Did Donald Trump just make his first genuine mistake in the race for reelection in 2020? As I wrote during the 2016 campaign, The Donald had one striking distinction. He was the only candidate (or essentially American politician) of that moment who didn't feel obliged to claim that the U.S. was not just great but the greatest of all powers, ever. In a single speech, his opponent Hillary Clinton managed to call the U.S. "the greatest country on Earth," "an exceptional nation," and "the indispensable nation" that possessed "the greatest military" ever and she was hardly atypical when it came to American politics then. Trump's claim was that he would make the country great again; in other words, he was our first declinist candidate for president, the only one who claimed that the country wasn't then beyond compare. And that message -- including, for instance, his claims that a "depleted" U.S. military, driven beyond its limits by its twenty-first-century forever wars, was a "disaster" and its "generals... reduced to rubble" -- rang a distinct bell in the heartland. It arguably won him the election by convincing enough white working-class voters, who already sensed their world in decline, that he was their man.
That was then, this is... well, consider the slogan the president recently tried out at the Florida rally he used to launch his reelection campaign: not "Make America Great Again," but "Keep America Great," or KAG. In other words, he tossed the "again" out the window and with it his declinist claim about the country. The implication, of course, was that, under his supervision, America had indeed become "great again." As he told NBC's Chuck Todd in a recent interview, "My economy is phenomenal. We have now the best economy, maybe in the history of our country... [W]hen I took over, this country, the economy was ready to collapse."
Honestly, though, do you think that desperate American farmers, weighed down by the results of his tariff wars, feel that? Do you think that those in his famed "base" really feel their lives are "great" again thanks to "his" economy? I doubt it. Not in this new Gilded Age when inequality in every facet of life is the name of the game. That new slogan of his, KAG, whether he realizes it or not, may be his first true political misstep. After all, it puts him right back among all the rest of this country's politicians, ready to deny American decline. It could be a mistake of the first order, as TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro (author of the new book Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy) makes clear today. After all, in a world of soaring inequality, that base of his will, sooner or later, be left in a ditch, as American decline, given a distinct helping hand from one Donald Trump, becomes ever more the order of the day. Tom
Keep America Great (Don't Count on It!)
Two Years Later, Trump Has Failed to Reverse America's Decline
By Dilip Hiro
Make America Great Again? Don't count on it.
Donald Trump was partly voted into office by Americans who felt that the self-proclaimed greatest power on Earth was actually in decline -- and they weren't wrong. Trump is capable of tweeting many things, but none of those tweets will stop that process of decline, nor will a trade war with a rising China or fierce oil sanctions on Iran.- Advertisement -
You could feel this recently, even in the case of the increasingly pressured Iranians. There, with a single pinprick, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei effectively punctured President Trump's MAGA balloon and reminded many that, however powerful the U.S. still was, people in other countries were beginning to look at America differently at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Following a meeting in Tehran with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who brought a message from Trump urging the start of U.S.-Iranian negotiations, Khamenei tweeted, "We have no doubt in [Abe's] goodwill and seriousness; but regarding what you mentioned from [the] U.S. president, I don't consider Trump as a person deserving to exchange messages with, and I have no answer for him, nor will I respond to him in the future." He then added: "We believe that our problems will not be solved by negotiating with the U.S., and no free nation would ever accept negotiations under pressure."
A flustered Trump was reduced to briefly tweeting: "I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!" And soon after, the president halted at the last minute, in a distinctly humiliating retreat, U.S. air strikes on Iranian missile sites that would undoubtedly have created yet more insoluble problems for Washington across the Greater Middle East.
Keep in mind that, globally, before the ayatollah's put-down, the Trump administration had already had two abject foreign policy failures: the collapse of the president's Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (followed by that regime's provocative firing of several missiles over the Sea of Japan) and a bungled attempt to overthrow the regime of Venezuelan President Nicola's Maduro.
America's Global Standing at a Record Low
What's great or small can be defined in absolute or relative terms. America's "greatness" (or "exceptional" or "indispensable" nature) -- much lauded in Washington before the Trump era --should certainly be judged against the economic progress made by China in those same years and against Russia's advances in the latest high-tech weaponry. Another way of assessing the nature of that "greatness" and what to make of it would be through polls of how foreigners view the United States.- Advertisement -
Take, for instance, a survey released by the Pew Research Group in February 2019. Forty-five percent of respondents in 26 nations with large populations felt that American power and influence posed "a major threat to our country," while 36% offered the same response on Russia, and 35% on China. To put that in perspective, in 2013, during the presidency of Barack Obama, only 25% of global respondents held such a negative view of the U.S., while reactions to China remained essentially the same. Or just consider the most powerful country in Europe, Germany. Between 2013 and 2018, Germans who considered American power and influence a greater threat than that of China or Russia leapt from 19% to 49%. (Figures for France were similar.)
As for President Trump, only 27% of global respondents had confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs, while 70% feared he would not. In Mexico, you undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn, confidence in his leadership was at a derisory 6%. In 17 of the surveyed countries, people who lacked confidence in him were also significantly more likely to consider the U.S. the world's top threat, a phenomenon most pronounced among traditional Washington allies like Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.
China's Expanding Global Footprint