America’s volatile global image has deep roots in its ‘exceptional’ history

America has proudly clung to its pioneer identity, which for a long time provided a unique spirit of hope to the world. But—is that now holding it back?

America’s volatile global image has deep roots in its ‘exceptional’ history
[Source photos: Dean_Fikar/iStock; nubumbim/iStock; Peter Pryharski/Unsplash; MORAN/Unsplash; National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s “USA: Can This Brand Be Saved?” package, approaching the question from a variety of angles and perspectives, ultimately aiming for an in-depth look at what America’s brand is, how it’s changed over the past four years, and where it needs to go from here. Click here to read the whole series.


Even as the U.S. president himself refused to accept the election result, world leaders including Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, and Justin Trudeau have extended commendations to President-elect Joe Biden. And, while national premiers struck a tone of prudent diplomacy, others issued unmistakably hearty congratulations. “Thank you, Joe,” said former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said it was time to get back to “building bridges, not walls.” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, succinctly said it all: “Welcome back, America!”

The U.S. has taken hits to its international reputation before. In the past four years, it’s taken a beating. In a Pew Research Center poll from September, just 31% of French and 26% of German respondents said they viewed the U.S. favorably. The figure was slightly higher for British respondents, at 41%—but that’s the lowest percentage Pew’s ever recorded for Brits.

America’s image in the world has been volatile since its birth. It’s kept up a delicate balancing act of attraction and repulsion for foreign onlookers, for whom the myth of America has sometimes proven more appealing than the reality. It’s gone through periods of rosiness, when the world was in awe of its trailblazing democracy and sense of opportunity; and it’s dipped and waned in popularity, largely driven by presidents, who’ve had outsize power in influencing its image. But, even after the lowest slumps, it’s consistently shown tremendous bouncebackability. It’s not yet clear the glossy brand that America disseminates to the world can recuperate after four years of Donald Trump, who still won the most votes ever received by any American president-elect not named Joe Biden. Days after the election, France’s Le Monde wrote: “Far from being an accident on the American electoral scene or an interlude at the White House, Trumpism, no matter who’ll occupy the Oval Office in January, will leave a durable mark on the political evolution of the United States.”

Racial atrocities

America struck Europe with wonder as a nascent nation, mainly due to its proud distinction from the oppressive European restraints of aristocracy; it was at once seen as a more mobile and egalitarian society than the class-bound nations of the Old World, says Jason Opal, a professor of American history at McGill University, who specializes in the foundation of the Americas. Long before Hollywood could export America via the screen, the world relied on accounts from travelers, waves of whom voyaged to the northeast—usually avoiding the South and slavery—and found the dominant image to be one of a radical experiment gone right.

The most eminent of those early scouts was Alexis de Tocqueville, the first to describe the new land as “exceptional,” but others before him waxed even more lyrically about the young republic. After his 1788 visit, a French Revolution leader, Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, recounted a less corrupt and happier society, where liberty was in the hands of a hard-working people. “You will see independent America contemplating no other limits but those of the universe, no other restraint but the laws made by her representatives,” he wrote. He implored his people to imitate America as much as possible: “O Frenchmen! who wish for this valuable instruction, study the Americans of the present day.”


In the same decade, Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, a French writer who eventually moved to the U.S., was impressed by the “mild government” and “equitable” laws, and a sense of individualism that could burgeon without governmental constraints. “We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained because each person works for himself,” he wrote, also remarking on the perceived classless system: “It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing.” Then, America was viewed as a haven for immigrants from across Europe: “This is every person’s country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce hath something which must please everybody. . . . There is room for everybody in America.”

Andrew Jackson’s two terms tarnished the brand.”

It was between the 1830s and the 1850s that America’s reputation took its first major hit, and raised early flags of the immense power of a president and his policies to influence its image. Andrew Jackson’s two terms “tarnished” the brand, Opal says, “by highlighting how much the country relied on mass, violent expropriation of indigenous lands and also on Black slavery.” Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americans from their homes, and for expanding the number of slave states.

Donald Trump has plainly expressed on multiple occasions that Jackson was his favorite commander-in-chief, and the populist parallels have been clear. Rudy Giuliani said Trump’s win in 2016 echoed Jackson’s defeat of his more high-society predecessor with ties to Europe, John Quincy Adams. Many pro-Trump Americans viewed Barack Obama in that same light of coastal elitism and intellectualism—but that was pleasing to the rest of the world. According to Pew, European nations had an overall 80% confidence rating in Obama in 2012; that figure was 86% in France and 87% in Germany.

As is true in 2020, much of the decline in America’s global trust at that time came down to its glaringly racist structures. One of the greatest spokespeople of the era was former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who went on a speaking tour of Britain and Ireland in 1845—after Jackson, but still as the world was opening its eyes to the horrors of slavery. He wanted to embarrass white Americans in British eyes, Opal says, because they still desired to be highly regarded in the motherland. Douglass was effective: Historian Hannah-Rose Murray wrote that town halls hosting his speeches overflowed, “and hundreds had to return home disappointed”; special trains even ran to allow people to get to gatherings. According to Murray, he spoke “over three hundred times to thousands of people,” leading to fundraising and petition signing for abolitionist causes, and the formation of multiple abolitionist societies.

Later, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and one of the founders of the NAACP, would follow Douglass’s steps by touring Britain during the Jim Crow era of the 1890s, another low point in the American brand, when violence in the South skyrocketed after the Civil War and a failed Reconstruction. In her addresses, Wells would focus specifically on the atrocities of lynchings, which she called “our country’s national crime.” One Leeds newspaper wrote in 1894: “The world was singularly silent, and the tone of condemnation and the voice that ought to cry shame on such deeds had been very hesitating and undecided . . . it was her mission to give to the world the black people’s side of the story.”


The cowboy president

As America’s frontier moved further west, the expanding country continued to carve out its own identity, which grew more and more distinct from Europe’s. The American West reinforced the ideal of rugged individualism. That wasn’t always accurate, says Stephen Aron, a professor of history at UCLA and the soon-to-be president and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West. Early gold, silver, and copper miners were underemployed, seasonal workers in collective, industrial settings, rather than “lone prospectors working with a pick, pan and a shovel.” Similarly, homesteading and cattle herding was not always idyllic work. But some did make it alone, and the myth of the “romantic individualist paradise” of the West spread fast. “The myth is so powerful, that even the people who are living the reality are trying to conform with the myth,” he says. Even though cowboys wouldn’t always typically use their sidearms, they’d pose with them for photos, to magnify the macho look.

That alluring image spread outside the U.S. through early forms of media such as dime novels and rags-to-riches stories, and later through Hollywood westerns. “There are places [in Europe] where the West is sometimes as popular, if not more popular, than it is in parts of the United States, in terms of the image it holds,” Aron says. Many German kids grew up reading Wild West adventure stories by Karl May, who wrote such stories as Der schwarze Mustang (The Black Mustang) and Der Oelprinz (The Oil Prince). In Italy, spaghetti westerns became a hugely popular staple. In Poland, an image of Gary Cooper from High Noon, decked in all black, with the defining belt buckle, sheriff’s star and Stetson, became the poster for Solidarity, the start of the country’s opposition movement to the Soviets.

In Poland, an image of Gary Cooper from High Noon became the poster for Solidarity.”

But the seating of cowboys in the Oval Office has hardly been welcomed with European rapture. American presidents have used the cowboy image to entice supporters with the enormous appeal of masculinity and everydayness, even though the men in office have not come from humble beginnings (Teddy Roosevelt, despite his buckaroo bona fides, was the scion of Manhattan socialites). In the modern era, it was a former pretend-cowhand, Ronald Reagan, the star of underwhelming pictures like Cavalry Charge and Cattle Queen of Montana, who capitalized on the cowboy image, “a moment where America’s image becomes America’s reality,” Aron says. George W. Bush would follow suit. While many Americans interpreted a cowboy leader as heroic, steadfast, and “selfless,” foreign media perceived him as “reckless, dangerous, juvenile,” American West art expert Byron Price told NPR.

After Jackson, “In terms of a president really hurting America’s image,” says Opal, the McGill historian, “I think it’s really been in our lifetimes—George W. Bush, and more, Donald Trump.” Bush’s favorability rating by the end of his term was 13% in France, 8% in Spain, 2% in Turkey. The Iraq War in particular exposed a trigger-happy commanding style of shooting first and asking questions later. When she ran for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton promised that the Bush era of “cowboy diplomacy” would come to an end.

Now, the cowboy hat has morphed into a MAGA hat. Still, without the Stetson, New York magnate Donald Trump has captured the support of everyday Americans, and continued the cowboy diplomacy and the image of the “profoundly arrogant and violent leader,” Opal says. Richard Wike, Pew’s director of global attitudes, said anti-Americanism has reached a new historic high—Trump’s world confidence score in September was 16%—and respondents reported they were turned off by Trump’s personal qualities, which they named as intolerant, dangerous, and badly qualified. Allies disapprove of his international relations, defined by his pulling out of trade and climate deals and lack of multilateralism. In 2018, a White House official described American foreign policy thus: “We’re America, bitch!”


“American Carnage”

There are a few reasons why Alexis de Tocqueville is still heralded as the finest of the 19th-century voyager-writers. One is that he was just as critical as he was admiring, and another, that he was eerily prophetic about today. During his travels in Jacksonian America, he warned that the pure strength of democracy could lead to the “tyranny of the majority,” where one side becomes too politically powerful and there aren’t enough checks to control that might. The masses, therefore, could be as dangerous as a single despot. Unlike the writers before him, he warned that France should not follow the U.S. system.

“When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal?” he asked, illustrating that a person in need could hardly find solace in the legislature, the police, or the judges, since all are effectively elected by the same majority. That argument has striking resemblances to today’s conservative command over the Senate, Supreme Court, and police force. The only thing saving the country from falling into tyranny of the masses at the time, he said, was that “America is a new country where political passions are still not very deep.”

Today’s mobs consistently have white supremacist elements.”

In 2020, during the height of the largely unchecked Trump era, one could argue that the tyranny of the masses has materialized. Armed paramilitary groups have protested in defiance of lockdowns in Michigan, intimidated Black Lives Matter protestors in Louisville, and rallied in favor of vote counts in Arizona. Aron says they resemble the vigilantes of the lawless Wild West, who enacted “simple frontier justice.” Just as those vigilantes, who habitually patrolled slaves, today’s mobs consistently have white supremacist elements. “Their targets, often, are not just banditry,” Aron says, “but banditry by non-white people.”

Guns have been a totem of that violent individualism. Even the adoring Crèvecoeur, in the 1780s, was uneasy about the backcountry dwellers of Virginia and the Carolinas, who were readily armed with guns. This year’s killings at the Kenosha protests tied together age-old American themes of race and violence, but the past four years as a whole have been bloody and defined by the AR-15. The world has witnessed rates of gun violence not seen in any other developed country, perpetrated by a nation with more guns than people. There are 74 times more gun homicides in the U.S. than in Britain, and 111 times more than in Japan.

In 2019, Amnesty International published a stark travel advisory warning to the U.S., advising visitors “to exercise extreme caution due to rampant gun violence.” That followed similar pieces of counsel from Japan, Uruguay, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and Italy, all of which have also previously dissuaded travel to the U.S. on the basis of continued mass shootings. The world watched as Las Vegas, Parkland, and El Paso transformed from mere city names to sites of human life loss—making clear that COVID-19 is not the only public health crisis that U.S. leadership has brushed aside.


Can America Rebound?

Such are the durable marks of Trumpism that Le Monde referenced. Those marks have exposed the deep faults in a system at which the world once marveled—but the oldest true democracy is now stuck in time and “showing its age,” Opal says. While remnants of nobility still exist in European nations such as Germany and France, they have moved on from aristocratic societies, to become more mobile and equal. Meanwhile, America has arguably stagnated, remaining in a mindset of individual freedoms and small government, anachronistic values which are in contrast to the preferences of the rest of the free world. The Trump era saw “Extreme libertarianism at the expense of any kind of collective social consciousness,” Aron says. “Europeans see their social democratic traditions as having evolved beyond that.”

A vast portion of Americans still hasn’t moved past issues such as guns and abortion. The country clings to a 233-year-old Constitution, now strengthened by newly appointed, originalist Supreme Court justices, who are “literally ruling for the rights of the dead,” Opal says. (The Second Amendment, of course, sits comfortably in that dusty document.) To add to that, its poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which pulled international ratings of the U.S. down by 20 percentage points, exposed a lack of care for science and intellectualism, tarnishing a record of competency which it had built up over decades of being a world leader. “There’s no doubt,” Opal says, “that it’s almost paralyzed by a combination of its 18th-century rulebook, and its hyper-individualistic, and I’d say selfish, culture.”

Still, there’s always been a desire for America to succeed. The converse of American idealism is that the optimistic, pioneer mentality has proven, time and time again, to be an effective voice of hope and can-do-ism in the developed world. “There is always open land to be had,” Aron says. Wike, from Pew Research, says anti-Americanism in the world has turned around before, such as in the almost-immediate spike in favorability after Obama succeeded Bush. While the rebuilding of goodwill will likely be harder this time: “Biden will be able to patch things up, just by not being crazy,” Opal says, adding that the country’s reputation will likely bounce back “actually fairly easily,” because of the sheer power of the presidency.

In the days after the election, the very words of the president-elect himself contained that romantic spirit. “When I’m speaking to foreign leaders,” Biden tweeted, “I’m telling them: America is going to be back. We’re going to be back in the game.”