Was the Pre-Trump World Normal or Abnormal?

President Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
The ‘unpresidential’ outsider disrupted America’s transformation into a ‘lead from behind’ nation.

Much of the controversy that surrounds the policies of Donald Trump can be explained as a reaction to the past. He was either clumsily disrupting the sacrosanct or trying to resurrect what was lost.

In other words, what you feel about Trump is inseparable from what you think of the world before Trump.

Was the status quo, especially in the years between 2009 and 2017, normal or abnormal — at least compared with the prior half century?

Take the challenge of China. We are now locked in a veritable trade war with the Chinese. Each side escalates with a threatened new round of tariffs. The subtexts of the conflict range from Chinese military ascendency to patronage of nuclear North Korea.

Is Trump creating unnecessary conflicts ex nihilo, or trying to address what was an abnormal, one-sided assault at which most prior presidents had shrugged their shoulders?

Certainly, China is a proven systematic trade cheater. Given its size and clout, traditional international means of rectifying such massive violations had proven impotent.

Beijing never has believed in either free or fair trade. Instead, at worst, it assumed that deluded Westerners in Europe and the U.S. would appease China. “Live with it” was the unspoken shrug from the West.

At best, as a post-revolutionary, reforming, and still-troubled power, China felt it deserved exemptions from normal behavior. The Western conventional wisdom was mostly to placate and coax China now; and then, soon, when rich and powerful, in gratitude, Beijing would either willingly democratize or the sheer power of its free-market opulence would transform it into a sober and judicious player on the world stage.

Meanwhile, China freely strong-armed Western companies inside China. It ran up huge trade surpluses by way of dumping, conducting technological espionage, ignoring health and safety norms, levying asymmetrical tariffs, and mocking copyright and trademark treaties.

It bullied its neighbors, empowered North Korea to hound the U.S. with the threat of its nuclear arsenal, and created the Spratley Islands hinge in hopes someday of adjudicating trade routes in the South China Sea.

We have learned that Chinese espionage agents have been deeply buried within the U.S. hierarchy, from Senator Dianne Feinstein’s former limousine driver of some 20 years to Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA agent recently arrested and charged with exposing U.S. contacts and sources inside China.

One of two things was likely to happen sooner or later. Either China would enhance its efforts to the point of reaching permanent advantage with unfortunate global ramifications, or the U.S. would address the growing asymmetry. Either way, the result was going to be messy, contentious, and dangerous.

The same dilemma was true, albeit to a lesser degree, with our allies.

With regard to NATO, no president had successfully prodded Germany — which enjoys both the world’s largest account surplus and a $65 billion trade imbalance with the U.S. — to set the proper example for NATO members by meeting its pledge to commit 2 percent of its GDP to its own military investments.

The Paris climate agreement was an empty gesture that might have led to later dangerous economic concessions.

Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was one of those obvious, long-overdue steps that conventional wisdom had somehow turned into a psychodrama.

The European Union policies on Brexit, illegal immigration, German mercantilism, and north–south asymmetries, coupled with growing atheism and childlessness, revealed something gone wrong with the project of an increasingly coercive, nondemocratic, and pancontinental union.

Either an American president was going to make it evident that the U.S., while an ally and a partner, was not going down the European pathway of democratic socialism, pacifism, open borders, and multiculturalism, or it was going to transmogrify into something like the nation envisioned in the lead-from-behind Cairo speech and the “you didn’t build that” lectures of Barack Obama’s tenure. Again, either choice — pushback against or compliance with the European vision of postmodern Western civilization — was going to be contentious in the short term or enervating in the long term.

Examine the cultural war at home. One constant over the Bushes’ presidencies and the failed campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney was that the so-called culture war was largely conceded.

Conservatives took it as a given that the universities were overwhelmingly hostile to free speech and thought, and permanently so. The media mostly were antithetical to conservativism, and were enhanced by the rise of Silicon Valley social media that equated traditionalism with inflammatory speech to be shunned or even banned. Journalism had become near-advocacy, given that the noble ends of equality of result justified the means of selective reporting.

Open borders and the salad bowl, in cultural terms, had replaced the ideas of sovereignty and the melting pot. Everything from late-night television and Hollywood movies to the NFL and sitcoms had become politicized, or perhaps even weaponized as useful in the cultural struggle to create a progressive U.S. liberated from its past traditions and norms. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups were branded as mainstream progressive voices and their critics as haters, racists, and fascists.

Again, Republicans’ iconic answers in past decades to the Democratic party’s transformation into an engine of cultural progressive activism were mostly regretful compliance.

Remember iconic moments such as Mitt Romney’s soft-gloves response to debate moderator Candy Crowley’s hijacking of a presidential debate, Jeb Bush’s avowal that illegal immigration was “an act of love,” or John McCain’s decision to all but rule out any mention of the Reverend Wright during the 2008 campaign. Such was the respectable acquiescence to the new progressive realities.

Economically, we do not know the ultimate trajectory of the current economic upswing that we have seen in just 18 months of near-record peacetime unemployment, record highs in the stock market, likely 3 percent annual GDP growth, and American preeminence in global gas and oil production.

Boom and bust are certainly American trademarks. We are in the third successive administration where annual deficits are adding massively to already unsustainable national debt, without any presidential interest in reforming entitlements. Inflation may loom.

But that said, we had become inured to the progressive wisdom that the idea of 3 percent growth was archaic, that prosperity was achieved only through more regulations, higher taxes, and more government-managed investments and subsidies, and that the role of the state was to redistribute existing resources rather than to encourage greater wealth.

The result was growing sectarianism between globalized coastal winners and interior losers. Few really believed any longer that American know-how and technology might yet restore a robust manufacturing sector, or that unfair global trade was harming the working classes.

At some point, Americans were either going to accept that their future was something like that of France, a postmodern, prosperous society of fossilized classes and hierarchies, or they would believe once again that America was a land of unchecked opportunity and upward mobility. Again, either way, clarifying the choice was going to prove acrimonious.

Finally, in terms of defense, the U.S. was faced with a 1930s-like acceptance that the world was becoming a dangerous place and that we would have to either withdraw or accept the new norms.

What were the new norms? Iran would inevitably become nuclear, enjoying an inevitable hegemonic crescent stretching from Tehran to the Israeli border.

Turkey assumed that it enjoyed a new autocratic Ottoman hegemony, beyond criticism given its geographical value and NATO membership.

Reset with Russia had failed in a humiliating fashion, and we were reduced to lecturing Putin on his illiberality while inviting him into the Middle East and conceding American curtailment of European missile defense.

China would re-create its own updated version of the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. North Korea would be permanently able to target U.S. cities, and we would learn to live with it as we did with nuclear Pakistan.

Radical Islam would again be mostly a law-enforcement problem. The solutions to it were euphemisms such as “overseas contingency operations,” “workplace violence,” jihad as a journey of “personal discovery,” and “man-caused disasters,” as we also explored our own likely culpability for creating the conditions that empowered the monsters of Fort Hood, Boston, San Bernardino, or Orlando.

The military was no longer seen as primarily a deterrent force reliant on overwhelming military strength to ensure the peace. It was more valued as a tool of social justice to ensure race and gender equities through fiat rather than prolonged legislative debate, and to recalibrate power with allies and rivals.

Again, either the U.S. was going to re-address Iran, Turkey, China, North Korea, Russia, and radical Islamic terrorism, or it would continue to find ways of granting such autocracies and nonstate threats regional hegemony while hoping that American concessions would be seen as magnanimity to be reciprocated in kind. Obama’s Iran deal, his Cairo speech, and his so-called apology tour were the models. The choice was becoming either to let things go and deal with the likely results later or to recalibrate now and pay the short-term higher price in defense investments and global rancor.

Finally, there were two ways of looking at the status of the post-war American foreign policy and financial establishment. One was that the planet had reached an unprecedented level of prosperity and peace, and it was due largely to the U.S. leadership and current custodianship of present norms that originated after World War II — and were entirely sustainable through the 21st century. Nothing much, then, needed to change.

The other view was that our credentialed class had grown incestuous. And it was blinkered, ignoring that the new global powers were not invested in the world status quo and that institutions including the EU, NATO, NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the U.N. were fossilized and run by a global elite that either resisted needed reforms or failed to consider the downsides of globalization. Our Western elites especially were uninterested in the idea that half of the United States had concluded that globalization — aside from a technological veneer of iPhones, the Internet, and social media — had made them economically less secure than their parents and that traditional American values were being replaced by cultural relativity and progressive multiculturalism.

Few of our experts seemed self-reflective enough to note that past approaches to overseas challenges had not always worked, that interventions had not always led to either U.S., indigenous, or international advantages, that the American interior was becoming hollowed out, and that international organizations and bodies were increasingly hostile to the very powers that had created them.

Trump, of course, was loud. He was crude, mercurial, and at times petty. He was often boisterous. He had no prior military or political experience, and relied on cunning and intuition rather than research, preparation, and reflection.

Yet paradoxically Trump showed real empathy for “our” (as he says) vets, soldiers, workers, and farmers. He cared about increasing jobs for inner-city youths. He had genuine respect for the working classes and was deeply suspicious of the New York–Washington establishment. Trump also was savvy in ensuring the finest national-security team in recent memory, along with appointing a stable of bright, professional, and conservative federal judges.

It remains to be seen whether such “unpresidential” behavior is a force multiplier of the recalibration we needed, given the magnitude of his opposition, or makes the fulfillment of his agendas only that much more difficult.

In sum, half the country and much of the world, at least publicly, believes that Trump is an unnecessary disrupter of existing and necessary norms.

The other half of the United States had concluded that what was recently considered normal was in truth abjectly abnormal — and growing dangerous.

Maintaining the status quo would ensure them a future that in the long term would prove unsustainable, and not consistent with what they had envisioned America to be.

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