IN a perverse way, almost certainly by accident and invariably for the wrong reasons, Donald Trump’s supporters are right in diagnosing the decline of their country as a global power and its disastrous domestic problems. Out in the world, the US is giving way to the next global powers, notably China, and domestic matters such as high medical costs and personal debt (and “those Mexicans and Muslims”) are weighing heavily on state and society.
At the same time, large numbers of refugees on the southern border are causing panic, mainly it seems about a loss of “American culture” or “the American way”. This is heavily influenced by xenophobia, fear of the unknown and often crude racism.
It is probably bad manners to traduce the “pain” and “suffering” of people seeing their country slipping away from them. This apparent loss of the “good old days" and disappearance of a time when the US represented everything that was good probably explains the obsession with making America “great again”. This obsession is more than a little nativist, defined as an “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign connections”. If that sounds familiar, it should be because in this respect Trump and his populists are a lot like Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters.
Trump taps into the nostalgia for a time when America placed Americans — their goods, services, society and culture — first. This was most evident in his statement after the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony (where the South Korean film Parasite won the best picture award) lamenting the “good old days”.
“How bad were the Academy Awards this year, did you see? ‘And the winner is … a movie from South Korea.’ What the hell was that all about? We’ve got enough problems with South Korea with trade, on top of it they give them the best movie of the year?” Trump said at a rally in Colorado.
Harking back to films made more than seven decades earlier, he added: “I’m looking for like, let’s get Gone with the Wind — can we get like Gone with the Wind back, please? Sunset Boulevard, so many great movies.”
That Trump’s supporters are right (about their losses) and that he masterfully manipulates their emotions — the way populists across time and place always have — does not mean they cannot be wrong about the causes and about what they think ought to be done. I always hate it when people raise this as an excuse but … it’s a lot more complicated than they think. Put differently, and apart from the conspiratorial nonsense, there is much more beyond the immediacy of things observable through the senses.
After being the best
Most adults in the room need not be reminded that for most of the past 70 years the US has been the world's political economic powerhouse. It was the engine of the global political economy, the lender of last resort, the largest domestic consumer, and it had the military and the secure institutions of the liberal international economic order to back it all up.
With the notable exception of military power, the US is being overtaken by China and to a lesser extent India. The US has gone from being the best to being a little like the rest, in the sense that everyone is in awe of China’s rise despite rising angst about a diminution of “western” values and the possibility of a rise in Chinese or broadly Asian cultural values and preferences.
While English is often presented as “the language of globalisation”, it became the language of global capitalist exchange almost three centuries ago. I don’t see English disappearing as the language of global exchange in the next 50 years, at least. Trump has, of course, invoked the fear that everyone will have to learn Mandarin. “China will own the United States. You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese,” he said on the campaign trail in 2020. This, Trump said, was one of the reasons everyone should vote for him and not for Joe Biden.
Anti-globalism of the Maga movement
Most of the “Make America great again" (Maga) supporters are opposed to globalism. I say “most” because there must be some among them who understand history. But the majority are isolationists and would prefer any US government to be protectionist. They expect some kind of job protection guarantees so the US does not lose jobs to countries abroad. They also expect greater domestic investment by domestic corporations. This can be spun as old-fashioned isolationism, economic nationalism or autarky. There is some value in autarky because if you cannot get your own industries and corporations to invest in your domestic market, it is difficult to get foreigners to invest. There is, however, a dangerously frail boundary between what Maga supporters present as, say, autarky and xenophobia. To be sure, if a foreign company invests in the US and employs Americans there has to be some value. This is being generous to Trump’s followers.
Trump’s anti-globalism was characterised by The New York Times as “opposition to what he described as an economic and political system rigged against the American people for the benefit of shadowy forces in the news media, the banks and the government”.
“Shadowy forces” is the dead giveaway of nativism. Worse still is the way antisemitism pops up when the Maga lot refer to George Soros. This antisemitism has slipped into punditry in the US. According to Forbes Magazine, there is a growing body of “anti-Soros pundits and provocateurs who traffic in false claims and inflammatory rhetoric. By giving oxygen to anti-Soros theories, these pundits not only do a disservice to the truth, but they fuel antisemitic hate and violence that is beginning to reach worrisome levels of pervasiveness in America”.
What is frightening is the way a decent demand for jobs is a terrible excuse, a ruse, for indecent xenophobia, nativism and antisemitism. It seems the Maga crowd are just pitiful and nasty.
Grabbing the wrong end of the stick
The reality of US decline seems out of the intellectual reach of most Maga supporters. The globalisation of manufacturing, trade and finance has been growing alongside the movement of people — smart and highly educated people from abroad and migrants who travel to the US for a better life. Because of this, and as part of the global shift of power, the Maga crowd fear for their future. Everyone wants a good future, surely, but it’s hard to see Trump supporters aspiring to a better future with all the shifts of the past two or three decades and the demographic changes that have taken place in the US.
So, ag shame, but you really are grabbing the wrong end of the stick. The causes of American problems are social and historical. These problems are not because of the Chinese (abroad) and the Mexicans (within the US and on its southern border); they are about failures of leadership, coupled with anti-intellectualism, and the rise and fall of empires. The US as a global power is going the way that others before it (such as Britain, Spain, Holland and Portugal) went when their power and ideas reached the expiry date.
The Maga crowd is correct in one sense: their country is in decline. But they are wrong in the sense that the decline is not for the reasons they put forward (China, Mexicans, Soros, domestic “agents” and “globalists”).
The Peterson Institute for International Economics boldly states: “Donald Trump’s blame of foreigners and government insiders for the country’s perceived problems, in particular, appears to conquer the top six American fears in one fell swoop. Border barriers limit cross-border traffic in goods, people and capital, protecting jobs threatened by foreigners via trade, outsourcing or immigration; such barriers also support national security.”
While I don’t agree with all the idealism (nor the methods and ideological rigidity) of the Peterson Institute, it correctly stated: “The vast majority of Americans benefit tremendously from globalisation via cheaper goods, more varieties and productivity gains from enhanced competition … Open commerce is especially important for the poor, who spend a higher fraction of their income on traded goods. Immigration has boosted innovation and growth, with the skills of foreign-born workers complementing those of the US-born labour force.
“Perhaps more importantly, especially in these turbulent times, US leadership on economic and political issues depends on a firm commitment to open commerce … The sudden strength of the anti-globalisation movement is connected to a decline in the US ability to control global commerce and security, making some Americans want to retreat from the world economy. While free trade may not always be the best policy, one thing is certain: nationalism is not a solution to America’s woes.”
All of that makes sense but it seems to be out of reach for most of Trump's most vocal populists. The dead giveaway of the Maga crowd is their nostalgia. It is Trump’s Gone with the Wind moment, when he declared the ideal America as the one where black people knew their place and when the US benefited greatly from the “golden age of capitalism" (1945-1972) because of its leadership. They also long for the America before the civil rights movement; better still, the romanticised America before the Civil War, according to Jeremy Helligar, author of Is it True What They Say About Black Men? The Maga crowd “have the privilege and the luxury of looking back and viewing history through rose-coloured glasses”, Helligar wrote.
This is a world away from black people in the US. Unfortunately for the Maga crowd, the US is not about to return to global leadership any time soon, and not before it has been drawn into another/further regional conflicts. Sure, they may bemoan their fate, but it has been coming for a long time. Americans have been living beyond their means and the bills are “overdue”, according to the finance and investment journal Barron's.
♦ VWB ♦
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