There are, I suppose, some people who still imagine that if and when Donald Trump leaves office we’ll see a rebirth of civility and cooperation in U.S. politics. They are, of course, hopelessly naïve. America in the 2020s will remain a deeply polarized nation, rife with crazy conspiracy theories and, quite possibly, plagued by right-wing terrorism.
But that won’t be Trump’s legacy. The truth is that we were already well down that road before he came along. And on the other side, if the Democrats win big, I expect to see many of Trump’s substantive policies reversed, and then some. Environmental protection and the social safety net will probably end up substantially stronger, taxes on the rich substantially higher, than they were under Barack Obama.
Trump’s lasting legacy, I suspect, will come in international affairs. For almost 70 years America played a special role in the world, one that no nation had ever played before. We’ve now lost that role, and I don’t see how we can ever get it back.
You see, American dominance represented a new form of superpower hegemony.
Our government’s behavior was by no means saintly; we did some terrible things, supporting dictators and undermining democracies from Iran to Chile. And sometimes it seemed as if one of our main goals was to make the world safe for multinational corporations.
But we weren’t a crude exploiter, pillaging other countries for our own gain. The Pax Americana arguably dated from the enactment of the Marshall Plan in 1948; that is, from the moment when a conquering nation chose to help its defeated foes rebuild rather than demanding that they pay tribute.
And we were a country that kept its word.
To take the area I know best, the United States took the lead in creating a rules-based system for international trade. The rules were designed to fit American ideas about how the world should work, placing limits on the ability of governments to intervene in markets. But once the rules were in place, we followed them ourselves. When the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States, as it did for example in the case of George W. Bush’s steel tariffs, the U.S. government accepted that judgment.
We also stood by our allies. We might have trade or other disputes with Germany or South Korea, but nobody considered the possibility that America would stand aside if either country was invaded.
Trump changed all that.
What, for example, is the point of a rules-based trading system when the system’s creator and erstwhile guardian imposes tariffs based on transparently bad-faith arguments — such as the claim that imports of aluminum from Canada (!) threaten national security?
How useful is America as an ally when the president suggests that he might not defend European nations because, in his judgment, they don’t spend enough on NATO?
Is America still the leader of the free world when top officials seem friendlier to nations like Hungary, where democracy has effectively collapsed — or even to murderous autocracies like Saudi Arabia — than to longstanding democratic allies?
Now, if Trump is defeated, a Biden administration will probably do its best to restore America’s traditional role in the world. We’ll start following trade rules; we’ll rejoin the Paris climate accord and rescind plans to withdraw from the World Health Organization. We’ll assure our allies that we have their backs, and rebuild alliances with other democracies.
But even with the best will in the world, this egg can’t be unscrambled. No matter how good a global citizen America becomes in the next few years, everyone will remember that we’re a country that elected someone like Donald Trump, and could do it again. It will take decades if not generations to regain the lost trust.
The effects may, at first, be subtle. Other countries probably won’t rush to confront a Biden administration. There might even be a sort of global honeymoon, as the world breathes a sigh of relief.
But the loss of trust in America will gradually have a corrosive effect. A trade expert once said to me that the great danger, if America turns protectionist, wouldn’t be retaliation, it would be emulation: If we ignore the rules, other countries will follow our example. The same will be true on other fronts. There will be more economic and military bullying of small countries by their larger neighbors. There will be more blatant election-rigging in nominally democratic nations.
In other words, even if Trump goes, the world will become a more dangerous, less fair place than it was, because everyone will wonder and worry whether the United States has become the kind of country where such things can happen again.