At the end of the Twentieth Century, America was the sole global superpower, leading a world of peace. Its leadership had ended centuries of European warfare and led to the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union. The situation was even labeled the End of History, a world without any major conflicts, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Then it all fell apart. An assertive China challenges the United States while a resurgent Russia covers its domestic economic failings with a confrontational policy to the West. Africa stagnates, while turmoil there and the Middle East results in millions of refugees flooding into a fragmenting Europe, further unsettled by Greek bankruptcy and British Brexit. The Middle East is at the center of intractable wars, including a self-proclaimed Islamic State fomenting terrorist actions world-wide. Globally American ideals are challenged by autocratic, nationalistic and self-serving governments. A stable democratic world is nowhere to be seen.
Domestically, the American Dream faded as it has become increasingly difficult for workers to earn a living wage. Economic pressures promote social frictions, complicated by a flood of refugees. People lash out in anger; increasingly turning to drugs and petty crime. Now overdose deaths outnumber traffic deaths, over half a million homeless burden the cities, and youth gangs flourish. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Militias and hate groups grow as the Ladder of Success disappears. Governments find it very difficult to support police and fire departments, education and parks, infrastructure and mental health services.
Donald Trump capitalized on a widespread disillusionment with government to stress the need for a radically new approach embodied in his slogan of Make America Great Again. For millions, the promise of a new direction seemed preferable to continuing the old.
The obvious starting point is addressing what made America great in the first place two centuries of exceptional leadership.
- This began with the basic American values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ... governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. With its values further specified in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, America was a unique nation, founded not on ethnic or cultural groupings but on basic human rights. A free press served as a check on government.
- The Civil War reinforced these values with its rejection of slavery.
- America's Open West and its dynamic economy made it a Beacon of Freedom for the world, its openness inscribed at the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... America became increasingly multi-ethnic, especially in urban areas. Anyone could become an American.
- In two world wars, America joined with Europe in fighting for democracy. Learning the lesson of excessive retaliation after World War I, America led a conciliation effort after World War II, its Marshall Plan helping to integrate a European Union which ended centuries of fratricidal warfare. America also took this effort globally, supporting establishment of the United Nations and promoting broad international acceptance of advanced norms, including respect for democracy, human rights, and the natural environment.
- This post-war stabilization was capped with American leadership in the Cold War, leading to a collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union.
Overall, what made America great was its ideals, the values it championed with enlightened global leadership. Its Beacon of Freedom promoted democracy, human rights, individual freedom and open global standards. This was not simply altruistic, but a recognition that America could not prosper in a world of turmoil. Stability and mutual respect benefited all nations.
What went wrong, the root of the current disarray, is that America failed to demonstrate that democratic governance and a market economy can indeed produce a peaceful and prosperous society. Rather, it has demonstrated that democratic procedures and market activities can be manipulated for the benefit of vested interests who control a steadily increasing share of national wealth. The concentration of wealth at the very top of society undermines government as well as the economy. But the top layers of society deflected attention from excessive wealth accumulation by portraying it as perfectly normal and promoting spurious causes for the problems. Immigration and refugees were widely blamed for economic and social shortcomings. Government support programs were pictured as a cause of economic problems rather than a result. Government regulations protecting the public and environment were pictured as undermining prosperity, while tax and subsidy programs heavily favoring wealthy interests were systematically downplayed. The situation was exacerbated by a natural tendency in tough times to cluster with familiar groups and blame others for problems. Exasperated by a widespread stagnation of living standards, the fading of prospects for a good life and a clearly growing social disarray, the American public became increasingly skeptical of government actions.
This is the world Donald Trump burst into, promising to address the ills of American society and gaining support from enough Americans to carry the Electoral College to victory. But as President his actions have only worsened the underlying problems, promoting more wealth accumulation. A tax reform bill favored the rich, as President Trump himself bragged at Mar-a-Lago. Systematic efforts to reduce regulations, privatize government programs, and diminish environmental protections have reinforced this flow of wealth to the top. At the same time, President Trump has energized racist groups and white supremacists as well as many zealous and self-righteous individuals, further fragmenting the country rather than pulling it together. Internationally, America now strongly rejects any global leadership role. It is backing away from prior efforts to promote democracy and human rights, while speaking highly of several repressive governments. There is no longer any vision of an integrated and mutually cooperative world. Instead, there is a picture of every country simply fighting for its own narrow interests.
Overall, while President Trump touts efforts to make America great again, he systematically undermines the ideals and values that made it great in the first place. Broad sections of American society are continuously exposed to the idea that traditional values of equality, individual worth and tolerance are at odds with personal and family needs. Vested interests stoke resentment at peripheral issues, emotionally diverting attention from the core challenge: excessive wealth accumulation. America has all the wealth it needs to address the challenges it faces, but the top layer of society has concentrated so much that it undermines broader social development.
A reinvigorated economy is an essential first step for bringing America back together again. Society needs to set and enforce new standards for wealth distribution that support broad economic benefit, rebuilding confidence in its basic values and ideals, demonstrating that they can indeed work for everyone. Only then can America once again aspire to be a Beacon of Freedom, held in high regard by the international community for its commitment to multilateral cooperation, supporting not just a peaceful and prosperous America, but a peaceful and prosperous world. Making America Work for Everyone is what can really Make America Great Again.