With his conviction quashed, Donald Trump is riding high. He has survived two impeachment attempts, garnered over 70m votes and kept his narrative that his re-election was stolen alive among a huge proportion of those people. The once-proud Republican party is running scared of his power base outside their traditional support among the well-to-do. Already, the 2022 mid-terms loom large in their sights, and the prospect of Trump winning their nomination for 2024 seems possible, even probable.
But Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra and his iconoclastic approach to Beltway protocols and foreign policy, means the foundation of his appeal to a powerful alliance of the right wing and blue-collar disenfranchised, is built on sand. It seeks to recover the 1950’s-1970’s prestige and prosperity through political and economic domination of the globe.
The appeal of this, especially to Americans with little exposure to other cultures, is broad. It is not just to supremacist squirrel-hunters in Alabama or right-wing survivalists holed up in the Wasach mountains. It is to a wide swathe of blue-collar types who remember 1970, when $25-per-hour jobs in Detroit sent your kids to college, paid the mortgage on a spacious tract home full of appliances, and let you explore in the Winnebago RV parked in the driveway.
But nostalgia is not what it used to be.
Though not best placed to understand how lessons learned elsewhere lead to real future prosperity, and not re-rums of Ozzie and Harriet, Trumpistas would do well to study their former colonial masters—and avoid doing it the hard way, as they did.
A century ago, Britain was as much the top dog as America would become half a century later. In the aftermath of WWI, it bestrode the world politically and economically. Its rival, Germany, lay prostrate. It’s earlier rival, France, had bled itself dry. Russia, Austro-Hungary and Turkey lay in ruins. Only America came close in influence, which became dissipated by isolationism.
A massive Royal Navy protected global trade, not just with empire. Beside wheat from Canada, tea from India and wool from Australia came beef from Argentina, coffee from Brazil and oil from the Gulf. British-built ships carried both imports and exports of coal, steel, locomotives, machinery, clothing and whisky. The pound, pegged to a gold standard, was worth $4. But by the 1970s, Britain was an economic basket case. How?
Americans like to think of themselves as freedom-loving anti-colonials. But since the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, they have meddled elsewhere. The Spanish-American War of 1895 produced colonies. Though Cuba and the Philippines became independent, Guam and Puerto Rico remain colonies. So the first lesson is to take Rabbie Burns to heart and “see ourselves as others see us”. Britain was reluctant to relinquish an empire whose goal was to “make the world British”. From Assam to Zimbabwe, this bred resentment. American actions from Korea to Kandahar have bred similar resentment.
Britain’s wealth was built on exploitation of colonies. Raw materials were harvested by underpaid locals, shipped to British factories, then sold back as finished goods at tidy mark-ups. In this regard, America differed. Both abundant raw materials and a huge internal market gave prosperous self-sufficiency. British industry saw few reasons to adapt. As a result, technology (e.g. ship welding ships) developed elsewhere. Britain was still building steam locomotives in 1960; dockers resisted containerised freight; print workers resisted digital typesetting. In America, Detroit built annually obsolescent gas-guzzlers, allowing Honda, VW, etc. to eat their lunch during the oil shocks. Unlike the British, Americans did innovate: aerospace; semiconductors; computers. But regular manufacture moved offshore, along with clothing and electronics generally.
Weak innovation meant Britain lost early leads in computers, airliners and oil production. American domination has been whittled down to aerospace, financial services, social media and fracking, plus outliers like Tesla and Amazon. The second lesson is this: Just as Britain had to relinquish a manufacturing economy, America must accept that “American-made” sounds patriotic, but is uneconomic. Caterpillar will continue to build bulldozers n Mexico because it is competing with Komatsu.
The third—and most important—lesson is the opposite of Trumpian diktat: America must swallow bumper helpings of humble pie. Stiff-ass British had to do this the hard way. After building a global empire in the 18th century, they learned few lessons from the loss of America and powered into global domination in the 19th century but imposing their culture over the indigenous wherever they went. It may have taken an inbred superiority for a few thousand Britons to hold a billion Indians in subjugation, but former colonies that never established a white majority pay much homage to British culture today. Most remain resentful or, at best, indifferent in the half-century since independence was granted.
Despite the trauma of Vietnam, America has made little progress in acknowledging other cultures (let alone accepting them). Europe is regarded as quaintly ossified, Asia as dangerously alien; Africa and Latin America as exploitable backwaters The Russians and Chinese are intractable and gloves must be off when dealing with them. But the other three-quarters of the world are seen mainly as exploitable markets.
Educated Americas and those whose travels were not just by cruise line or tour bus understand this to be a modern repetition of British cultural myopia. But Trumpistas seldom fall into either category. It is they who need to broaden their horizons from such crypto-colonial gaffes by realising:
- Most “aliens” are proud of their culture and don’t aspire to become Americans
- “Shock and Awe” air strikes win victories but lose hearts and minds
- Education in state capitals or 46 presidents gives poor insight into cultures in: Korea, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Lebanon, Syria. All have seen the business end of napalm, Paveway bombs or cruise missiles, giving them jaundiced views of the USA
- That list does not mention those countries where covert operations, up to regime toppling, were done “in America’s interest”, giving more jaundiced views
- Macdonald’s, Coke & US movies and TV shows are so ubiquitous they are seen more as cultural colonialism than friendly ambassadors
Being part of the most powerful country in the world is something Americans are rightly proud of. And, given the habitual impotence of the UN in enforcing peace and reasonableness around the world, America’s self-styled role as “Global Policeman” has both logic and merit.
Unfortunately, the advent of Trump has shown that America’s much-vaunted political system is both flawed for its citizens and dangerous for its non-citizens, as demonstrated by Trump’s ego trip dreaming America can be great again by ignoring the world and fifty years of catching up achieved by many other countries. Britain tried this between the wars. It was deep in debt (as America is now). It had an uncompetitive manufacturing base (as America has now). It assumed it need not change to hold on to its markets (as America does now). It presumed massive naval power could secure its interests by force (as America does now).
Trumpistas have a clear choice between:
- Grow up: learn lessons from the defunct British Empire
- Believe America rules the world and can shape it in its image.
Britain chose 2). Look where it got them.