How the World Views US ‘Clown Show’

Some Americans may be amused by the “clown show” that is modern U.S. politics, particularly the Republican presidential race. But the crude insults and gross bigotry are seen around the world, reducing the appeal of democracy and turning more people against the U.S., notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The U.S. political class and political system in effect grant a lot of leeway and a lot of tolerance to excesses of American politicians, including excesses exhibited during election campaigns. There is little consistency and almost no principle in determining which comments by candidates come to be considered as campaign-crippling gaffes and which do not. Much gets said that does not cripple a campaign but which a majority of decent Americans, if they carefully thought about it, would probably agree is unreasonable, untrue, mean, inflammatory, bigoted, or extreme.

The tolerance comes partly from an acceptance that, oh well, politicians will be politicians, and that especially during a race for a party’s nomination extreme things will be said to appeal to the angriest and most active part of a party’s base and will not necessarily endure during a general election campaign let alone once the winner takes office. It comes partly from a quest for even-handedness, especially among the press, involving a supposed need to give equal respect to every position expressed merely because it is expressed, regardless of the unreasonableness of its content.

Ben Carson, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who opposed a Muslim being elected president.

Ben Carson, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who opposed a Muslim being elected president.

And it comes partly from how much all of us who are political junkies (which includes to varying degrees a large proportion of the U.S. population) are entertained by the spectacle. This last factor has been especially at work this year with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, who first came to be known to most Americans primarily as an entertainer. What is extreme and unreasonable gets treated as harmless fun.

Essays can and should be written on how the fun isn’t really harmless even when confining our perspective to the United States, about how this sort of crude followership rather than the exercise of true leadership by contenders in political races is a race to the bottom when it comes to reason and decency, and how it encourages a further lowering of political and moral standards among the America public as a whole and not just in the portions of the electorate that are the main targets of the crude appeals. But what may be even more likely to be overlooked is the effect such discourse has on perceptions overseas.

American politics unfortunately has not been stopping at the water’s edge, in at least a couple of respects. One, which we saw recently with opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, involves how much domestic politics complicates and impedes the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy.

Another involves foreign governments and publics forming impressions about the United States and about Americans based on what they see and hear going on in American politics, including the crazy and disgusting aspects of it. Globalization and modern mass communications have made this second factor more important and more inescapable than ever.

Every indication of dysfunction in U.S. politics diminishes in foreign eyes the reliability and trustworthiness of the United States as a partner and leader in world affairs. Foreigners just got another such indication with the resignation of the speaker of the House of Representatives because members of his own party considered him insufficiently obdurate and too willing to work cooperatively with others.

Beyond the general picture of dysfunction are more specific hateful or prejudicial positions that some politicians get away with taking, which leads foreigners to conclude reasonably that such views must be shared by much and even most of the American public. This greatly harms the image of America as an open and tolerant land and the substantial soft power that has flowed from it.

The problem has been most acute in recent years, though by no means limited to, the frequent indications of Islamophobia. It is bad enough when impressions are conveyed to foreigners by the words and actions of Koran-burning pastors or religiously biased army generals. It has become even worse with leading (according to opinion polls) candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties appearing to go along with statements that “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims” or stating themselves (notwithstanding Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that a Muslim should never be president of the United States.

The deleterious effects in majority Muslim countries of such postures taken by U.S. politicians are multiple. The belief that the United States as a whole is out to persecute or subjugate Muslims gets entrenched, making it that much harder for the United States to win trust and get accomplished what it wants to accomplish in those parts of the world. Foreign governments, sensitive to their own public opinion, find it politically harder to cooperate with the United States. The motivations for anti-U.S. extremist violence grow stronger, and thus the probability of such violence increases.

Politicians who like to appeal to the baser sentiments of a political base ought to think hard about such consequences. If they nonetheless continue such appeals, they ought to be condemned for doing so and voters ought to reject them, decisively.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

31 comments for “How the World Views US ‘Clown Show’

  1. bobzz
    September 28, 2015 at 13:16

    While much attention is devoted to Trump, I do not see a great deal of difference between him and the other Republican candidates. As a Seven Day Adventist, I wonder if Carson is a Christian Zionist with an irrational apocalyptic, make that a misguided Biblicist, vision. Has anyone seen a discussion of that regarding Carson? It is a moot question; he is not going to be president, but it would make a difference in the primaries, turn off some, turn on others.

  2. Andrew Nichols
    September 28, 2015 at 01:05

    The very presence of such unhinged weirdos as serious candidates for POTUS such as the list of Repubs and the Dems shortlived front runner Clinton demonstrates that it’s time for the rest of the planet to have the right of veto over the choice of the sub 40% of Americans that actually bother to vote now.

  3. ed nelson
    September 27, 2015 at 23:09

    JEB is the nominee. THe phony debates are mainly to distract from this fact.

    The phony debates in which no real candidate is allowed to participate, are just to seal it!

    JEB, is it! He will pick cousin Walker… (Sleepy eye) as VP… just like DQ was picked.

  4. September 27, 2015 at 17:57

    The clown show in the republican primary does not impact the way the world views democracy. People are much more aware than that.

    Dictators always claim to be a democracy. The US is centrally planned state subsidized corporatism. The united States is an oligarchy, not a democracy, though Bernie Sanders may help change that.

  5. September 27, 2015 at 14:18

    A close election in Israel and Great Britain going to the rightwing candidate after the winner was declared the loser just before the results were tabulated smacks of the methods of Carl Rove and other voter suppression techniques. The People may be watching the US political process (or not), but you may be sure the political class and the oligarchs everywhere are watching and learning the lessons of election theft very well indeed. How many rightwing governments are there now? How many leftwing? Abe in Japan is quite the little neofascist along with how many other heads of state? Lest we forget: if you go far enough to the right you meet a fascist.

  6. K.B.Jopp
    September 27, 2015 at 13:36

    We can only hope that whoever (re)hacked the (already) hacked) Ohio electronic voting machines will be out in full force in (electoral College) significant states.

  7. Bill Bodden
    September 27, 2015 at 12:49

    It isn’t just the “rabble” that is supporting these charlatans. On the Democratic side there is the otherwise admirable Meryl Street and, presumably, an audience of women who bought into Ms. Street’s reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton. At the 2012 Women in the World conference Ms. Streep explained she was persuaded to support Clinton because of actions taken by Clinton that claimed to have helped women.

    Ignored were the actions taken by Clinton that were disastrous for countless women and children: As co-president she was in the White House when sanctions were maintained against Iraq that cost an estimated half million Iraqi children their lives, a consequence Bill and Hillary’s secretary of state thought “It was worth it.” Then there were the various Israeli massacres inflicted on Gaza that she condoned or tolerated. More recently she went along with the coups in Libya and Honduras that converted those unfortunate places into homicidal basket cases. Finally, there was the vote for the illegal, unconstitutional, immoral and catastrophic war on Iraq.

  8. Bill Bodden
    September 27, 2015 at 00:37

    Lee Atwater, and his buddy Carl Rove drove the Republican’s to seek out the lowest common denominator amongst our fair society.

    Thanks to a large “common denominator” we get these parades of charlatans. On the other hand, the Brits, the Aussies, the Israelis, and several others are not in any position to assume self-righteous postures. The Brits are lucky this time. They have a new leader who might help turn that aircraft carrier around. Unfortunately for them, they also have their Ted Cruz’s, Trumps, Rubios, and Fiorinas.

    We have Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and, to a lesser extent, John Kasich, but decency and integrity are not much in demand among the “common denominator.”

    The fact that we have people – politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, generals and admirals, and columnists and talking heads in the media – who promoted an illegal, immoral and horrendously disastrous war on Iraq and who remain in positions of influence instead of prison says something about our national moral degradation.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 27, 2015 at 01:17

      You are to something Bill. Trump may say it all. America is now one big reality show.

      Let’s face it, between computer fraud to the U.S. Supreme Court, who knows who in America elects a president. The Media talks more about strategy than about policy. Objectionable opinion towards any official U.S. Foreign policy is always questionable to any honest depth. A good example is how the MSM describes Putin as a thug. Yes, we are at that level, and yet then again maybe in our past we were at that level… American’s need better informed, and then let’s see who runs for office. It is the larger common denominator we should worry about…you are right!

  9. nexusxyz
    September 27, 2015 at 00:31

    The US is simultaneously a joke and scary – it is a corrupt banana republic while at the time being an out of control psychopath armed with nukes.

    • Robert Bruce
      September 27, 2015 at 12:49

      You got that right, but we aren’t a banana republic just yet. Give it a few more years though!!!

  10. F. G. Sanford
    September 26, 2015 at 21:57

    While I agree with the general tone of this article, the problem runs deeper. The legitimacy of American politics is hardly an issue abroad. The rest of the world has concluded it no longer matters. There is a very real resignation that American politics is just a front for the cabal runs the show. The American public remains stubbornly immune to any inkling this might be the case. In those western countries where government corruption is openly acknowledged as a fact of life, the public is satisfied that their crooked governments deal with our crooked government on an even footing. There is no conflict. Autocratic regimes deal with us based on their interests, not our politics. The interactions that matter are between finance and industrial magnates. Religion or race ‘tests’ are openly applied by the likes of Trump, Carson or Huckabee. The same prejudices may be inferred – based on the regimes to which they pander – in the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. Their tacit predilections are no less egregious, but to an unsophisticated public do not rise to the threshold of awareness. The most cautious may be (“act of love”) Jeb!, who nevertheless blew the racist dog whistle with his “getting free stuff” remark. This from a guy who took a $1.3M “no-show” job with a crooked investment bank, got out just before it went bankrupt, and left taxpayers with a bailout bill for all that “free stuff”. Grandpa was convicted under the “Trading with the Enemy Act”, Daddy smuggled cocaine to finance arms for terrorists, and Jeb! has suspicious relations with money laundering bankers, drug kingpins, and the CIA (ref: National Archives copy of letter he sent to CIA Security Coordinator Robert Gambino). Carly Fiorino has a similarly tainted background based on deep-state nepotism and creative market manipulation. In the days before political correctness, Ben might have been charitably referred to as an ‘idiot savant’. Trump is a buffoon, but that never hurt Mussolini: our government was thrilled with him. Huckabee is a redneck who hides his racist, religious and no doubt other peccadilloes under an “aw shucks” persona. Bernie offers a cynically evil tradeoff: “things will get better at home, just leave the bombing to me”. Hillary is no less a narcissist than Trump. The real danger is that some of the less submissive governments around the world may begin saying in an official capacity what their citizens joke about, like “…both Kennedys, both uh…well, both eyes shut”. In the corridors of American power, the real concern is probably some sort of public awakening. But based on the crop of clowns in the current lineup, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. It bodes very well for the status quo.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 27, 2015 at 00:57

      Great insight F.G. What the rest of the world wants now from the U.S., and it can’t get, is peace. If there had been one voice among the many who turned out for the Pope, that voice would be loud and clear for His Excellency’s pleads for Universal Peace. If any American’s want a world opinion then put the tip up front to any cab driver in NYC. I often sit in the front seat. One driver was Haitian, and we got stuck in traffic right in front of the NYT building. He looked at me, and I right back at him, and we both said ‘liars’. They like many of us, just wish America would tone down the war we rage with this planet. People are people, no matter where you go. In regard to your mentioning that wonderful Bush family history, I thought it linked well to my bringing up Atwater & Rove….just say’n!

      • Peter Loeb
        September 27, 2015 at 06:35

        WHOSE POPE??

        The pope is for “universal peace”. That’s marvelous!t Who is against
        “universal peace.”?

        I do not disrespect Pope Francis. He is the head of someone
        else’s church, actually a very large church. It is not my church
        and I can understand the feelings of those for whom this figure
        has a magical meaning. There is also a great political thrill for
        those outside of this church to get political points from
        His Excellency.

        Frankly, I feel it is extremely inappropriate for a religious
        figure to address a political organization such as the US
        Congress. Nothing was injured and of course nothing will
        be gained.

        I am waiting for an anti-Zionist to address as joint session
        of Congress followed by a meeting and State Dinner at the
        White House.


        Does US politics matter or is it an endless and costly show
        as Noam Chomsky once characterized it. It think it “matters”
        because America’s policies can—and probably will–worsen
        I am enough of an optimist to feel that this will be the case
        whichever political party wins and whoever becomes
        candidate. I don’t follow campaigns, debates etc. They don’t

        There are many strong differences I have with the current
        Administration. Two “lines in the sand” in my own case are:

        1) any candidate I support must condemn Israel and its
        oppression and must forcefully advocate the demilitarization
        of Israel or face strong embargoes, sanctions, and other
        financial punishments. (There are many subpoints not
        mentioned here for brevity.)

        2, any candidate I support must oppose wars around the
        world both by coercive and other means.

        I hear only silence!

        —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

        • Joe Tedesky
          September 27, 2015 at 10:38

          I will admit Peter, the celebration this week of the Pope’s visit, was way over the top. Yes, we are all for Universal Peace, and words maybe just words. Still it is a better thing to advocate for, no matter who is preaching for a peaceful earth.

          I like the criteria you put forth, for a presidential candidate. I may use your standards, and then we may both sit home, on 11/4/16. Seriously, a no vote could be a vote for sanity.

          Peace unto you Peter, now go in Peace!

          • dahoit
            September 30, 2015 at 13:04

            Ah,the monsters only attack dead popes.

        • richo
          September 28, 2015 at 16:09

          Rand Paul

    • Robert Bruce
      September 27, 2015 at 12:48

      I agree, it is all Kabuki theater. People think Trump isn’t owned, but he is. He was bankrupt 4 times and had to make deals with the Big Banks to save his butt. He probably has a Goldman Sachs tattoo on his butt cheek.

  11. Zachary Smith
    September 26, 2015 at 21:29

    The picture caption says “Ben Carson, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who opposed a Muslim being elected president.”

    This is from a Seventh Day Adventist who denies Global Warming and stoutly says the world was created in 6 days.

    Carson seems like a nice guy, but he’s totally out of his depth. Even with him being retired, I wouldn’t hesitate to have the man advise me about brain surgery. But I’d not vote for him at any higher level than the local county clerk.

    IMO the Republicans were too badly burned by Sarah Palin to allow someone in her caliber to get on a national ticket. If they are to win the 2016 national election, I suspect they’re going to have to recruit somebody outside the present field of candidates. Jeb! is the most respectable of the rest of them, and he’s a walking/talking disaster.

    With family and friends, I’ve predicted next election is slated to have an “R” winner, if for no other reason my belief Hillary is un-electable. That prediction may be one I have to eat with a generous side helping of crow.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 26, 2015 at 23:18

      Zachary, you sound like I feel. Between my friends and relatives, I am getting mixed opinions. For the ones who love Trump they seem to appreciate his honesty (if that’s what it is). I believe the popular acceptance of Trump is due to his celebrity success, and his reality TV stardom. People know the Donald, and this is his ‘Huge’ edge. Carley Fiorina, could be the great white woman hope, but for many after hearing her mean spirited rants during the CNN debates, well she scared off a lot the people I know. Rubio, probably sounds good on paper, but he is in the wrong party. Marco would do well to tweak some of his politics, and become a Democrat. The problem I see John Kasich having, is he has to appeal to the Republican base. Lee Atwater, and his buddy Carl Rove drove the Republican’s to seek out the lowest common denominator amongst our fair society. So good on them for screwing up their GOP party…. how’s that go, you made your bed so now go sleep in it?

      Zachary, I think you are right about Hillary not be electable. Although, she is a Clinton, but still I don’t see her making it to the White House. Now, many of my liberal friends are feeling ‘the Bern’. These same friends are frustrated with me, since so far I am undecided about Senator Sanders. I have followed Bernie Sanders for a long time. I always enjoyed when Thom Hartman would have ‘Lunch with Bernie’ on his radio show. Sanders makes a great case when it comes to domestic issues, but I am still on the fence with him over what his foreign policy actions would be. I must confess I am openly very leery of who to vote for, especially since after all that has happened since Obama’s inauguration. Even to this day I am hoping he will do the right thing. I guess that is that hope & change thing working on me. I even believed George W. Bush back in 1999 when he proclaimed how he would enact a ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ agenda when it came to world affairs….Wow! Talk about being had. Oh, and no, I won’t buy a bridge from anyone…I have to many of them now.

      • Robert Bruce
        September 27, 2015 at 12:33

        Trump is number one as a result against the growing backlash against PC in the US. Why do you think far right parties are gaining momentum in Europe? Trump is smart and has tapped into the anger and it is what is propelling him to what would have been an improbable run for the presidency 4 years ago.

    • Robert Bruce
      September 27, 2015 at 12:44

      Enough already of the global warming chicken little stuff!!!!!!! The warming trend ended 8-9 years ago and it is actually cooling off. Why do folks keep believing this chicken little crap? It is ISIS and Iran for the neurotic conservatives and it is global warming for progressives. It is all fear mongering to justify more spending, taxes, giving Wall St more ways to make $$$(carbon credits), and of course endless war. Do you think these corporate owned politicians are going to shoot the people that “feed” them? Why is the billionaire speculator Soros pushing Global Warming? Oh yeah one of the ways the governments of the world want to tackle this non existent threat is by issuing carbon credits that will be traded via Wall St. The sun is setting in the West, but rising in the East, thus the East will buy carbon credits from the West so they can pollute more and keep their manufacturing base going full tilt. In short nothing really will be done to stop this so called threat to humanity, but self important progressives are just as blind to this scam as the neocon backing GOP folks are blind to the endless war scam.

      • September 27, 2015 at 17:48

        What a totally insulated viewpoint. Many began thinking about climate stress circa 1973 with publication of The Limits of Growth.

        Although CO2 is not the only pollution limit corporatism faces, people first began considering the consequences of that problem around 1900.

      • Baldie McEagle
        September 27, 2015 at 21:36

        And when we’re engaged with Russia or Europe or China over oil in the Arctic Sea, because the ice is gone and shipping can move freely … will you still be blaming the “global warming progressives” for the “endless war”?

        • Joe L.
          September 28, 2015 at 18:42

          Baldie McEagle… My thoughts exactly. I find it funny hearing people saying that “global warming” does not exist meanwhile the US, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway etc. are all starting to make claims in the arctic as the ice recedes so dramatically that in the next decade or two there will be large swathes of people drilling for oil in previously unattainable areas and also while 2015 inches towards being the warmest year on record. Maybe this fact is also playing into the demonization of Russia since there will be competition and lines being drawn over the Arctic. Also, I think you are also eluding to the opening of new trade routes through the arctic waters due to the decline of ice in that region.

          • dahoit
            September 30, 2015 at 12:58

            AGW;I have no idea as to its veracity,as NY had a not too hot summer,with only a couple of 90 plus temps,same with last year.The alleged water rise is so far unseen on our coasts,I live by the them and observe.
            My concern is that if true,we will be powerless in this society of people over profit to combat it,as the airlines and military are the worst polluters,and will they shut them down?Ha.
            We will adapt as frogs in the heating pot,until the end.

      • Serg Derbst
        September 28, 2015 at 16:26

        It is exactly viewpoints like yours, which are far too common especially in the US and oddly enough the UK, that make you look like total nutjobs from my continental European viewpoint.

        I come to consortiumnews to get quality journalism about Warshington affairs and to read the comments of sane, smart and educated Americans, or – in other words – to keep a sane and balanced view of America myself.

        You don’t really seem to fit in that category.

        • Evangelista
          September 29, 2015 at 22:28

          If you read for “sane and balanced view” you read in the right place reading the Robert Bruce comment, Serg. It makes no difference whether one believes ‘global warming’ ended eight years ago or is unstoppable, continuing and going to continue for the next eight, or eighty, years, what is important, and constitutes the sane and balanced view, is the ‘global warming crisis’, quite separate from global warming, or its cause, if it exists, (and the actual root of the phenomena, if ‘global warming’ does not exist) environmental imbalance, which is a manufactured ‘chicken-little’ event purposed to creating and forcing implementation of a ‘Carbon-Credits Market’. A Carbon Credits Market is essentially a private corporate-owned and administered manufacture-taxation scheme. It creates a wholly invented idea construction, the ‘carbon-credit’ that it imagines is created by an ‘alternative’ to traditional method. The alternative ‘producer’ of ‘carbon-credit’ does not have to produce anything, most are nothing more than holding companies who, or whose creators, own companies whose ostemsible ‘business activity’ is to produce energy by other than traditional methods, using solar, wind, thermal, etc. to produce electricity, for example. Whether they produce or not, or if they produce get their production to market or not, they ‘generate’ ‘carbon-credits’ for existing, essentially for having offices and corporate officers. They can then ‘trade’ their ‘carbon-credits’, essentially renting them to manufacturers who, to carry out their manufacturing, must use traditional carbon-fuels, who, for ‘global warming crisis’ hysteria induced pressures find they must, for public relations, if nothing else, buy ‘carbon-credits’, paying money for an imaginary product being marketed by the scam-artists of the corporate financial industry, such as Goldman Sachs, who are heavily invested in corporations created to hold ‘environment-friendly’ companies which may manuafture nothing and produce nothing, or only token produce, but provide base for ‘carbon-credits’ creation.

          Most ‘global warming’ deniers are motivated by the ‘carbon-credits’ scam schemers and are oponents to those, objecting to a layer of additional private taxation being added onto their current costs by ‘legal requirements’ legislated by the usual Wall Stree Bo-Peep following legislature, and parliamentary, sheep. Thus, the argument is economic and political and has nothing whatever to do with science, or environmental balance.

          The fact is, nobody on either side in the (political) debate appears to even know anything about environmental balance, or really care. The essential reason for this is that none of them can actually do anything about environmental balance, anyway: The environment balances itself; it always has, it always will. Human beings, like trees and algaes are components in the environment and are not who balance, but what are balanced, and used for balancing by the environment. There is no scheme being offered by ‘environmental scientists’ that is going to do nything except alter the planet earth balance more, throw it more out of balance, lay the foundation for greater catastrophe in future. You can run in circles and scream and shout on either side of the question; you will do nothing for the planet, you will only use more oxygen the more you run and blow out more carbon dioxide the more you shout, making the imbalance worse. But you should make yourself feel righteous, and stay busy, so you don’t have time to think to figure the real problem out.

      • Call A Spade
        September 29, 2015 at 05:13

        Well said.

      • Call A Spade
        September 29, 2015 at 05:14

        Well said.

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