Despite the GSA “ascertaining that Joe Biden was the apparent winner of the Nov. 3 presidential election”, what lingers after four years of a Donald Trump presidency is an unsettling awareness that whatever America was before, it is not that anymore. And whatever “American Exceptionalism” might have meant in the past, it does not mean that anymore, either – certainly not to the world-at-large, which once looked to America as we kids once looked to Super Man in the 1950s: “fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Four years of Donald Trump was all the kryptonite needed to debilitate an image that had taken two centuries to build by the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. It is a testament to how fragile the structure of democracy is.
And though Trump lost his bid for re-election, 74 million Americans still voted as if the last four years supported another four, which speaks to the dispiriting effect Trumpism will have going forward.
The elections of 2016 and 2020 have confirmed that if you inject enough fear and greed into a system, group-think will take hold and it will be impervious to logic and rationality, as feelings trump facts, and no argument, no matter how concise, will be able to shake it.
Americans, it turns out, are no different than any other human beings on the planet. The past means nothing if the future is threatened by one’s adherence to it.
No, Trump 2016 was not a one-term aberration, a civic crie de coeur from a disenfranchised segment of the population for whom globalization wasn’t a boon but a bust. Instead, even after watching the 45th president trample every norm, upset every alliance, embrace every authoritarian, some 74 million good Americans still chose to see him as a savior rather than the lazy, ill-informed, selfish saboteur of a cherished ideal.
Facts, it turns out, are quite mutable in this current America where fear is regnant and comeuppance due.
In other words, Trump was/is a reflection of the true red-blue split that has been building in America for 40 years. He was not the radical outlier, but a real hero to half the nation – though a revolting specter to the other half. And there is your divide. Neither blue America nor red can seemingly build a bridge with the other. Our colors have set like a permanent stain where there is no bleaching them out.
We speak the same words but not the same language. We see the same thing but define it in different ways.
President-elect Biden introduced his national security team on November 24, 2020, an impressive group of talent and experience that harkens back to America’s Best & Brightest (except for John Kerry, for whom I’ve never had much use). But it will take more than saying, “America is back” for that to be so, as the world has watched with a mixture of schadenfreude and horror as Trump has dismantled the post-WWII American world order.
America has always presented itself as different, unique, not beholden to blood and land but to an ideal expressed by its founders and embraced by succeeding generations that the free individual was the foundational element of society. But they also held that each free individual pledged allegiance to a mutual responsibility that undergirded their freedom. One cannot thrive without the other.
And that was all well and good as long as everyone (who counted – and not all did) was safe, secure, and relatively happy. But the minute that pursuit was challenged from below, all bets were off.
In the time of a hundred-year pandemic, in the wealthiest and most advanced country on earth, this 2020 election has shown how easily corrupted America could be.
More than that, 2020 has been like the dotted-I and crossed-T to the 1980 Reagan Revolution. Reagan, you recall, came to office denigrating the U.S. government to its people. His joke, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” always delivered the laugh but it also seeded the distrust which blooms so vividly in 2020.
According to the Pew Research Center, 1964 was the high watermark for trust in the federal government when three-quarters of the American people believing that the federal government would do the right thing some or most of the time. That trust level has dropped to 17% in 2020.
Reagan’s trickle-down economic approach of the 1980s also opened credit wide, exploded deficit spending (national debt tripled in eight years), and saw savings rates tumble as he liberated us to our appetites, greed, and consumption, turning us into a nation of grasshoppers.
In the ensuing years, standards and institutions have fallen, debt has risen, savings dropped, and business and government become even more dangerously entwined.
The Dotcom bubble of the late 1990s didn’t knock us off that path, nor when the US economy was staggered again during the 2008 financial crisis. We bailed out the banks but did not take an honest accounting and recalibrate our path by tasking ourselves with difficult but needed reforms. Instead, we just kept pretending there would be no future consequence.
It was during this time that China began to believe in America’s unrecoverable decline.
There is an old Chinese proverb: tao guang, yang hui – bide your time, build your capabilities. That strategy, in time, would overturn the old order, bring you to the lead and enable victory. Some observers also believe it is the current political philosophy of modern China.
For over 200 years, it was our safe redoubt as the abundantly gifted, unthreatened nation protected by two expansive oceans that allowed us to grow and prosper on a continental scale even as the other nations of the world continued to scrap and squabble amongst themselves.
The First World War of the 20th century brought down empires and reconfigured the global map. In many ways, the world remains a remnant of that conflict. And while America was tasked greatly, she came out of World War II as the preeminent nation of the world with a huge advantage that succeeding generations took as their right and privilege, though it was the Greatest Generation that had made the sacrifice to earn that position.
In an attempt to avoid another world conflagration, America helped establish a new world financial order at the Bretton Woods Conference in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the summer of 1944. There, the victorious nations from the war met to form a series of monetary institutions – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank – to steady the unsettled financial order that had led to military conflict in the first place. Out of Bretton Woods, the American dollar became the standard unit of financial exchange worldwide.
But 75 years on, technology and global trade have brought the world closer and erased much of the American economic hegemony. And as U.S. jobs left for more clement taxes and cheaper labor abroad, and education was not prioritized at home, as the understanding that America’s business class was more attuned to its own health rather than that of its workforce, more and more factories were shuttered and jobs lost. All the while government sided with the bosses and did nothing to protect the people, and court rulings like “Citizens United” equated money with blood and bone, and money was taxed lower than labor until the frustrations felt by millions of displaced Americans finally turned to anger.
But rather than engendering a national initiative to rebuild a robust middle-class, society kept putting off its hard choices and never developed a broad constituency for middle-class redevelopment.
Thus, as the Haves grew increasingly have-ier while the put-upon class grew larger and no relief arrived to address the gut-level feeling of betrayal, a demagogue like Donald Trump arrived to find fertile ground upon which to plant his seeds of division and disunion disguised in the flag of “America First!”
And wasn’t he the perfect image for our time of national decline? Knowing this now won’t save us, God knows, but it feels good to do something that vents our deep-seated fears just the same.
Throughout this tumultuous time, long-cocooned China began implementing a plan that Michael Pillsbury wrote about in his 2015 book The Hundred-Year Marathon. In it, Pillsbury outlined China’s secret strategy to supplant America as the number one global superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong in 1949.
America under Trump will have accelerated that exchange by a decade or more, notwithstanding his re-election defeat in 2020. That’s how consequential Trump has been in just four short years, and how fragile a democratic form of government has been shown to be.
As we continue to vacate the world stage and dismantle the alliances and institutions that saw the global rise of the American Economic Empire—the empire of the dollar —China will continue attempting to fill that vacuum, however imperfectly. In 2019, China overtook the United States in the total number of diplomatic outposts worldwide.
In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping initiated the Belt & Road Initiative, a global infrastructure developmental strategy that has built ties in dozens of countries around the world, even as our president continued to preen and strut in our name, braying about being No. 1, the greatest country in history while walking away from American instituted international organizations and treaties.
This is not to suggest that China has an open road ahead. Its own internal fault lines and authoritarian thuggishness have hindered its own efforts overseas writes Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Affairs.
“Yet even as the United States has faltered in highly visible and costly ways, China is fumbling the mantle of global leadership, too, with its lethal cover-up of the pandemic, its bullying diplomacy and extraterritorial belligerence, its controversial approach to development, and its ongoing human rights horrors, including the mass internment of its Uighur Muslim population.”
Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, therefore, coupled with his vast international experience, while lending hope to a renewed American engagement with the world, still must contend with the domestic strength of the Republican Party, which picked up seats in the house and will likely holding on to the senate. That strength confirms the arc of history that we are on. Trump may have lost, but Trumpism goes on validated by the more than 70 million votes he garnered.
The irony is rich, of course, as Fundamentalist Christians continue to follow the least Christian man in America, one who pays off strippers to keep them quiet, who wasn’t even a Republican till a black man came to the presidency in 2008, who uses other people’s charitable contributions to payoff lawsuit settlements.
If we remain polarized at home and isolationist abroad, we, like the Soviet Union before us, risk ending up as a dangerous nuclear power, but with an increasingly hollowed-out national center. As in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, life expectancy in America is already, for the first time, going down.
As if on cue, like a trampolining effect, the combination of Trumpism and the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hails the end of what’s been called the American Century. It isn’t certain yet whose century the 21st will be, and there is still time for America to reassert its traditional role. But as of this writing, I’m glad the Greatest Generation and all previous ones aren’t around anymore to see what we have done of late with the legacy they left us.