If America continues running a $60-billion annual trade deficit with Mexico, President Trump complained to his south-of-the-border counterpart in a conversation leaked to the Washington Post last week, “We will not be the United States anymore.”
As an evidentiary matter, Trump’s forecast was bonkers, unless you think that 1975—the last year the U.S. ran a trade surplus—marked some kind of economic high-water mark, or that the trough in Americanness between 1960 and 1998 coincided neatly with Ronald Reagan’s second term, when the deficit was highest.
But when it comes to Trumpian apocalypticism, generalized dread matters more than quotidian specifics.
Candidate Trump, for example, used the “we either have a country or we don’t” formulation on at least two issues: deporting 5 million immigrants in the country illegally, and walling up 2,000 miles of the Mexican border. Although he has since backed away from both positions, the threat of looming civilizational disfigurement apparently remains, and formed the main theme of the president’s big foreign policy speech in Poland last month.
What happens when that civilizational pessimism collides with the American system’s architectural impediments to getting stuff done?
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump warned in Warsaw, darkly. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
It’s that inward-looking anxiety that distinguishes the blood-and-soil nationalism of Trump, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller (who helped craft the Warsaw speech and the administration’s immigration-restrictionism) from the Cold War confidence of Reagan and the us-vs.-them cockiness of post-9/11 George W. Bush. It’s hard to imagine a National Security Council strategic planning director of any other modern president write, as the recently fired Rich Higgins did in a memo in May, that a broad section of the American political spectrum has “aligned with Islamist organizations at local, national, and international levels” to form a “counter-state” in which “they seamlessly interoperate through coordinated synchronized interactive narratives.”
The apocalyptic style is hardly new to American politics: We’re used to such howls from wilderness figures such as Pat Buchanan and 1992-era Jerry Brown. More heretofore successful pols, however, found ways to signal to their friends in the media that populist demagoguery is just a mask to be worn during primary season. Sure, the Hillary Clintons of the world would campaign against free trade, but in our hearts we knew they’d flip-flop. Part of the collective shudder of revulsion you can experience daily from the national press comes from the fact that Trump and the Bannonites appear to actually mean it.
The style is also thriving on the left. Bernie Sanders, with his daily calls for “revolution” and relentless barking about “oligarchy,” amply demonstrates that apocalyptic politics is not just for the alt-right. Insincere base-pandering is out, apologetics for true-believer hyperbole is in.
It’s not hard to see why. Adding to the disrepute of what the Bernie-ites call “neoliberals” and the Trumpists deride as “globalists” is 16 years of objectively lousy results from the allegedly grown-up center: anemic economic growth, botched government interventions, driftless war. Indeed, many of the same characters loudly bemoaning both Trumpism and Bernienomics—John Kasich, anyone?—cheered on the Iraq War and the 2008 financial bailouts, while agitating for even more military saber-rattling abroad. They are generally too busy delivering lectures on “civility” to acknowledge their own role in fertilizing the field for the prophets of gloom, often by overhyping various “existential threats” to the American way of life.
Yet that doesn’t make the Bannonites right that the modern world is a shadowy cabal in which top politicians collude “with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.” Measures designed to reduce trade deficits—including tariffs or border taxes—have an almost unblemished record of making Americans worse off than they would have been. Choking off legal immigration flows is a surefire way to get more of the illegal variety.
But what really sears is the insecurity of it all. Trump, Bannon, et al, lost faith in America right before gaining at least partial power to steer its fortunes. They worry that this 241-year-old experiment in self-governance lacks the mettle and might to withstand the combined forces of stateless Islamists, faceless Eurocrats and second-world strivers.
What happens when that civilizational pessimism collides with the American system’s architectural impediments to getting stuff done? Early signs point to recriminations, paranoid finger-pointing and not a small amount of panic at being exposed as yet another administration to not deliver on its promises to the base.
“I have to have Mexico pay for the wall,” Trump beseeched Peña Nieto, within his first month in office. “I have to.” From the nationalist finally brave enough to take on Mexico, to the politico begging its president for a way to save face: No wonder Trump’s insecure.
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.
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