On a cold Tuesday in January 2009, I watched from the National Mall as Barack Obama was sworn in as president. The inauguration of a black man on the steps of the Capitol – a building raised by slaves – reminded me of the remarkable ability of the United States to confound its critics and surprise even its friends.
But that frigid morning feels like a long time ago now. The past few years – indeed the events of the past week, including the amateurishness of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the grotesque circus of the State of Union, and the acquittal of President Donald Trump by the Senate of crimes which he has plainly committed – have shaken my belief in America.
I grew up in Sydney, Australia but like many Australians, I often looked to America. I watched Billy Wilder’s films, read Martin Luther King, Ted Sorensen and Peggy Noonan, and listened to Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. I published a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saved American democracy from the Depression; took the United States into the Second World War and, by defeating isolationism, into the world; led the Allies to victory over the dictators; and won an unprecedented four consecutive national elections – and did all this with a broken body.
My day job is to lead the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. Most Australians support the U.S. alliance, and Australia is America’s most reliable ally: the only country to fight beside the United States in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. We know that the U.S. presence in Asia over the past three-quarters of a century has underpinned regional stability and prosperity. Australians do not relish the idea of living in a region dominated by China: we prefer a balance of forces in Asia, with a general acceptance of international norms and the rule of law, as well as the long-term presence of the United States.
[Ibram X. Kendi: Trump is in an abusive relationship with America]
During those periods when it has been fashionable to argue that the U.S. is in decline – and especially at the nadir of the Iraq war, a stupid act of self-harm in which my country participated – I have argued against the declinist thesis. I have pointed to America’s enduring strengths, including favourable geography, healthy demographics, an entrepreneurial economy, and a formidable military.
Just as important as the power of America, I have long believed, is the idea of America: a democratic superpower; a flawed country that is always reaching for perfection; a nation of awesome might but also dignity and restraint; a republic with republican values.
But America has always had a tawdry side as well. In June 2015, when Donald Trump descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign, he brought that other America – the mob lawyers, porn stars, and reality shows – down with him too. And when he was elected president, he inaugurated the age of American bunga bunga.
At home, President Trump’s touch has corroded America’s institutions. His cynicism has undermined the country’s self-belief and strengthened the claim of Moscow and Beijing that Western democracy is a sham.
The effect abroad has been no less grave. Trump’s prejudices have undermined America’s interests. He is not persuaded that the United States does well when others do well; he likes others to do poorly. He is oblivious to the advantages of global leadership. He prefers protection rackets to alliances. Although the United States is a great trading nation, he is hostile to free trade. His weird affinity for strong men – and his silence about their crimes – has emboldened dictators everywhere.
The genius of America’s conduct after the Second World War lay in the fact that, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, Washington established “hegemony by consent”. But if you push your allies and partners to the brink in every negotiation, and present your ugliest face to the world, then this consent will evaporate.
Previous presidents have defined America’s self-interest broadly. But how can the rest of us find our place in the America First worldview? If Trump is not exercised by the dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist in a Saudi consulate or the detention of as many as one million Uighurs in re-education camps, does anyone really believe he cares about a few islands in the South China Sea?
Last week’s State of the Union – the reality-TV vibe, the ridiculous Space Force references, the Rush Limbaugh episode – was dispiriting. So was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s show of ripping up the president’s speech transcript. I found it sad that an impressive leader allowed herself to get caught up in that fevered spectacle.
[David Frum: Trump is defiling his office]
Even sadder was the sight of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan – the party of family values, alliances and trade – deciding en masse to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial.
A rare grace note came in the fine speech given by Senator Mitt Romney, in which he announced that he would be the sole Republican to vote to convict the president.
“I will only be one name among many, no more, no less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial,” said Romney at the close of his speech. “They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong. We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history, but in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.”
In his speech, Romney also declared that the U.S. Constitution was “inspired by Providence.” But Providence favours those who help themselves. And the events in Iowa suggest that America may not, in fact, be ready to help itself by removing Trump. A platoon of unimpressive Democratic presidential candidates drew lower-than-expected turnout for the caucuses. And we learned that the Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t even know how to count votes.
I don’t believe America is finished. If Trump is replaced by a more normal president, the United States can still course-correct. But what if, come November, American voters say, “More, please”? What further violence would Trump do to the United States and the world? What message should the rest of us take from such a result?
The world still wants to believe in America. But we need Americans to help us believe.