the wretched of the earth. Perhaps the lone Yankeephobe among senior post-war British Conservatives was Enoch Powell, who was deeply hostile to the United States, which he blamed for the downfall of the British Empire. Powell wasn’t totally alone, although anti-Americanism was largely on the fringe. The Right-wing Monday Club had been in favour of joining the Common Market because it was opposed to American influence. In 1967 it argued that the choice was between being “first-class Europeans” or “second-grade Americans”. Club chairman Sir Victor Raikes even made the case for the withdrawal of American troops from western Europe so that the continent could instead defend itself.
Yet this quaint nostalgia for the world before 1914 could not live up to a reality where western Europeans have been incapable of defending themselves and still rely on American support. And as the Common Market failed to become the alliance of independent states the Conservative Right hoped for, so the Tories became increasingly Europhobic. By the late 1980s pro-Americanism was imbedded in the British Right; the country’s Right-wing tabloids also became zealously pro-American, while continuously writing in derogatory terms about the Germans and French.
It had become a mantra among conservative commentators that everything America did was better. They believed in freedom rather than euro-socialism, they still cared about defending the West against its enemies. America was richer and technologically more advanced. It even had higher fertility, the highest sign of confidence in the future. None of these things are entirely true anymore.
On the Left, meanwhile, a casual sort of anti-Americanism has long since been the norm, fed by Americans like Michael Moore who use their countrymen as punchlines for European audiences. It is assumed that most of the world’s problems are caused by the Great Satan, whether through the machinations of the CIA, FBI or capitalism in the abstract.
Yet the same liberal middle-class Europeans who despise “inauthentic” mass-produced American food also hold the most basic, globalised political opinions mass-produced in America. The most successful of these beliefs — the Coca-Cola of bad takes — is that America is a unique force for racism and oppression, exported by Americans who can make a living precisely because it isn’t true. But if European liberalism think America hegemony is oppressive, wait till they see what follows.
So while far more British people on the Right see themselves as pro-American, this barely makes any sense anymore. Certainly on issues of social democracy, relating to welfare and redistribution, most Europeans are more Left-wing than Americans, with the British somewhat closer to the US median. Yet on social justice issues — related to race, immigration, gender and sexuality — America is far more radical than the European norm. And in 21st century politics, those latter issues are more salient to people’s voting habits.
It was once a rather fond cliché to say that when America sneezes Britain catches a cold, but that idea seems less benign now that America’s politics has mutated into something genuinely toxic and destructive. Its elites are aren’t just misguided, they are deranged and malignant. With the country losing its Christian faith, they are driven by a new religious moral fervour towards the utopian goal of “equity”, equality of outcome transferred from the individual to the racial group, a project destined to stoke hatred and conflict.
And of all the people in the world, the British have the least immunity to these ideas, unprotected by any language barrier or recent cultural memory of utopianism. In France and Germany, American concepts at least have some linguistic hurdles before they come to spread and dominate; in central and eastern Europe, people recognise that purity spirals and cancel culture have obvious, dark comparisons with their own history. In Britain, however, we have an entirely naïve population.
Because our middle class desperately ape everything they read in the New York Times, or watch on Netflix, so America’s history and discourse is transferred onto ours, a form of cultural imperialism that our leaders are too conformist to resist. So we see nice, elderly Liberal Democrats voters in suburban Oxfordshire kneeling outside their homes in absurd imitation of American sportsmen protesting about a police shooting, the circumstances of which they are entirely, and wilfully, ignorant of. Would any of them protest police killings in Brazil, which dwarf the US rate? Would any of them care?
It’s not a thought-out belief with an understanding of the causes of a problem or the consequences of any proposed solution; it’s a meme, a fashion. It’s what anthropologists refer to as “prestige-biased group transmission”, when people imitate the fashions and mores of powerful groups without any understanding of whether these fashions will benefit them. It’s the same reason that my children are now being taught American history at school, the stories of Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, as if it was theirs.
It’s tragic, because on a personal level Americans are still as warm and generous as they’ve always been; their earnestness and kindness sometimes shames me, coming from a country so filled with cynicism and nihilism-disguised-as-irony. But their political culture is poisonous, and America’s progressive fundamentalists are a bigger threat to Britain, and to Europe, than probably any other force on earth, bar climate change.
I still cheer for the Americans in the old films. But when it comes to the American religion being forced on us, I empathise more with the desert tribesman than with Jack Ryan: Yankees go home and get out of our lives.