Committing atrocities at the border, attacking the domestic rule of law, insulting democratic leaders while praising thugs and breaking up trade agreements are all about turning our back on the ideals that made us different from other powerful nations.
The U.S. government is, as a matter of policy, ripping children from the arms of their parents and putting them in fenced enclosures (which officials insist aren’t cages, oh no). The U.S. president is demanding that law enforcement stop investigating his associates and go after his political enemies instead. He has been insulting democratic allies while praising murderous dictators. And a global trade war seems increasingly likely.
What do these stories have in common? Obviously they’re all tied to the character of the man occupying the White House, surely the worst person ever to hold his position. But there’s also a larger context, and it’s not just about President Donald Trump. What we’re witnessing is a systematic rejection of long-standing American values — the values that actually made America great.
America has long been a powerful nation. In particular, we emerged from World War II with a level of both economic and military dominance not seen since the heyday of ancient Rome. But our role in the world was always about more than money and guns. It was also about ideals: America stood for something larger than itself — for freedom, human rights and the rule of law as universal principles.
Of course, we often fell short of those ideals. But the ideals were real, and mattered. Many nations have pursued racist policies; but when Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote his 1944 book about our “Negro problem,” he called it “An American Dilemma,” because he viewed us as a nation whose civilization had a “flavor of enlightenment” and whose citizens were aware at some level that our treatment of blacks was at odds with our principles.
And his belief that there was a core of decency — maybe even goodness — to America was eventually vindicated by the rise and success, incomplete as it was, of the civil rights movement.
But what does American goodness — all too often honored in the breach, but still real — have to do with American power, let alone world trade? The answer is that for 70 years, American goodness and American greatness went hand in hand. Our ideals, and the fact that other countries knew we held those ideals, made us a different kind of great power, one that inspired trust.
Think about it. By the end of World War II, we and our British allies had in effect conquered a large part of the world. We could have become permanent occupiers, and/or installed subservient puppet governments, the way the Soviet Union did in Eastern Europe. And yes, we did do that in some developing countries; our history with, say, Iran is not at all pretty.
But what we mainly did instead was help defeated enemies get back on their feet, establishing democratic regimes that shared our core values and became allies in protecting those values.
The Pax Americana was a sort of empire; certainly America was for a long time very much first among equals. But it was by historical standards a remarkably benign empire, held together by soft power and respect rather than force. (There are actually some parallels with the ancient Pax Romana, but that’s another story.)
And while you might be tempted to view international trade deals, which Trump says have turned us into a “piggy bank that everyone else is robbing,” as a completely separate story, they are anything but. Trade agreements were meant to (and did) make America richer, but they were also, from the beginning, about more than dollars and cents.
In fact, the modern world trading system was largely the brainchild not of economists or business interests, but of Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long-serving secretary of state, who believed that “prosperous trade among nations” was an essential element in building an “enduring peace.” So you want to think of the postwar creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as part of the same strategy that more or less simultaneously gave rise to the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO.
So all the things happening now are of a piece. Committing atrocities at the border, attacking the domestic rule of law, insulting democratic leaders while praising thugs and breaking up trade agreements are all about ending American exceptionalism, turning our back on the ideals that made us different from other powerful nations.
And rejecting our ideals won’t make us stronger; it will make us weaker. We were the leader of the free world, a moral as well as financial and military force. But we’re throwing all that away.
What’s more, it won’t even serve our self-interest. America isn’t nearly as dominant a power as it was 70 years ago; Trump is delusional if he thinks that other countries will back down in the face of his threats. And if we are heading for a full-blown trade war, which seems increasingly likely, both he and those who voted for him will be shocked at how it goes: Some industries will gain, but millions of workers will be displaced.
So Trump isn’t making America great again; he’s trashing the things that made us great, turning us into just another bully — one whose bullying will be far less effective than he imagines.