In her new book, “American Niceness: A Cultural History,” Associate Professor of English Carrie Tirado Bramen argues there’s a particular kind of friendliness that is distinctive to the U.S. That may seem like a good thing, but according to Bramen, it also has a flip side. Because we see ourselves as nice, we often refuse to believe our country could do bad things, leading us to whitewash our past and present actions.
The American version of niceness is different from politeness. Being nice eases encounters with strangers without having the class connotations of mastering the protocols of etiquette. It’s a democratic sensibility. You can be nice without coming from a class that knows all the right rules. It’s very important for maintaining the fantasy that we live in a classless society. Where snobbery or aloofness would typify the elite of a rigid class hierarchy in the Old World, niceness is an expression of what I call a “democratic personality.”
It is difficult to generalize about a single person, never mind a nation, but there are certain behaviors that come to characterize a nation. I think, in large part, American niceness functions as a reflex rather than a reasoned response, as natural as saying “have a nice day.” That’s significant because it excuses us of a lot of sins. The genesis of this project came in the aftermath of 9/11 and the question one heard at the time: “Why do they hate us?” The question assumes there are no consequences for American foreign policy in the Middle East. That innocence—or ignorance—became the origin for this book. It covers over a lot of atrocities that we’re not willing to face up to, like the expulsion of Native Americans and slavery, which traumatized the country in ways that still haunt us today. But the book also documents outrage toward such policies, such as when Benjamin Franklin stopped a white mob called the Paxton Boys from killing more Conestoga Indians outside of Philadelphia in 1763. This illustrates the double-sidedness of niceness.
What’s interesting about Trump is that he insists he’s “a nice person.” That insistence on being likable is quintessentially American. Trump always wants to talk about how popular he is, how many people showed up at his inauguration or to his latest rally. But this tendency has a long history. In the 1930s, the psychoanalyst Karen Horney noted that Americans were obsessed with their own popularity for competitive reasons, because it was the key to social mobility. This tendency has only intensified with social media’s “likes.” That’s a product of advertising culture, of selling yourself, which Trump epitomizes. He’s a microcosm of what the U.S. has typically represented to the world.