I had an extended email conversation yesterday with a long-time friend, all of which came about when he questioned why the United States seemed willing to abdicate its position as a world leader and trade it for an isolationist stance.
The short answer is: Donald Trump. That's the long answer too. But when we remember that Trump has no ideology, has no knowledge of the world, has only a sparse awareness of history, and a filament-thin grasp of reality, we have to explore further.
Part of the problems we face today centers on two major factors that coalesced in 2016: a belief in American exceptionalism and the disenchantment with being the world’s policeman. The catalyst? Stephen Miller.
An unyieldingly and bitter anti-immigrant, Miller has used most of his influence over the president to demonize foreigners and refugees. Locking up children at the border was a Miller idea, as was squelching government studies proving positive influences derived from an immigrant population. Miller's right-wing nationalism is practically off the scale, but as with all nationalists, much of the philosophy centers on the superiority of America—American exceptionalism.
This of course appeals to the pride of the American workers, but it doesn't put food on their table or Cabo on their vacation schedule. But people like Stephen Miller will take the scourge of income inequality and lay it at the feet of immigrants–to make it seem as though it's their fault Americans don’t have jobs. With that in mind, a vote for Trump in 2016 was a vote to keep American jobs. What the voters didn't realize, however, was that keeping their job involved no commensurate rise in salaries. It couldn't, because Trump's allegiance (and Miller's too) is to the wealthy, the magnates, the eight-, nine-, and even ten-figure CEOs. Thus Trump's "America First" trope is only part of Wealthy White America First, which is what he really means. Civil rights, Black Lives Matter, human rights protests—none of this plays a role in Trump's world, nor does American exceptionalism.
Is America exceptional? We were. We have been. But our complete failure to address the pandemic disputes that belief. Granted, the history of the United States is riddled with setbacks–prejudice, unequal educational opportunities, a failure to curb the proliferation of guns–but none of them comes close to this current fiasco. With all our wealth and resources, we are the most inept and pitiful country in the world at dealing with the coronavirus, and with a president in denial, it's anyone's guess how much worse it's going to be. The 2020 model year of America is not exceptional.
The other factor, America's role as the world's policeman, is less obvious. It's undeniable that countries look to the United States for security, stability, and sometimes even military help. But much of our "policing" comes from our reputation, not merely from formal agreements and treaties with other nations. As a NATO member we are a deterrent to attacks of the weak by the strong, and with a newly nationalistic Russia flexing its muscles again, that fact is vital. Trump and his acolytes view NATO as a dues collector, but intelligent people see the fact that no nuclear weapon has been used in anger in 75 years and blink in amazement.
Finally, an overzealous nationalism never recognizes the need for help or cooperation. We fire government experts, health experts, education experts, environmental experts, and military experts, then enlist the aid of others who feel the way we do—the other autocrats in the world who, like Trump, worry only about themselves. But of Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and Bolsonaro, only Trump is too myopic and stupid to understand how Germany, Korea, and Japan give us inroads into Russia, China, and North Korea.
And so what's the cost? I fear we haven’t paid it yet, but 120,000 deaths and our insistence on jettisoning the WHO are some indication of how independent America will look down the road. (Remember “independent George” on Seinfeld? We'll probably look like that.)
And if Al-Qaeda, which attacked a fairly stable country in 2001, doesn’t take advantage of this, we’ll be lucky.
We don't yet know the cost? We're still running the tab.