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The Ugly American Runs for President

19 September 2016

It’s been almost sixty years since William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American rose to the top of bestseller lists, ran through twenty printings and stunned both the reading public and the foreign policy community.  John F. Kennedy and five other prominent citizens were so impressed by the novel that they bought an advertisement in the New York Times and sent a copy to every member of the U.S. Senate, hoping the book’s searing portrayal of the U.S. diplomatic corps would encourage its reform.  With the exceptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and 1984, The Ugly American may have exercised more influence in the country than any other modern work of political fiction.  The book has never gone out of print; its title has become part of the language.

Although Lederer and Burdick use the term in an ironic way, the novel’s true namesake is the “angry” and “irritable” U.S. Ambassador to an imaginary Southeast Asian nation, whose history, language and culture he ignores, and whose people he considers to be “damned little monkeys.”  This Ugly American does his part to alienate them and lose their good will, allowing the Communists to win the war for minds.  The novel is an uncanny prophecy of what would happen in Vietnam in the following decade.

Although Lederer’s and Burdick’s book brought the term into common parlance, “Ugly American” acquired a different meaning in later years.  For the larger public it became shorthand for the kind of tourists who “wear tube tops to the Vatican or shout for Big Macs in Beijing” (Michael Meyer); in general, for our loud, overbearing, obnoxious compatriots abroad.

Now there are rumors that the Ugly American’s son has come home, also angry, arrogant and presumptuous.  While his father could only endanger our diplomatic mission to a small Asian country, his heir could damage our entire domestic and foreign polity.  Although he possesses no qualifications or experience, he took directly to the stump upon his return, showing the impudence to run for high office.  The Ugly American despised, mocked and insulted his opponents, considering the men to be chumps and the women frumps. (They might have echoed Shakespeare’s “Zounds!  I’ve never been so bethumped by words!”)  He has also expressed his disdain, either openly or in coded remarks, for women, Latin Americans and Muslims, who together make up about two-thirds of the world’s population.

The Ugly American’s incomprehension of domestic and foreign policy is unique among major candidates in our history.  He believes that judges “sign” what he refers to as “bills.”  He would “unleash ISIS” to topple the Assad regime, giving terrorists free run in Syria.  When asked about the U.S. nuclear triad, he blanked out on the question, looking stumped.  He doesn’t seem to know the difference between our allies and adversaries, lumping them all together in a mishmash of benighted chaos.

Although the Ugly American claims to be a conservative, many columnists on the right have criticized him as much as the liberal press.  George Wills calls him “a stupendously uninformed dilettante.”  David Brooks argues that he’s “perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetime.”  Mona Charen has described him as a “flamboyantly ignorant swindler.”  R. Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state for President George W. Bush, notes that the man “doesn’t understand diplomacy is not the zero-sum world of commercial real estate, hotels and golf courses.”  No less than 100 conservative national security experts signed an open letter in March, expressing their alarm at the incoherent jumble that passes for the candidate’s foreign policy.  Several weeks ago dozens more, all former senior members of Republican administrations, issued a statement declaring that this man would be “the most reckless president in American history.”  And still another 100, all Republicans, including members of Congress and ex-RNC staffers, more recently signed a letter urging the party to cut its funding for the nominee.  Yet the ways of strumpet fortune are unpredictable.  Some grisly event—an assassination, a terrorist attack—might create the atmosphere of fear in which the Ugly American thrives, landing him plump in the White House.

When queried about the sources of his ideology, he admits without blushing that he doesn’t read books: he forms his opinions by watching television.  When asked about the identity of his political advisors, he replied that he doesn’t need them since he has a good brain of his own, but would soon form a terrific team of prestigious counselors.  When their names finally appeared in the media, nobody knew them from Forrest Gump.

The Ugly American’s private life is no more honorable than his public persona.  Although he claims to speak for the common man (if not the common woman), his taste in bathroom fixtures runs to gold plate; not to be outdone by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, perhaps he’ll also flush $1 million for golden toilet seats in the White House.  Or like Turkey’s President Recip Erdogan, he could deny the rumors and sue anyone who makes the allegation. 

In fact a presidential term under the Ugly American could turn into a public spectacle of unending law suits, like those of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul for whom the candidate has expressed his admiration.  Among his other favorites are beloved rulers like Benito Mussolini and especially Vladimir Putin, whom he knows intimately, both having been guests on the same “60 Minutes” show.  Shakespeare might have exclaimed, echoing his Richard III, “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity!”

Others have said that the Ugly American’s mandate would be more like four years of high school, in which the executive would outbrag his rivals, exchanging adolescent jibes and nicknames.  Chancellor Merkel might be “Dumpy Angie,” while the supreme leader of North Korea could be styled “Slim Kim.” 

The Ugly American has warned that if he loses the race, “I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again, folks.  I think I’ll go to Turnberry and play golf or something.”  These do not sound like the words of a statesman whose purpose is to serve his nation in the long term, but those of a man who’ll stomp away in a huff if he doesn’t win, like a pouting teenager who doesn’t get his way. 

Many people laughed off the Ugly American, believing that he was a rump candidate whom voters would not take seriously.  But now he’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Presidency.  It’s time for Americans to decide whether they want ignorance, shame and infamy to trump knowledge, experience and respect.

 


Edward Stanton is the author of ten books, including the forthcoming novel Wide as the Wind (Open Books Press, October 2016). His books have been translated and published in Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. Stanton has published short fiction, poems and translations in dozens of magazines and journals in the U.S. and abroad. He has been a Fulbright scholar and has lectured in many countries around the world. Stanton has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he was named Distinguished Alumni Lecturer at UCLA.