Americans who warned that Donald Trump would be a recklessly destabilizing president have reason to feel vindicated. Trump’s scorn for foreign alliances and diplomacy reflects his scatterbrained approach to governing, while his divisive rhetoric has measurably coarsened our national conversation. Lamenting this as a bizarre aberration, however, would be a mistake. Trump’s ascendancy reflects who we are as a people. His election was not an accident, but rather the logical product of our history. In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, a destructive national character has hardened as our democracy has eroded. Choose a cliché: If you break it, you own it. You reap what you sow. You buttered your bread, now eat it.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States had an epochal opportunity to redefine the role of a world power. We could have declared victory, congratulated ourselves for avoiding nuclear annihilation, stepped back from global security commitments designed to contain the Soviet Union, and begun an era of rebuilding our own country. Instead we proclaimed a “new world order” in which, as President George H. W. Bush put it, “American leadership is indispensable” because “we have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom.”
Feeling invincible and armed with absolute truths, the United States set out to subdue the rest of the world. Successive presidents pushed our power into new regions. We assumed the role of global policeman and tried to impose a “Washington consensus” under which all countries would fall in line behind us. Our blind triumphalism led us to scorn diplomacy and compromise. For our aggressions, we have paid a heavy price in blood, treasure, and national security.
We also sacrificed political stability at home. The American drive to win and dominate led us to pursue agendas that triggered wars, refugee flows, and terrorism. Aftershocks from these misadventures have reverberated through our political system. They contribute to the sense of insecurity that draws voters to demagogues like Trump.
While we were spending huge sums to reshape distant lands, we failed to address urgent needs at home. Rather than use our immense national wealth to finance first-class education, health care, and other public services, the newly rich grabbed all of it for themselves. Political leaders from both parties assured us that globalization and free trade would improve everyone’s lives. They ignored job losses that devastated huge swaths of our country while lining their campaign coffers with donations from Wall Street and other special interests. In return they ceded economic policy to plutocrats who have proven astonishingly greedy.
These political leaders failed to grasp the wisdom of classic conservatism, best expressed by an aging Italian aristocrat in “The Leopard” who warns his friends that they risk revolution if they do not share their wealth: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
Concentrating wealth in a tiny elite required the corruption of political life. This has been largely accomplished. Congressional districts have been gerrymandered, election authorities in many states discourage people from voting, and courts are packed with ideologues who have licensed the takeover of politics by self-interested billionaires. These attacks on democracy naturally produce anger at established parties and politicians. That anger helped propel Trump to the White House.
President Trump’s appeal to chauvinistic tribalism also strikes a responsive chord in the American soul. We are as much a tribal nation as a tolerant and welcoming one. More than people in any other developed country, we are insistent individualists, wary of cooperation beyond the bounds of tribe. We would rather trust one man with a gun than a roomful of diplomats.
The president’s decision to ban huge classes of people from entering the United States may rightly be seen as a breathtaking abandonment of American principles. It also reflects a deeply rooted aspect of our identity. Our national character does not overflow with Christian charity. Alongside the openness and generosity symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, we have a tough, insular edge. Our go-it-alone pioneer mentality still shapes us. Like our ancestors who hanged horse thieves without benefit of judge or jury, we like swift action and quick results. This provides a ready base for President Trump’s criticism of treaties, scorn for the European Union, and contempt for the United Nations.
The new world will be shaped by countries whose leaders promote national interest by collaborating with each other. That sort of leader only emerges in countries whose people take a calm, measured approach to life and politics. Americans no longer do. Trump is a visitor from our future. His message is, “Get used to me. Unless the soul of America changes, I am the new normal.”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.