In the real-estate billionaire’s telling, America and the world are in the worst shape they’ve ever been
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
There’s a shared feeling among many observers of Donald Trump — the Republican presidential nominee — that what we’re witnessing isn’t real. The Trump phenomenon could be from a science fiction movie about a grim and dystopian future, like Children of Men without the mass sterility.
America as presented in Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention is besieged by a wave of violent crime, much of it imported by foreigners, and faces a terrorism threat on such a scale that the nation requires a radical restructuring akin to the isolationist movement of the 1930s, complete with the revived Depression-era slogan America First.
In terms of war, foreign policy and law and order (this last one was the overarching theme of the speech), the world is on the brink of apparent doom and its only salvation is Donald Trump.
Listening, you might get the impression that the United States is a country beset by countless humiliations, and overall is a pretty nasty place to live.
Trump is an extraordinarily rare major-party candidate to adopt this tone in American politics. Because in one sense, it’s not particularly patriotic.
George Orwell once made a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, with patriotism reflecting a generally good-natured love of country, its people and way of life. However, “the abiding purpose of every nationalist,” Orwell wrote, “is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
Trump’s speech was empty of any sense of shared self-sacrifice, which is essential to patriotism. It was heavy on nationalism — particularly the despairing kind that sees America becoming less relatively powerful and prestigious in the world.
“Trump’s speech never mentioned God,” The Week columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty observed. “Trump’s speech never mentioned sacrifice for the community. Who needs a friendly neighbor when you have Trump?”
Then there was the ever-present gloom. Without a doubt, presidential candidates can bring on the bleakness in less-crazy election cycles, too. If you ever campaign for president, the job will require some over-selling and a fair share of doomsaying.
But Trump’s version of it went far beyond describing any world I know.
To be sure, the wars in Iraq and Syria and the rise of the Islamic State are all serious global security problems which governments have failed to solve. A multi-national coalition is “winning” the war on the Islamic State, in the sense of killing terrorists and eroding the group’s territory, but there’s no guarantee the group won’t one day reappear somewhere else.
And the Islamic State’s decentralized strategy of encouraging radicalized young men to stage attacks means it’s highly likely the West will experience more gruesome killing sprees. When Trump said the first priority of a government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, he’s right.
But the Islamic State does not pose a threat on a scale seen in previous eras, even in my lifetime, which makes Trump’s hyperbole all the more jarring.
Take the Cold War. My father, who grew up near Houston and its major shipping and petrochemical industries (a priority nuclear target), had to practice diving under his classroom desk during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Islamic State is not that.
Sam Mullins, a professor of counter-terrorism writing in the West Point journal CTC Sentinel, noted in June that “the situation is extremely dynamic … [and] terrorists do sometimes succeed in dramatic fashion.” However, “the majority of jihadist-inspired violence in the West remains low-tech and, overall, relatively small-scale.”
In the 20th century, at least 231 million people died in wars around the world. During World War II, more than 400,000 Americans died. Even when including the Syrian civil war, which has killed upward of more than 470,000 people, the world is less war-torn than it was during most of the preceding century.
And for most of my father’s life, and during my childhood, violent crime in the United States was considerably higher than it is now. Despite Trump’s warning of a rise in homicides in American cities in 2016, the murder rate is lower than it has been since the 1960s.
Now take Trump’s warnings of immigrant crime. But first-generation immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than members of America’s native-born population.
“This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population,” the Immigration Policy Center noted in a 2007 study.
More curiously, threats from nuclear-armed regimes received little attention in Trump’s speech. The Pentagon considers Russia, which possesses more than 4,000 stockpiled nuclear warheads, to be America’s top national security threat. Trump didn’t mention it.
And this week, Trump told the New York Times he is willing to make America’s commitment to the collective defense of NATO conditional.
The speech was simply bizarre, unusual in its pessimism and discordant in its presentation of dangers in the world. The reason why it was so gloomy, given the objective relative safety of modern American life, is a question best left to political analysts and historians.
But I’ll offer a guess — Trump’s foreign policy is mainly a domestic policy.
In Trump’s worldview, the biggest security threats to America come from Mexican and Muslim immigrants. To the extent that Americans share this view, it appears to reflect worries among whites over their loss of relative prestige within the country.
This is why nuclear weapons, a greater threat in absolute terms, are less salient for a significant number of Republican Party voters than the relative threat posed by a slow-motion demographic collapse. In short, the GOP is experiencing an identity crisis.