DONALD TRUMP MIGHT END THE WORLD. The scenario goes something like this: feeling backed into a corner by an increasingly hostile Congress and an aggressive Russia investigation, Trump may heed the advice of the nationalists within his inner circle and launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, likely as an attempt to ride a patriotic wave to higher approvals. The war that would follow would certainly involve a nuclear exchange on some scale and would likely cost millions of lives, along with the devastation of several major cities, some of them American. As commander-in-chief, under the War Powers Act, the president has full authority to wage war, even thermonuclear war, without Congressional authorization for up to 90 days. The conflict with Pyongyang would likely end within hours, and the potential for events to spiral out of control from there run high.
It’s called the fog of war. During armed conflict confusion abounds and the potential for chaos increases. Even the best organized administrations have blundered the United States into unintended conflict and the Trump White House is as far from organized as one could possibly get. Without adequate communication and diplomacy, a regional conflict has the potential to spiral out into a full-scale global nuclear war.
Last week I wrote about the good that the Trump administration may potentially bring: a rebirth of liberal politics, a dismantling of the imperial presidency, the collapse of neo-conservatism. This week I continue the examination of Trump’s potential impacts on American life and culture, by looking at the bad.
Let’s take thermonuclear war off the table. Despite the very real fact that America’s command and control apparatus is designed so that the president has complete authority to bring about the apocalypse should he choose, let us consider how else Donald Trump is changing the country and the world for the worse.
In the nearly seven months since his inauguration, despite a whole host of failures and missteps, Donald Trump has stayed true to one important campaign promise: America first. He has pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, made commitments to slash international aid, questioned the validity of NATO, imposed a Muslim travel ban, promised to halve the amount of legal immigrants into the country, praised dictators the world over, and pulled back on America’s commitment to democracy building. In short, Donald Trump has made it his mission to relinquish America’s status as the leader of the global community.
If you listen to Trump speak, when he says that NATO members need to pay their fair share or that Americans have committed crimes just as bad as Russian dictators, what he’s saying is that the United States is no different than any other country in the world. We are like everyone else. And while inherently that may be true, it serves as a stunning reversal of the concept of American Exceptionalism, a doctrine that has driven American foreign policy for the better part of a century.
The United States has not always done the right thing. Throughout the Cold War we propped up dictators and started wars without merit all in an attempt to defeat what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.” But for everything we did wrong we did plenty right in turn. For the last seventy-five years the United States has been the most important champion of democracy and human rights the world over. American support, often measured in dollars, has swelled the number of democracies from a couple dozen in 1945 to well over a hundred today. American might has also stood as a check against the aggressive aspirations of regional strongmen and large international players.
This American-centric international order did not come about by chance. It was built from out of the ashes of the Second World War, as it was generally accepted that the United States was the only democracy on the globe wealthy enough, strong enough, and stable enough to lead. While Americans would bear the brunt of the cost, they would set the global agenda and steer the ship of state.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump doesn’t understand any of this. Why would he? Egomaniacs seldom comprehend sacrifice. Through his self-centered, America First policy, Donald Trump is doing more to undo America’s status as the world’s superpower than Vladimir Putin could ever hope. Increasingly Europe is looking inward, Central and South America are feeling isolated, and China, a totalitarian state, is emerging as the planet’s new center of power.
More so, Trump reinforces the stereotype of the Ugly American. He is loud, boorish, and supremely ignorant. He is a manifestation of everything our enemies think of us, and everything inherently wrong with us, and serves only to drive others away from our cause. When Donald Trump questions the legitimacy of our electoral system or our democracy in an attempt to sooth his own ego, he is giving ammunition to anti-democratic forces the world over because in the eyes of much of the world America is synonymous with democracy. And for whatever else, it’s America’s power and image that have kept the peace.