TO MOST highly educated people I know, President Trump is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad president.
For two years, the people with at least two university degrees (PALTUDs) have been gnashing their teeth about Trump’s every utterance and move. To the foreign policy experts, he is a bull in a china shop, trampling the “rules-based international order” underfoot. To the economics establishment, he is a human wrecking ball, smashing more than a half-century of consensus that free trade really works better than protectionism.
A striking feature of all this dire commentary is how wrong it has been so far. Despite all the Cassandra talk, the United States could still meet its Paris target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions (not least by keeping its nuclear plants going and thereby reducing the utilization of coal-fired capacity). Europeans have largely accepted that they need to spend more on their own defense. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un has halted his missile and warhead tests and come to the negotiating table. And Iran is reeling from the re-imposition of sanctions and a concerted US-Israeli-Arab military pushback.
Despite all the trade war talk, the US economy is at full employment, the dollar is rallying, the stock market is up 30 percent since Trump’s election, and the only countries in any trouble are the usual suspects with their usual problems (e.g., Turkey).
It is not that Trump is an underrated genius, nor for that matter an idiot savant. It is just that his intuitive, instinctive, impulsive way of operating, familiar to those who have done business with him, is exposing some basic flaws in the conceptual framework of the PALTUDs.
Yes, there is much to be said in principle for an international order based on explicit rules; and yes, those rules should favor free trade over protectionism. But if in practice your liberal international order has the consequence that China overtakes you, first economically and then strategically, there is probably something wrong with it.
The key to the Trump presidency is that it holds out probably the last opportunity the United States has to stop or at least slow China’s ascendancy. And, while it may not be intellectually very satisfying, Trump’s approach to the problem, which is to assert American power in unpredictable and disruptive ways, may in fact be the only viable option left.
Think of the world as a three-empire system. It is dominated by the United States, China, and Europe, in that order. Each empire is evolving in a different direction. The American empire, having experienced overextension in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not retreated into isolation. Its latest step down the road to empire is domestic: Trump’s claim that he can pardon himself epitomizes the fundamental challenge he poses to the formal and informal rules of the American republic.
All the accompanying symptoms of the transition from republic to empire are already visible. The plebs despise the elites. An old and noble senatorial order personified by John McCain is dying. A cultural civil war rages on social media, the modern-day forum, with all civility cast aside and character assassination a daily occurrence. The president-emperor dominates public discourse by issuing 280-character edicts, picking fights with football players, and arbitrarily pardoning convicted criminals.
Meanwhile, the Chinese empire becomes ever more centralized, ever more invasive of its citizens’ privacy, and ever more overt in its overseas expansion. The Western world regards Xi Jinping as an almighty potentate. But few observers appreciate the acute sense of weakness that has motivated his tightening grip on party and state and his surveillance of his own people. Few see the risks of imperial ventures such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which is drawing Chinese investment into economically unpromising and strategically dangerous locations.
The weakest of the three empires is the European Union. True, its central institutions in Brussels have the power to impose rules, fines, and taxes on the biggest American and Chinese corporations. But Europe lacks tech giants of its own. Its navies, armies, and air forces have melted away, so that it can scarcely defend its frontiers from penniless migrants, never mind hostile invaders. And the political consensus on which it has been based for the past 60 years — between social democrats and moderate conservatives in every member state — is crumbling under a nationalist-populist assault.
The logic of Trumpism is simply to bully the other empires, exploiting the fact that they both are weaker than the United States, in order to extract concessions and claim victories. The Chinese sincerely fear a trade war and will end up buying a very large amount of American produce in order to avoid one. The Europeans dare not stand up to Trump over his Iran sanctions and secretly agree with him about China, and so are reduced to impotent seething (Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany) or sycophancy (President Emmanuel Macron of France, until last week’s G-7 summit). If they unite against him, he brings up Russia and divides them again.
To the PALTUDs, who remain so certain of their intellectual superiority to the president, all this is incomprehensible. They will continue to find fault with Trump’s every success, nitpicking their way through the small print, failing to realize that, in the imperial transition, such details cease to matter.
Octavian, too, was Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad in the eyes of many of his Roman contemporaries. As Augustus, however, he triumphed. It is one of history’s most disquieting lessons. It will be a pity if PALTUDs and plebs alike have to relearn it the hard way.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.