Bruno Maçães: The American Dream and the power of virtualism

Jan Růžička

"Political virtualism is about experience. It's supposed to be exciting, wild and scorching, but it's not supposed to turn into reality," explains Portuguese analyst Bruno Maçães the central concept of his book History Has Begun, which has just been published in Czech on INFO.CZ. In the book, the renowned analyst describes what the United States is today and the path it has taken to get there. We are publishing the introductory part of the book, which is an interview with Bruno Maçães conducted by Jan Růžička.

Jan: Hello Bruno. This book readers just about to open is all about the contemporary United States: about Trump and Trumpism, about virtual politics and strong partisanship, about social issues. It is also about the role of the United States in the world, as well as the role of federal politics in state matters.

Bruno: Yep, everything is there, and I hope readers will find it interesting.

Jan: You published its first edition at the end of Trump’s term in 2020. Now we have autumn 2022, we are in the middle of Biden’s mandate and right before midterm elections. So how do you see the United States now, two years after you wrote your book? What does it look like? Any changes?

Bruno: It doesn’t look all that different, to be honest. There hasn’t been this radical transformation that people talked about when Biden was elected. I just don’t see it. Plus, Trump hasn’t disappeared at all like people believed he would.

Jan: Who wished that?

Bruno: There was a lot of hope from the left that Biden’s victory would represent a definitive end of Trumpism. But it hasn’t ended, because Trump is still around, and he can still be described as the top opposition leader. Also, the Republican Party has continued to move in the direction of what you could call Trumpism. And, now there are many people that are even more radical than Trump on some of the issues and the style. Finally, Trump himself continues to be very powerful, unlike any former president before him. The people he picks as candidates for Congress tend to do well. They get a lot of media visibility.

Virtualism, the grand topic I write about, is still perceivable everywhere in the US. There are all these wild conspiracies coming from left and right, that are taken seriously by many voters and politicians. Obviously, Biden introduced the change, and, in some ways, he helped stabilize American politics. Because Trump’s narrative had become a bit too wild, and people had started taking it a bit too literally. So, Biden was a kind of a restart moment to give breathing space for other narratives, for other virtual stories. And wokeness is the number of them now, the most influential one.

Jan: Can we understand political virtualism as a core structural pattern of nowadays American politics?

Bruno: That’s my logic. Why? Because people in the US are happy to have it like this. To live in their virtual worlds of ideas. Unfortunately, even fictional politics can become too real, as we had seen during the last few days of Trump as president. And that was too much even for Americans loving fiction.

Jan: Do you think that the American voters like living in a sort of metaverse, this virtualism, but they are afraid of their dreams becoming real like on the 6th of January on Capitol? Basically, we can fight online – Fox News can fight with CNN, and we can fight on social media, on Twitter – but that’s it...and we can switch off devices and go home?

Bruno: Exactly. Political virtualism is all about the experience. It’s supposed to be exciting, wild, and heated but it’s not supposed to turn into reality. It shall give you the experience without the costs of the real experience. That’s why we go to Disney World. That’s why we go to a movie. - You want to be immersed in a certain experience. You want to watch and be immersed in a movie about violence or adventure, but you don’t necessarily want to be in the middle of the violence. You like war movies, but you don’t want to go to war. There is always a limit that you don’t want to cross, even though you are willing to accept these immersive experiences. And Trump was an immersive experience which at some point threatened to turn into reality, and the reaction against Trump had a lot to do with that.

Jan: Do you see these ideas of virtualism also outside US politics?

Bruno: They are present everywhere in American society. Lately, I’ve been working quite a bit on the theory of money: in part because of my interest in cryptocurrencies. And what you realize is that the concept of money that has become dominant, particularly in America, is money as virtual money rather than money as a store value.

On the one hand, you have the idea of Modern Monetary Theory, MMT, where money is understood more as a score in a game that can be easily manipulated by public authorities. These theories are becoming more popular even within the Democratic Party.

And on the other hand, you have the idea of money as a set of obligations, of payment commitments, which again is an understanding of money as a kind of score in a large social game rather than a thing representing something valuable. And these theories have become influential, just think about the quantitative easing and the FED’s approach since 2008. Of course, people have an awareness that our concept of money is changing. Crypto is a part of that. We still hang on the idea that money represents something real and valuable, and what we see in the last few decades is a movement away from this.

Jan: How about virtualism and the concept of social justice, isn’t this a big topic everywhere in the US?

Bruno: For me, wokeness can be interpreted as a game. As a fictional game where you are supposed to follow the rules, to try to score points in society by following the rules of social justice. Something like getting street credit. If you make a mistake, if you use the wrong word, if you don’t show your commitment to the rules of social justice, you’ll lose points. You may lose a job: you may lose life in this video game. And vice versa: right words and commitments will give you more points.

What distinguishes wokeness – and many conservatives don’t realize this – from the old ideas of, let’s say, revolutionary Marxism is that wokeness has no intention to fundamentally change society. The wokes talk a lot about racial injustice, but they show no interest in dealing with the root causes of racial injustice such as, for example, the way schools are organized. And many other areas where you could try to have a social reform program. They just don’t care about real change, what is important for them that’s virtue signaling.

Jan: But Biden has been elected with a promise to change society...

Bruno: Yes and no. What is so distinctive about American politics is that there’s this awareness, this instinct that trying to transform society will get us in trouble. It will increase conflict. It will have unintended effects. The conservative criticism of social reform is very much part of the American culture on the left and on the right.

So instead of changing society, people prefer to build a fictional world on the side. And this fictional world can be perfect just because the idea of wokeness is that within the game, you must aspire towards perfect justice. But it is a fictional world operating alongside the real world. And in the real world, nothing changes very much. So, I see this dynamic that I described in my book as present everywhere, not just in Trumpism.

Jan: When we are building a dream world, there can of course be multiple dream worlds standing next to each other. Thus, everybody can be happy living in his own world. And my question is: isn’t this virtualism, this idea of living in different dream worlds, positively embedded in the United States from the very beginning? When we look at the Constitution and think about the rights of states, it gives you the ability to be a Catholic in Maryland and a Mormon in the Midwest. Basically, even before the metaverse and social media and Facebook, there were 50 different versions of the United States based on the state you were actually in. It is very different to be Republican in Mayne and in Texas...

Bruno: Yes, absolutely. I think you can interpret the American constitution in these terms of virtualism. In the beginning, that was not quite the idea, but it quickly became adapted to these goals. To protect states against the federation. And so, the elements of political fragmentation work very much for this purpose. The checks and balances can be interpreted as a mechanism to prevent any of these fictional worlds from becoming all-powerful. And I think you’re correct that this diversity that we see in America is a diversity of experiences – of virtual experiences. That there are many different possible versions of the “good life” happening at the same time in American society. Many different life plans can coexist rather easily because none of them is to be taken literally as expressing a final truth.

Jan: There is also a strong concept of expressively experienced religious beliefs.

Bruno: Religion in the US can be much more powerful than in Europe and it may look much more traditional. There hasn’t even been an attempt to create a completely secular society in America. But at the same time, the reason why this can happen without turning the system into a theocracy is that these forms of religious experience are understood more or less explicitly as forms of role-play. Virtualism again.

So, you see systems in many parts of the United States that look at first like a form of theocracy. The law is supposed to follow religious scriptures, and everything looks very traditional. I remember seeing a woman on TV during COVID saying that she was not afraid of COVID because she had been bathed in the blood of Jesus Christ. And this is something you could see perhaps in previous centuries in Europe or in some Muslim countries today. But these ideas never translate into control of the state. So, the United States often looks to me as a kind of Iranian Republic, but where everyone is behaving ironically. They’re saying the same things, but they don’t mean them in the way that they are meant in Iran.

Jan: Isn’t this the biggest strength of the United States? You can experience 20 different forms and practices of life next to each other which are actually giving you freedom, free spirit, and also innovation. If you are not happy in California, you go to Texas where you can build different dreams and life. Actually, my thinking is that this extreme heterogeneity gives the US its strength. For me it's the ultimate melting pot. Not a single melting pot, but dozens of melting pots next to each other in harmony.

Bruno: Yes, it is. And it would be interesting to write a biography of these 20 personalities and lifestyles you talk about. Furthermore, America allows you two experience different lifestyles in different stages of your life. You might live at some point in your life as a pious religious believer, then a bit later you can be dealing drugs in Miami, and then you can be a politician, and so on and so forth.

This is very much a part of the American way of life that anything is possible, even if it’s completely contradictory. But if it is understood as an experience, then there’s nothing contradictory. Because after all, you can watch a movie about a nun and a movie about a prostitute and there’s nothing contradictory about it. They’re different experiences and you want to have as much experience as possible. What you cannot be, is a real nun and a real prostitute at the same time. But you can experiment with different lifestyles if they are not taken as a final truth, as I said. That’s also part of the American dream: to go from very low to the absolute top. To become a billionaire even though you started in the ghetto. That’s great!

Jan: Could you give me some examples of such heterogenous life?

Bruno: Ronald Reagan. He is exactly like that, and he represents this kind of virtualism more than I think he represents conservatism. His conservatism was not seen as a final truth. He never really tried to transform American society, to get rid of social security, or reduce public expenditures. None of these changed fundamentally with him. But the mood and the experience changed. And even his life was like that. He understood how to play a role and he played it with such intensity that it felt completely real. And as you said before: it helped him to achieve great victories at home and in the world; virtualism and acting was his great strength.

Reagan was also the inventor of reality television. Because he had this show with his wife Nancy where he opened his home and showed Americans the life of a couple in California. Very much like the Kardashians but in the early 70s and late 60s. And that’s the show that made him a national figure and eventually a president. So, all throughout his life, there’s this awareness of the power of fiction, TV and media and how they can be used for good purposes.

Jan: When we are talking about these different life experiences and about giving people a right to choose, wouldn’t it be a correct observation that the current composition of the Supreme Court is protecting this right to choose? That you can have different lives in different parts of the United States and the Supreme Court is protecting that?

Bruno: That’s right. And I think the Supreme Court does play a positive arbiter to give American politics of virtualism some kind of boundaries. Democratic activists might not like it, but this is exactly Court’s role: to give people the ability to live the lives they want. Thanks to that, you could have California representing a certain image of the future, and Mississippi representing something almost opposite. And the fact that this would be possible has always been, I think, the American spirit.

Jan: Let’s now move a little bit outside: Biden and foreign policy or politics at large. Biden was elected very much on domestic political topics. He promised to materialize a lot of these dreams, especially in areas of social justice, race, and culture. But now, the administration’s focus is constantly needed outside. There is China and Taiwan, China versus the US, there is of course Russia’s war on Ukraine. So how do you see the US foreign policy under the current administration?

Bruno: Well, you know, I have been critical. But many times, I’ve been critical from the perspective of a European. But I think that if you adopt the perspective of American virtualism, some of the changes that Biden introduced seem to work.

Jan: Could you give me some examples?

Bruno: First, Biden seems to represent the abandonment of the neoconservative foreign policy. And the neocon foreign policy was very un-American because its project was about transforming the world and its deep social and political structures. Transforming Iraq into a Western democracy. This is almost a revolutionary tradition, a European revolutionary tradition. There is nothing American about neoconservatism and Biden has abandoned this completely, right? Afghanistan is an example – but it’s present everywhere – that he no longer wants to transform the world.

Example number two: The Ukraine war shows America that is acting a bit differently, almost like a scriptwriter or a playwright behind the scenes. Manipulating events, writing the story played by others. And what is striking about the Ukraine war is that you can see it as if Ukraine and Russia were characters. Characters in a tragic war story. A kind of Tolstoy novel of sorts. But it also could be Vasily Grossman with all the violence and the extermination of that war. A real story.

And what is the United States? The United States is almost like the novelist in the background, writing and rewriting the story. Because the United States creates the story environment for the players, the actors, or the characters in the story. What the United States has been able to do is to almost enact the story environment for Russia. Russia started the warfighting a certain Ukraine, and then the United States transformed Ukraine behind the scenes into something else, and suddenly Russia finds itself fighting a different opponent. Now it’s a modernized army with the best equipment in some areas, training, and so on. And great morale and storytelling.

Jan: Shall we understand this as a positive development?

Bruno: I think so because it has kind of worked, right? We have to say that it has kind of worked because it has allowed the US to be present, even very present, but without getting involved in the war directly. We’ll see how it ends, but this gives America the ability to operate on a higher level. If you are an actor on the stage, you must play the role that was written for you, but if you are a director and script writer you have much more freedom.

Jan: Do you think that this different operational mechanism might be used by US foreign policy strategists long term? This kind of leadership is from behind. Do you think that this might be the way to move forward to promote the US agenda?

Bruno: Yes, and in some sense, it is being pursued by Biden and maybe by others in the future. We have just talked about how the great strength of America domestically was this sense of unreality – that it works well because it allows the society to be very free and diverse while keeping cohesion. And for me it was always a bit disappointing that America was never been able to apply this same method to foreign policy. The Vietnam War was the opposite; it was exactly a country engaged in a very serious project of transformation. It was trying to bring American-style democracy to Vietnam. And that failed tragically. And then even Iraq and Afghanistan.

And now I think we’re seeing something different and potentially better and more aligned with the world as it is. We are seeing the US being more ironic and skeptical, less committed to any strong belief of how the world should work, and it’s just trying to balance power and preventing any narrative in the world from becoming dominant. It is starting to behave like the Supreme Court under Roberts. So, America it’s being more tolerant towards the difference and just trying to play the role of the playwright that allows for the existence of many different characters but still wants to be in control of the story.

Jan: Can this work?

Bruno: I think it is actually a great advantage for America going forward. China takes itself very seriously and thinks that it has found the final truth. The European Union thinks it has found a final truth, and the European Union officials keep talking about how they have the best system in the world. Indians have now been also moving towards a coherent worldview that is supposed to be superior to every other worldview.

So, it’s now the United States that represents a sense of old-fashioned skepticism and irony. And what kind of ideas does this represents for the US foreign policy? It seems to be moving towards a sense that balance, equilibrium, and also the preservation of difference at the global level are the only important ideas. The United States would be concerned with the idea that the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party would become dominant all over Asia, for example, and it’s trying to balance India and China.

And perhaps this is what we need: just diversity at the global level, without too much ideology. Neoconservatism really is dead. It would be impossible now for the United States to have a very clear 10-point program on how to organize other societies because the United States doesn’t have a 10-point program on how to organize itself. And therefore, I do see the advantage of American virtualism now also moving into foreign policy.

Jan: There was a period in history that was very similar to what you have just described. I’m talking about the United Kingdom in the 18th century: the building of balance and equilibrium in Europe. So, do you think that from this perspective, the United States is like the 18th Century Britain, but for the world?

Bruno: That’s exactly how I think about it. The United Kingdom was balancing the different powers in Europe and doing it a little bit from the outside. And it was a little less committed to any view. Republican France was very radical and had a project of social equality. And people in the United Kingdom understood this. They understood the logic of equality, but they also understood the logic of hierarchy and tradition, represented by Prussia or even Russia. Because after all, there was an aristocracy, and there was a monarchy. So, Britain was predisposed to being a balancer.
And it knew that its power was to stay a bit outside, to balance these different worldviews and prevent any from becoming dominant. And now you can see that the United States is staying outside Eurasia.

And this is how my two books fit together. Being outside Eurasia, the US can play the role of a balancer of the different worldviews in Eurasia: those held by Europe, Russia, China, India, Iran.
And to prevent any from becoming too dominant. So, the US plays the role in Eurasia that the United Kingdom played in Europe. And just like the United Kingdom was an island off the shores of Europe, the United States is an island off the shores of Eurasia.

Jan: What does it mean for Europe and for Central Europe specifically? Over the last decade, the United States was not very present in the region. You know, since the beginning of Obama’s first term, everything has moved to the Pacific. With Trump, it was similar. Now with Russia, we can see much more of US presence. The US is also rearming Central Europe. We see Sweden and Finland marching to NATO. So, do you think that we can have more of the US in Central Europe?

Bruno: It seems to be working that way. It’s surprising to many people because as you said, we are supposed to be seeing a pivot away from Europe to Asia. People like my friend Elbridge Colby are furious about this and keep repeating that the US must turn to Asia and reduce its commitments in Europe. And Elbridge Colby could well become the Secretary of Defence in a future Trump administration. But so far, it hasn’t happened. And I think there are different reasons for that.

Jan: What are the reasons?

Bruno: First, I think that in terms of American strategy, it would make sense to take this opportunity to reduce Russian power, so that afterward the US can focus on China for the rest of the century. That’s the long game. These things take place over a very long term, and therefore there is time for the United States to focus on Russia for the rest of this decade. It may be trying to take the opportunity that Russia overextended itself as a moment when Russia will stop being a great power with an American push. And then the US will have free hands to focus on China. I think that China, by the way, is concerned about this scenario and may help Russia to prevent its collapse. That’s one thing. From the point of view of geostrategy, I think it makes sense to do this.

Jan: Any other reasons?

Bruno: I have always been a bit skeptical of the idea that the US would turn to Asia...

Jan: Why?

Bruno: Because there is a much less receptive audience in Asia to listen to the US than in Europe; for historical, cultural, and political reasons. So, if the United States decides to reduce its presence in Europe and try to replicate NATO in Asia, I think it will quickly find that this is impossible. Because Asian countries are not like European countries, and they are also quite suspicious of the US. They want the US to balance Chinese power, but they don’t want the USA to be strongly present in the region beyond that role of balancing China. And many of them will try to find a balance between the US and China and try to deal with both. Many countries in Asia don’t feel that they are part of an American orbit. They don’t want to be part of the Chinese orbit either, of course.

But there just won’t be the same level of cultural and economic integration between America and Asia as there has been between America and Europe. I think that could change over the rest of the century, but it will be a very slow process. It’s just the determinants of history and past dependences. It just explains that after all, as I talk about in the book, Europe and America may be drifting apart, but they come from the same root. And that’s not the case on the other side of Eurasia.

Jan: So, what we shall expect in central Europe?

Bruno: I think that we’re probably going to see a closer alignment between the US and Central and Eastern Europe than in the past. That was already happening under Bush. And I think it’s just such a structural force that it will continue. And the reason for that is mostly that the US is interested in a Europe that will take more responsibility for its own affairs. Again, this sense that the US will be operating more in the background also applies to Europe. And where does the US find a receptive audience to this? It’s in Central and Eastern Europe and not so much in France and Germany. I think there’s a structural factor here that the sense of, for example, increasing military spending is much stronger in this part of Europe than in Western Europe. And the Americans will consider this as a common ground that they can develop in the future. So, it’s not a surprise to me that you’re seeing these kinds of developments and a lot more alignment between American views and views in that part of Europe –Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and perhaps even Ukraine, in the future.

Jan: So, equilibrium, balancing, and educating allies to be more in charge is the way to go.

Bruno: Yes, I think one may end up with a similar role that the US also plays in Europe and Asia, just the role of a balancer. And the US will assume the role of an influencer in the background and an operator at a higher level. Shaping and reshaping the environment that other actors must operate in, rather than being a direct player. And this will eventually become the role of the US in Europe and in Asia. It will provide support but will try to avoid being directly involved in affairs if possible. That’s what we are seeing in Ukraine. And I think this would be the lesson for everyone: that that’s the way to work with America. That, for example, Taiwan should realize that this is the way it must work with America – and other countries too. That, rather than more direct involvement. That’s my two cents for my readers in the Czech Republic.

Jan: Thank you very much for your insights.