EXCEPTIONALISM IN THE ERA OF TRUMP
Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy represents a new and vulgar strain of American exceptionalism. It proudly proclaims its intention to maintain U.S. military dominance as the core pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s National Security Strategy uses the term “overmatch” to signify this military dominance, stating that the U.S. must "restore the readiness of our forces for major war, and grow the size of the force so that it is capable of operating at sufficient scale and for ample duration to win across a range of scenarios."
A fundamental pillar of Trump’s America First exceptionalism is therefore the intention to invest massively in a new arms race with China, Russia, and other adversaries.
America First introduces several distinctive strains, however. The first is a naked nationalism in a world of clashing interests. “We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation,” writes Trump in his cover letter to the new strategy. “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time is no different,” states the NSS. “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests”—antithetical to, not merely competitive with.
The second is racism. America First is really White America First. Trump’s electoral campaign against “Mexican rapists” and “Muslim terrorists,” his failures to denounce American white supremacists, his attack on immigration to the United States from “shithole” countries including Haiti and African nations, his call for more immigration from countries like Norway, all play directly to his electoral base: older, less-educated, white Americans.
In this regard, Trump is part of a worldwide wave of antiimmigrant and racist politics stoked by the large-scale migration and refugee movements of the past quarter century. Trump also represents the latest virulent outbreak of America’s long history of racism. As I recount in chapter 17, America’s 1924 Immigration Act was indeed designed to spur immigration from the Nordic countries. Not surprisingly, it was much appreciated by Hitler and the Nazi immigration lawyers.
The third distinctive strain of America First exceptionalism is economic populism, albeit of a Trumpian variety. Populism, in name, means an appeal to the average person, the “common man and woman,” against special interests. I have no problem, and indeed I have much sympathy, with this sentiment. Where populists like Trump go wrong is that they stir their followers with simplistic diagnoses and promises that they cannot fulfill. Then, to try to rescue themselves, they usually raid the treasury, with deficit spending to eke out more time in power. They typically fall from power when their promises of higher living standards fail to materialize, and the budget deficits produce high inflation or a solvency crisis.
Trump’s economic populism has some important distinctive elements. First, unlike typical populism, Trump’s policies are benefiting mainly the rich rather than his working-class base of voters. A truly populist tax cut would have given most of the benefits to workers and their families, not to wealthy and powerful corporations, as is in fact the case. As is often the case with economic populists, Trump’s tax cut will increase the budget deficit, putting added strains on future budgetary policies and inflation.
Second, Trump’s economic populism takes aim at foreigners, further shielding America’s own rich from scrutiny and fiscal accountability. Trump has told his working-class followers that their travails are due mainly to illegal migrants and overseas Mexican and Chinese workers, all of whom, Trump claims, have taken the jobs of hardworking (mainly white) Americans. They’ve gotten away with it, according to Trump, because American trade negotiators have given away the store to Mexico, China, and other foreign countries.
As I explained in Building the New American Economy, Trump’s view is nonsense. Yes, trade has opened the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. economy, not because of unfair trade practices abroad or bad trade negotiations but because the United States exports capital-intensive goods in return for labor-intensive imports from abroad. The expansion of this kind of trade indeed widens inequality in the United States, but the correct response is to keep trade open (which enlarges the overall U.S and world economy) while redistributing income from America’s rich to the poor, a solution that runs diametrically opposite to Trump’s policies of aiding the rich at the expense of the poor.
All of this raises an ultimate question. For whose benefit is America First? Is the arms buildup really designed to promote U.S. national security? Is the sale of hundreds of billions of dollars of armaments to Middle Eastern nations really designed to promote peace? Was the 2017 tax cutting really designed to boost living standards of average households? Is the emerging economic war with China really to raise the well-being of typical Americans?
Perhaps the one overriding truth of America politics in recent decades is the overarching political power of the main corporate lobbies: the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, Big Oil, and Big Health Care. Perhaps the best way to understand Trump’s economic policies is to focus not on his populist rhetoric but on the interests of the powerful corporate lobbies. The tax cuts and anti-environmental actions of the Trump administration certainly favor Big Oil, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and Big Health Care. In the name of populism, we see a policy of corporatism—putting the companies, not America, first. As with most populisms, Trump’s variety is almost sure to breed significant disappointment among Americans, including Trump’s own political base.
American exceptionalism today is more than ever divorced from reality. This is a hard truth, and one that many Americans are not yet willing to accept—as evidenced by the unexpected electoral success of Trump’s rallying cry to “make America great again.” For Trump and the exceptionalists like him, the United States is still the unrivaled and unmatched global superpower. America’s economy is still number 1, as long as the unfairness of foreigners is checked and brought under control. In truth, the remedies for America’s security and economic needs lie not in bashing foreigners, expanding the arms race, cutting corporate taxes, or increasing the budget deficit. T he real answers lie in global cooperation; a boost of critical investments at home in education, skills, technology, and environmental protection; and more help for the poor, paid for by more tax collections, rather than yet another round of tax cuts, and by savings from a bloated military budget.