US President Donald Trump says he is “the chosen one,” and many of his evangelical supporters agree. But standing, Bible in hand, in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, after the police used riot shields and tear gas to clear the area of peaceful protesters, Trump had more in common with Jesus Christ’s donkey than with a savior. Far from liberating a fallen civilization, Trump is pushing one to its breaking point, creating precisely the kind of mayhem that many of his evangelical supporters believe will precede – and necessitate – the arrival of a messiah.
Trump ran for president in 2016 on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” His campaign for re-election in November pledges, with all the clueless arrogance we have come to expect, to “Keep America Great.”
Is this the same America that is facing widespread protests over systemic racism and police brutality, and in which the law-enforcement officers who are supposed to keep the peace are routinely stoking violence? The America where the police kill black men at 2.5 times the rate of white men?
Is Trump referring to the America that is in the throes of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, in which black people are dying at far higher rates than their white counterparts? The America where about 44 million people have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate coverage? The one that, under Trump’s leadership, has lost the respect of its friends, allies, and partners, and become an international laughingstock?
To be sure, America’s problems did not begin with Trump. The US health-care system has long been broken, inequality has been rising for decades, police brutality has always been part of American life, and systemic racism is built into the country’s very foundations. US pretensions of moral leadership were being called into question well before Trump entered the White House.
But if the United States was a tinderbox of racism, inequality, and broken politics, Trump lit the match – and then held himself blameless for the resulting fires. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he declared, when asked about the government’s slow response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Worse, Trump continued to add fuel. He downplayed the pandemic’s severity, egged on (mostly white, Republican) anti-lockdown protesters, and touted unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.
When nationwide protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he threatened to deploy the military against Americans, prompting four-star general John Allen to warn that such a move could signal the “beginning of the end of the American experiment.” And, with a blatant racist dog whistle, he repeated a line attributed to Walter Headley, Miami’s police chief during the civil disorder there in 1967: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Trump’s behavior has been shocking, but not surprising. He has been exploiting America’s deepest flaws since he arrived on the political scene, stoking political and cultural polarization to appease his base, including its significant component of white supremacists. Meanwhile, he has maintained his grip on the Republican Party with a conventional combination of tax cuts and deregulation that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations. And, for four consecutive years, his administration has shifted public money from the social safety net and education to the military. The US defense budget is now the largest it has been since World War II, barring a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War.
Why, one might reasonably ask, is Trump arming America to the teeth? After all, he has abdicated US global leadership and let China fill the vacuum without firing a single shot. Not only has he abandoned diplomatic norms, dismissed and betrayed allies, and bullied countries with sanctions and threats. He has also withdrawn from international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the Paris climate agreement.
For Europeans – who disagreed with Trump on most of these decisions – the US is no longer a source of strategic or moral leadership. It may not even be a fellow member of the transatlantic community. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent rebuff of Trump’s invitation to a G7 summit shows how far relations have fallen. Only desperate cynics like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, evangelical liars like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, poseurs like Britain’s Boris Johnson, and bullies like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte still relish Trump’s friendship.
There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.”
Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world.
Such soft power requires the US government to promote civilian values, foster competitiveness and innovation, protect the environment, invest in social services, health care, culture, and education, and deliver opportunities to younger generations. In other words, it should be pursuing the opposite of Trump’s agenda.
Trump is the antithesis of the kind of leader that Max Weber believed should “be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history.” A large and growing share of Americans seems to recognize this: his approval rating has been declining for weeks. But a Trump victory in the November election remains a real possibility.
No one should have any illusions about the stakes. Winning another four-year term could embolden Trump to act even more irresponsibly, even criminally, and make his toxic legacy irreversible.
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