How ‘America first’ descends to ‘America behind’

It’s one thing for an empire to be displaced by an up-and-comer, and China epitomizes that; it’s quite another for the empire-du-jour to implode from ignorance, egotism and a delusional hustle of what would keep "America first."

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Image Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Admittedly, “Trump the Rogue Empire-buster” smacks of old-fashioned, comic book cartoon characters – full of sneering menace, contempt and buffoonery. Okay, not exactly news. 

How long before we displace Trumpster’s most deplorable boast, “I alone can fix everything” with “Look how much I can destroy – and fast, too”? This inevitable reversion to reality won’t hit full stride until the exile of Dismal Donald. In only a few years, pundits and ordinary folk will be mystified how a minor, unerringly neurotic TV star became a cult figure, took over a national party, won election, then turned the world’s empire-du-jour into major league loser. Just as today we look askance at Joe McCarthy and the Black List; or segregationist governors barricading colleges and setting dogs on civil rights heroes; or neo-con ideologues who equate trillions squandered on big ticket militarism with what ends up as less stability or security, real or psychological. Trump’s latest budget reinforces such misdirected absurdity, with nothing to deter far more horrendous domestic terrorism (and mass shootings of children) – than anything by outsiders.  

What we’ve learned in two years, to our horror, is how badly a rampaging president, often without his own party’s support, can unilaterally, permanently damage foreign affairs, trade relationships, and core, affluence-fueling alliances. Sure, Trump facilitated outlandish rightwing tax giveaways, judges and unsafe deregulation – but these are reversible by a new president and a new Senate. But consider the shocking, longer term impacts when a loose cannon eviscerates hard-won foreign agreements (on climate, or Iranian nukes, even NAFTA and TPP) – all the while driving out a generation of veteran professionals from the State Dept. plus countless, critical federal agencies.

Godzilla-like “diplomacy”

Can we yet assess the full, dire impacts from thoughtlessly shredding the fragile balance of powers in every critical world conflict area? Or factor in how extremely debilitating to explode a century of alliances, betraying key partners with punitive tariffs while cozying up to hostile rivals? Do Trump’s clownishly stupid, unilateral theatrics around Russia, Saudi Arabia or North Korea not frame the worst, losing models for diplomatic advances, murder by hire, or control of nukes?

The American Empire, the good and the bad, is under deranged Trumpian assault. What’s the upshot from countless U.S. allies terrorized by Trump’s “foreign policy,” perceived as 1) incoherent; 2)  destabilized by tweets; 3) favoring autocrats at the expense of western, democratic values; and 4) serving Trump family greed, not any public’s benefit. An essay title by former Republican, Max Boot, captures this demolition, “Trump is turning U.S. foreign policy into a protection racket.” And implications are vast:


Seen from this historical perspective, the post-1945 period in which there has not been a single war between the great powers is a miraculous anomaly. This is not all due to the deployment of U.S. air, naval and ground forces, but a lot of it is.

Last summer, international affairs columnist Anne Applebaum pinpointed parallel, counterproductive disorders with “Trump hates the international organizations that are the basis of U.S. wealth, prosperity and military power:”

There have always been downsides to the American-led international order, for everybody. It was a series of negotiated trade-offs  . . . American administrations supported the WTO, NATO, NAFTA and the E.U.[because these] were the basis for American military power, as well as for American wealth and prosperity. If Trump destroys the trust upon which this system was based, it may never be revived. Europe may be poorer and more unstable as a result. But so will the United States.

But what about Trump’s vaunted isolationism, I hear Trump defenders cry? Few here back self-destructive, unwinnable wars driven by incorrigible neo-con manias. Our perpetual expansionism, starting with genocide against Native Americans and the forced 1848 purchase of CA and the southwest from Mexico, is a decidedly mixed blessing. Slavery represents economic imperialism that trafficked in stolen human lives. We bemoan indefensible US subjection of weaker nations,especially the Philippines in the 1890’s, but our collective national affluence is not separable from our super-power status. Trump’s nativist isolationism isn’t about peace and good will, but cherrypicking “good deals” driven by maniacal “us vs them” reductionism. His latest budget glorifies such outdated militarism, relevant were the besieged Trump to reinvent himself as “war president.” That insular self-dealing began by demonizing foreigners and traders as predators, not victims of the richest country on earth.

What imperial relations with global economic and military powers, except perhaps Japan, haven’t badly declined? What country, even Israel, takes Trump seriously, casting this president as an ignorant blowhard? Who fears buffoonish threats – not China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia? How much core European decision-making is separate from or in reaction to heavy-handed blundering. The only real check against Trump’s sham bluster is that its tweeted irrelevance is more obvious by the day.

In short, who can imagine in two years a greater wrecking ball to our prestige, influence, and leverage than electing this bull to our WH china shop?  We’re getting our industrial and technological clock cleaned by China, with higher growth, superior infrastructure, and far more visionary, financial/resource outreach across the globe. Friendly allies (and experts) find Trump impossible to deal with, rejecting his squandering of attention on North Korea’s dictator in love with his nuclear arsenal. 

The “America first” farce

Despite a longevity outpacing all other political artifacts, empires are surprisingly fragile – and can implode (or be overcome) in a single generation (by climate change, disease, technology or conquest). I am astonished that great wealth is not up at arms as needless, “free trade” obstacles, plus mightily offended partners, already cost fat cats billions upon billions. True, large corporations are such international octopi they adjust with more agility than domestic companies. But the reigning American empire is well over 170 years old and achieved with great human, military and economic costs. For how long will the 1%, let alone the majority, sit idly by while Trump racks up huge losses – absent any visible gains? Nary a global region cries out for investment now vs. 2016 and uncertainly deters expansions.

Blundering overseas disruptions should draw bipartisan outrage. After all, the blessings of empire are not limited to rightwing congressional districts, states or regions. How many other major industries, like agriculture, used as token PR ploys in the Trump tariff circus, face disappearing markets and shrunken revenues?  Good show, Donald, your “foreign policy” has only losers – and that insight cannot stay hidden for much longer.

It’s one thing for an empire to be displaced by an up-and-comer, and China epitomizes that; it’s quite another for the empire-du-jour to implode from ignorance, egotism and a delusional hustle of what would keep America first – or at least in the first rank – while doing exactly the opposite. And what domestic or legislative “positives” offset this parade of failures: an unbuildable, unworkable, symbolic wall on the southern border?  What new sham Trumpian distractions loom on the horizon to cover up so much losing? 

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Robert S. Becker
For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.

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