Donald Trump may be remembered for many reasons, but not the least of which will be that he was the first American political figure to proclaim before his people and the world that the America of his time was a nation in decline. In choosing as his campaign slogan “Make American Great Again” he was clearly stating that America, while once “great”, was no longer so. It was a shocking thing to say, yet one which large sheaths of the American people agreed with because they voted for him. They voted for him because they felt that America was no longer great and because they wanted someone, ostensibly him, who would return it to its glory days – days of economic prosperity when workers, mostly white, earned good money and had a feeling of security in their union jobs. Those days when America ruled the world militarily and economically; when it was the envy of nations.Those days in which Americans were admired rather than hated, envied rather than disgraced. The days before the term “ugly Americans” became popularized.
However, there were many others who disagreed even took offense at the implication that America was not always and still “great”, and yet others like Howard Zinn, who would have argued that American had never been great. Certainly, Trump’s immediate predecessor would never have agreed with him. In Obama’s rhetoric, America was not just great, it was exceptionally so. As U.S. News writer Robert Schlesinger pointed out, while no other president from 1981 onward even used the term American exceptionalism Obama’s spoke of it often, fiercely proclaiming he believed in American exceptionalism with every fiber of his being. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95JiNT74Xtw. It was one of two concepts that dominated Obama’s presidential rhetoric, the other being unity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFPwDe22CoY.In fact, he completely rejected the suggestion that America was in any way in decline (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRxZEhwxL7c). America might have problems, the primary one being the profound lack of unity of the people themselves, however, it was in the transcendence of those problems that the path to American greatness would be made manifest. In very Hegelian terms, Obama announced, that only by evolving towards the realization of the Idea of a “more perfect union” put forth in the Constitution, would American achieve its absolute realization in history. The union could be made more perfect, the country become stronger, and its exceptionalism projected on the world screen.
Obama’s vision of America was very subjective. In fact, it was drawn from his personal history: it was his dream projected on the people of his nation. Conceived of a Nigerian father and a white woman who brought her son to foreign lands and gave him a Muslim stepfather, before she left him to fulfilled great dreams and high ambitions of her own, Obama saw himself in very Hegelian terms as a unity of differences. Just as he was so he felt his country must and would become. Moreover, this call for a unified nation came wrapped in a story that could have been written by Horatio Alger: just as he a black man raised by a single mother in a working class family could become president, so too, could any American realize his dreams. The fact that his tale defied the odds, that the likelihood of any poor or working class child, black or white, would ever go on to become president, could never be accepted by Americans fed since childhood on the truth of the Great American Dream. How hard was it for a young African American to realize that just because Obama was president did not mean that anything had changed for Afrian Americans as a whole. They had to believe that the possibility of a better life, perhaps even a great life was in their grasp. If not, well, there were only two possibilities: revolution or despair.
Just as the unity of differences had set him on the road to the Presidency of the world’s most powerful nation, so too would the unity of the people over whom he presided, grant them greatness before the world. Just as he was an exceptional man, so too was his nation an exceptional nation. And just as the canon of democracy, the American Constitution, promised to each the possibility of becoming great, it promised to the nation itself that the principles it embodied would make it great.
How wrong Obama was was reflected by the fact that when he left office America was more deeply immersed in more wars, the nation racially and economically more divided, and Americans more depressed, despairing and despondent than ever before. A more clearly racially divided nation produced a police state that seemed to revel in the abuse, incarceration and random murder of black people. This would give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The increase division of the nation into a small wealthy and powerful capitalist class, and the other 99% who were poor and powerless gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The despair and despondency of the people, who worked long hours in minimum wage jobs which offered neither security nor dignity, was reflected in the high rate of suicide and drug abuse. Rather than make revolution, the people were choosing to opt out of life. The movements that did arise were quickly infiltrated by a supreme surveillance state and a highly efficient network of government agents and saboteurs. No Yellow Vests for America.
Obama’s dream of a more perfect union had been revealed as a more perfect nightmare, and the conditions were laid for Trump to paint the America Obama had left behind, as a brutal failure that robbed America of its greatness.Internationally, America’s military adventures ended one after the other in failures and chaos which were obvious to the whole world. Putin saw America’s weaknesses and took advantage of them. If it is true that he “interfered” in the American elections it was because it was so very easy to do: by pointing out the racism, the inequality, the injustices, the violence of the American way of life, his professional social network players, did not lie but only addressed what already was. He has been able to pull together a formidable coalition of nations who share the desire to see American economic, political and military hegemony, destroyed once and for all. He has been very, very successful in expanding this coalition; it is without question his greatest achievement as a world leader.
So, as we can see, Trump’s view of America was the standing negation of Barack Obama’s. Trump saw it as a once great nation which had veered off track and sunk into economic and hegemonic decline. According to his Weltanschauung, the only hope for putting America back on track once again was not the slow process of making its union more perfect, but the sudden act of his election. He, the master of the art of the deal, promised to negotiate America’s relations with the world to its sole advantage. Ever the businessman he would make America great by making it more profitable and productive, more powerful, more perfect in its control. One way or another he would force the peoples of the world to do what was in America’s interests. Why any nation or any people should want to serve America’s interests over and against its own is a good question. But if they did so the people of America, particularly its most wealthy 1%, would benefit.
Trump expressed no concern for bringing a divided nation into unity, nor for bringing a divided world into harmony. Obama promised this, but when we evaluate Obama’s performance, we find that he achieved no such unity, neither nationally or internationally, and that very notion of American exceptionalism rang with negative implications It was just another way of saying America over and against other nations.
If Obama could never achieve the unity of his nation or establish its exceptionalism, Trump, in advocating an America first, last and only policy,has not only brought nations (think the Russia/China/Iran alliance)into greater unity in order to combat American economic and military bullying, but has also given support to an unprecedented rise of socialist ideas in America. The people of America and the people of the world have come into unity in order to resist the ideological exceptionalism of the U.S. that lies at the core of both Obama and Trump’s visions. It is in resistance to the leadership of America, that the unity that Obama dreamed of and that Trump felt no need to even try to achieve, that the world is both unifying and dividing. Into camps of left and right, into the pro and anti-American camps.
And Trump is being taught a hard lesson. America is a nation in decline: economically, politically, militarily and whatever he does only exhibits the truth of his own assertion; it only accelerates that decline. We need only watch what is happening in Venezuela. No matter what America has done, Maduro runs his country.The coalition of China and Russia as well as other nations, stand behind him. How humiliating for the United States that it has not brought about the regime change that it once could have achieved very easily a decade ago. For all its military power it does not exert control over the world. It’s economic power, while still great, still does not extend to the care and well being of its people. The world economy is slowing, and you can be sure, due at least in part to the tariffs and sanctions that Trump has relied on to bring those who defy his wishes to their knees…….there is somewhere a black swan swimming towards the American markets.
Mary Metzger is a 74 year old semi retired teacher. She did her undergraduate work at S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury and her graduate work In Dialectics under Bertell Ollman at New York University. She has taught numerous subjects, from Public Sector Labor Relations to Philosophy of Science, to many different levels of students from the very young to Ph.D. candidates, in many different institutions and countries from Afghanistan to Russia. She has been living in Russia for the past 12 years where she focuses on research in the Philosophy of Science and History of the Dialectic, and writes primarily for Countercurrents. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of five, and the great grandmother of two.