To the U.S. president, the trade deficit is everyone else’s fault. Donald Trump is cultivating a victim status for the USA to draw in the discontents and channel their anger.
It still isn’t clear if the 21st century will, in hindsight, be called the “Chinese century.” But there’s no debate about who dominated the last one, the 20th. It was the century in which the United States, after winning two world wars, ascended to the status of political superpower by establishing capitalism as the international economic order, defeating communism, and creating institutions, from the International Monetary Fund to NATO to the World Trade Organization, with which it disseminated its views and pursued its own goals. It was the century in which a government anywhere on the globe could be toppled, just because Washington wasn’t comfortable with it. And it was the century in which the U.S. elevated the dollar to the global reserve currency it is and learned to use it as a powerful instrument in economic competition.
Much of what the Americans did, especially between 1917 and 1989, was right; some of it was wrong. But the decisive point is this: They dominated everything in the West until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then dominated everything internationally. This is important to know in order to evaluate Donald Trump’s complaint that the incompetency of prior presidents allowed the U.S. to be taken advantage of – economically, politically, and generally – by friend and foe. Trump’s whining must sound like a taunt, especially in some poorer countries where the U.S. made its interests clear with economic pressure, and when necessary, military pressure.
Some of the problems that he names are actually real. The Germans, for instance, have long invested too little in their security, comforting themselves with the thought that the U.S. would look out for them. It does, in fact, damage the stability of the global economic system when nations like China, Germany, and South Korea continually record extremely high export surpluses. But what Trump categorically fails to recognize is the historical context and degree of responsibility that his own country bears for these situations.
Of course, the U.S. has protected Germany for decades. But it has also always defended itself in Berlin and elsewhere. The immense trade deficit in the U.S., which rose to $621 billion in 2018, may be related to export excesses and investment weaknesses in partner countries. But above all, it’s a consequence of Washington’s arrogant decision in the second half of the 20th century to drop industry, which it considered to be outmoded, and to trust exclusively in the whims of financial capitalism. Japan and South Korea didn’t deindustrialize the U.S.; it isn’t China’s fault that Americans alone can’t manage to build a modern, 5G cellular network – it’s their own fault.
Politics have failed to moderate and absorb the surge of globalization, digitalization and capitalism in the last four decades elsewhere, but also in the U.S. Millions of people, especially in rural areas, have not only lost touch economically; in particular, they can’t relate politically or culturally to what’s being discussed in the cities. That these people adhere to the ego-capitalist Trump, lacking in both reputation and thoughtfulness, is one of those terrible punchlines that only life can compose.
The tragic, even cynical thing is that Trump doesn’t take the causes of this plight into consideration. Instead, he only makes political use of the symptoms. He cultivates a cult of victimization to draw in the discontents and to channel their anger. Here, a president and a voter population come together, both of whom carry around their own kind of inferiority complex. Here, a boorish big shot combines his attitude with the frustration of a population that’s no longer sure of its sense of self, its control of popular opinion, or its country.
Trump and his followers see themselves as seriously being under a sort of siege, and thus they lash out blindly. And, yes, China represents the first political and economic power in decades that, at least theoretically, has the stuff to contest the United States’ role in the world. If the Americans want to win this competition, they have to stop the whining, address the actual problems, focus on their strengths, and look forward instead of backward. The salvation of the U.S. lies in the 21st century, not in the 20th—the American one.