I wondered, about four months ago, if the modern liberal era, which I said began, in earnest, in mid 19th century Britain, was over. I thought that a mix of social and fiscal problems that had allowed political liberalism to morph into 21st century social progressivism might mean that aspect one of liberalism ~ the culture of entitlement with which, I have argued, Pierre Trudeau infected Canada in the 1970s ~ was ended but, I said, the noble ideas of John Locke et al, which kick-started classic liberalism late in the 17th century were still alive and well.
But The Atlantic, a generally moderate journal where politic is concerned, does not agree and the October 2017 issue’s cover headlines itself as a “damage report” on President Donald Trump’s America.
Two articles were brought to my attention:
Jack Goldsmith asks, first, “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?” and, then
Eliot Cohen explains, in his view, “How Trump Is Ending the American Era.”
A couple of months ago I commented on an article in which Dr Henry Kissinger gave us a global “strategic survey” that concluded by noting the still compelling need for a leader of the West … a role that since, arguably, 1917 and, without a shadow of a doubt, since 1942, has been filled by the USA.
But what about the notion ~ which seems increasingly evident ~ that now, in the 21st century, the leader might have become interchangeable with the organization or even the nation state (s)he leads? What if enough people are conflating Donald Trump with America? Professor Cohen says that “Foreign governments … flatter Trump outrageously. Their emissaries stay at his hotels and offer the Trump Organization abundant concessions (39 trademarks approved by China alone since Trump took office, including one for an escort service). They take him to military parades; they talk tough-guy-to-tough-guy; they show him the kind of deference that only someone without a center can crave … [but, while] … foreign leaders may consider Trump alarming, but they do not consider him serious. They may think they can use him, but they know they cannot rely on him. They look at his plans to slash the State Department’s ranks and its budget—the latter by about 30 percent—and draw conclusions about his interest in traditional diplomacy. And so, already, they have begun to reshape alliances and reconfigure the networks that make up the global economy, bypassing the United States and diminishing its standing. In January, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, Xi made a case for Chinese global leadership that was startlingly well received by the rich and powerful officials, businesspeople, and experts in attendance. In March, Canada formally joined a Chinese-led regional development bank that the Obama administration had opposed as an instrument of broadened Chinese influence; Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France were among the founding members. In July, Japan and Europe agreed on a free-trade deal as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump had unceremoniously discarded.” Now, that is Trump, not America, but, since the 1960s, the media ~ which almost defines Trump ~ is, indeed, the message, just as Marshal McLuhan prophesied. To a really distressing degree: America is Trump and Trump is America.
And Donald Trump, says Professor Jack Goldsmith, “is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.” That means that some (many? most?) foreign leaders, like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu and sundry Middle Eastern tyrants, friends and foes alike, and even Justin Trudeau, and their professional, strategic advisors probably see America as incompetent and spiteful, enraged and bigoted, self-aggrandizing and paranoid, unconcerned with the rules of law and reflexively dishonest and so on.
If Professors Cohen and Goldsmith are correct then Donald Trump is, indeed, a disastrous president who is and will do serious damage to that great office … but that great office has recovered from some pretty bad presidents, before. But, if I am right, and the office of the president is synonymous, in too many minds, with the USA, itself, then President Trump may, well, being the whole American era to a close. Eliot Cohen said, in opening his article, that “Donald trump was right. He inherited a mess. In January 2017, American foreign policy was, if not in crisis, in big trouble. Strong forces were putting stress on the old global political order: the rise of China to a power with more than half the productive capacity of the United States (and defense spending to match); the partial recovery of a resentful Russia under a skilled and thuggish autocrat; the discrediting of Western elites by the financial crash of 2008, followed by roiling populist waves, of which Trump himself was part; a turbulent Middle East; economic dislocations worldwide … [because of] … An American leadership that had partly discredited itself over the past generation compounded these problems. The Bush administration’s war against jihadist Islam had been undermined by reports of mistreatment and torture; its Afghan campaign had been inconclusive; its invasion of Iraq had been deeply compromised by what turned out to be a false premise and three years of initial mismanagement … [and] … The Obama administration’s policy of retrenchment (described by a White House official as “leading from behind”) made matters worse. The United States was generally passive as a war that caused some half a million deaths raged in Syria. The ripples of the conflict reached far into Europe, as some 5 million Syrians fled the country. A red line about the use of chemical weapons turned pale pink and vanished, as Iran and Russia expanded their presence and influence in Syria ever more brazenly. A debilitating freeze in defense spending, meanwhile, left two-thirds of U.S. Army maneuver brigades unready to fight and Air Force pilots unready to fly in combat.” Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China were, as America was dithering, exploiting the confusion and rearming and asserting power. Arab and West Asian non-state actors were, simultaneously, attacking their own state leaders and their Western supporters and protectors using old but always difficult to counter, asymmetrical tactics … and then we must add North Korea’s Kim to the mix. President Trump did, indeed, inherit a mess, a domestic mess and a strategic (foreign) mess, too. But he has made the mess worse through his bluster and ignorance and foolish, misplaced, self-confidence.
Professor Goldsmith concludes that “Citizens’ trust in American institutions has been in decline for a while. That’s one reason Donald Trump was elected. His assault on those institutions, and the defiant reactions to his assault, will further diminish that trust and make it yet harder to resolve social and political disputes. The breakdown in institutions mirrors the breakdown in social cohesion among citizens that was also a major cause of Trumpism, and that Trumpism has churned further. This is perhaps the worst news of all for our democracy. As Cass Sunstein lamented in his book #Republic, “Members of a democratic public will not do well if they are unable to appreciate the views of their fellow citizens, if they believe ‘fake news,’ or if they see one another as enemies or adversaries in some kind of war” … [but, he adds] … To that depressing conclusion I will add another. The relatively hopeful parts of the analysis offered here—that the Constitution has prevented presidential law-breaking, and that most of Trump’s norm violations will not persist—rest on a pair of assumptions that have so far prevailed but that might not hold in the future. The first is that Trump’s presidency, which has accomplished little, will continue to fail and that he will not be reelected. But it is conceivable that he will turn things around—for example, by pulling off tax and infrastructure reform and putting Kim Jong Un in a box—and win the 2020 election, perhaps in a three-way race. If Trump succeeds and makes it to a second term, his norm-breaking will be seen to serve the presidency more than it does today. If that happens, the office will be forever changed, and not for the better … [and, more worrisome] … The second assumption is that the country is fundamentally stable. In Trump’s first seven months in office, the stock market boomed and the United States faced no full-blown national-security crisis. But what if the economy collapses, or the country faces a major domestic terrorist attack or even nuclear war? What if Mueller finds evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians—and Trump fires not just Mueller but also scores of others in the Justice Department, and pardons himself and everyone else involved? These are not crazy possibilities. The Constitution has held thus far and might continue to do so under more-extreme circumstances. But it also might not.” That is the crux of my worry and the worries, I suspect, of many other, smarter and much more important people, too. America is involved in a new political “civil war,” of progressives vs revived, fearful, descendants of the old 19th century “know nothings.” Neither group is stable nor does either have any sort of useful strategic vision … but they are at war and most moderate, “middle Americans” are sitting the war out … eyes closed and ears covered.
Professor Elior A Cohen concludes, and I agree, that “America’s astonishing resilience may rescue it once again, particularly if Trump does not finish his first term. But an equally likely scenario is that Trump will leave key government institutions weakened or corrupted, America’s foreign-policy establishment sharply divided, and America’s position in the world stunted. An America lacking confidence, coupled with the rise of undemocratic powers, populist movements on the right and left, and failing states, is the kind of world few Americans remember. It would be like the world of the late 1920s or early 1930s: disorderly and unstable, but with much worse to follow … [but] … There are many reasons to be appalled by President Trump, including his disregard for constitutional norms and decent behavior. But watching this unlikeliest of presidents strut on the treacherous stage of international politics is different from following the daily domestic chaos that is the Trump administration. Hearing him bully and brag, boast and bluster, threaten and lie, one feels a kind of dizziness, a sensation that underneath the throbbing pulse of routine scandal lies the potential for much worse. The kind of sensation, in fact, that accompanies dangerously high blood pressure, just before a sudden, excruciating pain.”
America is in trouble; that means that the whole of the West, which has come to depend upon American leadership, is in trouble, too. Only the West and China have the capacity to keep the “virtuous circle” of peace and prosperity alive and working for the benefit of all. China can, perhaps, become the de facto global leader … but I’m not sure we will like the course it charts. China needs to be balanced by a (generally) liberal West. The West is too fragmented to act in unison without a clear leader. America is in trouble; therefore the world is in danger.