How to Save the International Order from Trumpism

To restore U.S. leadership abroad, we first need to address the inequalities at home that midwifed Trump’s rise.

If it is not already apparent, I will make it explicit: because of Donald Trump, the world is giving up on American leadership. As the prominent global risk analyst Ian Bremmer tweeted from the Munich Security Conference last month: “The US foreign policy establishment here … believes, to a man, that we can return to a US-led Global Order after Trump is gone. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He went on to say, “they’re almost all white men over 60.”

The Munich Security Conference is an annual meeting of political leaders, diplomats, and foreign policy experts who debate international security issues, with a focus on the transatlantic alliance. The most important confab of its kind, it provides a valuable platform for world leaders to reach a consensus on how to confront global challenges.

Vice President Mike Pence represented the U.S. administration. His greeting on behalf of his boss was met with an embarrassing silence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, eviscerated Trump’s “America First” doctrine. The U.S.-led global order “has collapsed into many tiny parts,” she lamented. “The question now is, do we fall apart into pieces of a puzzle and think everyone can solve the problem for himself alone?” That line received a standing ovation.

The contrast spoke volumes on how the United States is losing trust and respect under Trump’s presidency. A dour pessimism pervades relations between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Some pundits like Bremmer see nothing but doom and gloom, heralded by an unfit president presiding over the deconstruction of the multilateral alliances that have maintained global order since the end of World War II.

But, to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of the transatlantic alliance’s death are greatly exaggerated. Throughout its history, America has undergone periods of withdrawal, xenophobia, and political derangement. In each case, it has changed course. As Thomas Jefferson foresaw after the Constitution came into force: “Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights.” So, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that after the country brushes off the dust left from Trump’s inevitable crash, it will climb its way back to being the “indispensable nation.”

But to restore American leadership abroad, we first need to clean up things at home. For Trumpism to be vanquished, U.S. policy makers need to address the root of the problem: the growing income gap that has left too many Americans cut off from the promises of globalization. Today in the U.S., the top one percent own almost 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to the Federal Reserve. Feeling left out, millions of voters turned to Trump’s populist appeal. So unless capitalism is reformed—and these inequities are alleviated—too many Americans will likely still gravitate toward a Trump-like isolationist who will cede global leadership to authoritarians like Russia and China.

The last time the country faced such a serious crisis was during Richard Nixon’s presidency. We pulled out of the Watergate scandal only after Nixon’s own party would no longer stand by him. Unfortunately, today’s Republican Party displays no such backbone. Therefore, the challenge is greater than simply defeating Trump. It’s not even necessarily about defeating Trumpism. It’s about changing the conditions that made Trumpism appealing in the first place.

In his study, Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right, French economist Thomas Picketty compared electoral outcomes in the U.K., France, and the U.S. over the past seventy years. He caught a disturbing trend: a “complete realignment of the party system along a ‘globalists’ (high-education, high-income) vs ‘nativists’ (low education, low-income) cleavage” that is bringing a “return to class-based redistributive conflict.” Large blocs of voters feel marginalized and view the political parties as being in thrall to the very wealthy; the gap between the rich and everyone else is even greater today than it was during the Gilded Age.

In similar fashion, Steve Brill explains in his book Tailspin that, by manipulating the tax and legal systems to their benefit, the American meritocratic elite has built a moat around itself that excludes the working poor, thereby limiting their upward mobility and increasing their sense of alienation. Picketty and other economists point to the need for a more progressive tax code to reduce wealth disparities and social inequality.

This publication has called for breaking up industrial and agribusiness monopolies that are the source of so much of our nation’s economic ills—stagnated wages, increased prices, and the clustering of wealth and opportunity to a handful of coastal cities while the heartland is left out to dry. Since Ronald Reagan dismantled U.S. antitrust enforcement in the 1980s, corporate concentration has been steadily exacerbating American inequality. If we want to reverse this, we’ll need more members of Congress and, hopefully, the next occupant of the White House to take on the threat of monopoly power.

While the Civil War cost some 700,000 American lives to end slavery, America’s record of more-or-less peaceful self-correction is impressive. The Progressive Movement was a grassroots reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age, when the wealthiest two percent of Americans owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth. It gave rise to consumer protections, labor reforms, trust busting, women’s suffrage, environmental protections, electoral reform, and progressive taxation that gave citizens a more equal playing field.

Watergate exposed out-of-control abuses of executive power. That era was also marked by the Vietnam War, political assassinations, urban riots, gas shortages, and deep political polarization. Predictions of America’s decline were rife. But constitutional checks and balances, abetted by rigorous investigative journalism, led to needed reforms, and the nation ultimately moved forward.

We can survive Trumpism, too. But we will need visionary, dynamic leadership in promotion of progressive reforms. Our democratic system is designed to blunt, if not prevent, corrupt demagogues like Donald Trump. The new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the media, and, to some extent, the judiciary are doing just that. But to overcome the age of Trump, we will need to tackle the inequalities that midwifed his perverse brand of populism.

“America First” is not our future, despite what world leaders who attended the Munich conference may think. There was, in fact, a reassuring sign at the conference: the U.S. sent its largest contingent ever, including more than fifty Democratic and Republican members of Congress, a sign of strong bipartisan interest in American global engagement. As Joe Biden told attendees, “This too shall pass. We will be back.” He’s right. But we have some work to do to make that happen.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.