WASHINGTON – America has taken a turn for the worst. The great delusion of Donald Trump’s presidency is that we can thrive by embracing nationalism even though major economic and political events are increasingly driven by international forces. Trump is an isolationist in an era of globalism. It won’t work.
Let us assume — for the sake of argument — that Trump is everything that he isn’t: thoughtful, considerate, open-minded, kind, generous, civil, truthful and respectful of his adversaries. Let us further assume that this imaginary Trump is such a nice guy that his character is widely admired.
Still, a big problem would remain: his policies. It’s inaccurate to say that Trump doesn’t have an agenda. In many ways, his agenda resonates with his campaign promises. “Make America Great Again” is a brilliant slogan that captures a nostalgic urge to resurrect an allegedly more glorious past.
The trouble is the actual past doesn’t resemble Trump’s rhetorical past, which is widely taken to be America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The country was much poorer then. Since 1960, the average income (gross domestic product per person) has roughly tripled after adjusting for inflation. In 2017, that was $59,484.
Many staples of modern life didn’t exist or were in short supply. Jet travel began in 1958. Color television became widespread only in the 1960s. In 1955, only 2 percent of homes had air conditioning.
There were more important deficiencies: African-Americans throughout the South remained segregated by law and custom; the situation was better in the North, but blacks still faced discrimination. Similarly, most women remained at home; career jobs for them were only slowly expanding.
One accomplishment that did make America “great” then was its active international engagement, through military alliances and trade policies. These helped Europe and Japan rebuild after World War II and resist communist political pressures. This is precisely the sort of international cooperation — protecting our long-term interests despite some short-term costs — that qualifies as enlightened self-interest.
It is doubtful that most Americans, when confronted with the tangible conditions of early post-World War II life, would choose to hop on a time machine and re-establish themselves in this bygone era. Meanwhile, Trump is enthusiastically repudiating — or trying to repudiate — the American-led international cooperation that was a hallmark of the period.
The underlying lesson was that our power and influence are enhanced when they are exercised in conjunction with countries that, granting differences and disagreements, share our basic values and interests.
We cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. To the contrary, power is being drained from nation states to “market forces” or other global mechanisms that are difficult to control. This has been going on since at least the mid-19th century and reflects new communication and transportation technologies: the telegraph, the telephone, television, the internet, automobiles, planes and containerization.
Obviously, no one is going to uninvent these technologies. But the globalized world that those technologies have helped foster understandably makes many, possibly most, people uneasy and fearful, because there is a loss of sovereign control over our future.
Think of all the interconnections. Millions of migrants cross national borders annually. Supply chains straddle the globe. Threats of worldwide epidemics are ever-present. Cyberattacks are already common. Billions of dollars of investment funds routinely shift from one country to another. Climate change cannot be dealt with unilaterally. The prospect of a major shooting war cannot be dismissed.
To this anxious litany Trump brings a reassuring antidote: more nationalism. It’s a false remedy. Some of Trump’s efforts to control globalization have already backfired. To wit: Harley-Davidson’s decision to move some production to Europe — in response to Europe’s higher tariffs on U.S. bikes, which in turn were a reaction to Trump’s higher tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports.
As before, our global power and influence benefit when we cooperate and respect our allies, not vilify them. Trump cannot deconstruct globalization. It is too big and well-entrenched. But as noted by Wall Street Journal columnist Greg Ip, Trump can damage it and weaken it by prescribing protectionism. Economic growth would suffer.
It’s not just Trump. Albeit without his vicious rhetoric, many Democrats share the same nationalism, proof that it represents a potent political symbol. Foreigners are convenient scapegoats. There is also a deeper problem: Economics, which is increasingly global, has outpaced politics, which is mostly local.
What we had more of in the 1950s is hope and confidence. But they cannot be restored by reverting to a destructive neo-isolationism. It may be popular, but it’s not practical. As noted, we’ve taken a turn for the worst.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist. © 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group