NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump, it is clear, presides over a regime of untruth and personally inhabits a realm of fantasy. But some of his critics have fallen prey to illusions of their own about the United States and the world before Trump.
Take, for instance, Trump’s cruel disregard for the suffering of children caught up in his crackdown on immigration. It provoked many to charge him with violating “American values.” Such condemnation obscures the fact that the U.S. was, from the late 19th century onward, the international pioneer of restrictive immigration policies. The Nazis, among others, sought to learn from America.
Closer to our own time, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also pursued hardline policies on immigration while in the White House. Following a surge of immigration from Central America in 2014, the Obama administration opened “family detention centers” and even held unaccompanied immigrant children at a military base in San Antonio, Texas.
Likewise, Bush endangered, well before Trump, his country’s alliance with France and Germany by rushing into preemptive war against Iraq.
Lamentations about the collapse of a “liberal order” ring hollow when they focus on Trump’s open disregard for close U.S. allies and fail to point out that the liberal order has often been neither liberal nor orderly.
Writing last week in the New York Times, Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, claimed that the U.S. had made “enduring commitments to countries that share its values, protecting allies, advancing free trade and building institutions and patterns of behavior that legitimize American power by giving less powerful countries a say.”
It’s not surprising that Schake, working for an Atlanticist think tank, would maintain that the U.S. “established a set of global norms” and sacrificed its interests to its values. “The world,” she writes, “has never seen anything like this — a superpower constraining itself to such a degree — or the peace and stability it brings.”
But there is cause for concern when even such a fiercely independent commentator as Paul Krugman claims that “for 70 years, American goodness and American greatness went hand in hand” and that “our ideals, and the fact that other countries knew we held those ideals, made us a different kind of great power, one that inspired trust.”
Surely, some evidence is needed to back up this rhetoric, and not just from Americans wounded by Trump. Historians of Latin America, Asia and Africa, not to mention chroniclers of slavery and racism, tell a very different tale, in which the U.S. frequently sacrificed moral values to its interests, instigating or supporting illegal wars, assassinations, coups, death squads, and lethal blockades and embargoes. It is too easy to disprove Krugman’s vision of American goodness by pointing to the record of U.S. interventions in Iran, Chile, Vietnam and Iraq.
As it happened, American values and interests did not coincide even in the U.S. relationship with India, a country with which it shared its most important value: democracy. The exigencies of the Cold War shaped America’s close relationship with military dictators in Pakistan while suspicion, frequently bordering on hostility, marked the U.S. attitude to India. Those who worry, rightly, about Trump’s itchy finger on the nuclear button ought to remember that U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger actually discussed a nuclear strike during India’s standoff with Pakistan in 1971.
Nor are Trump and his Republican supporters unprecedented in their callousness about young lives. In the 1960s, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson personally chose targets to bomb in Vietnam, prompting the notorious protest chant, “LBJ, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Questioned in 1996 on CBS about the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, which reportedly contributed to the deaths of half a million children, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We think the price is worth it.”
Cruelty and injustice were institutionalized long before Trump moved into the White House, and only a few people — including immigration lawyers and civil rights activists — cared enough to do something about them. These previously invisible violations of human dignity exercise many more people today; public outrage forced Trump to end his policy of separating children from their parents.
Success in this confrontation with racism and xenophobia can only be heartening. There need to be more such large struggles to secure a better future, however, and the effort won’t be helped by righteous fantasies of goodness and greatness. It requires an unsentimental reckoning with the past and the manifold ways it haunts our ugly present.
Writer Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,”