The key to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – the feature that explains nearly everything else about that toxic dump – is his aggrieved-nation shtick. Just about everything Trump says (when he’s not adoring himself or belittling others) is about how the once-great American nation has been humbled by the rest of the world. To hear him tell it, the United States is a 99-pound weakling who repeatedly has had sand kicked in his face by everyone. “We don’t win anymore,” he says. “We don’t win with trade. We don’t win with the military. We don’t win.”
Who’s “eating our lunch”? Who isn’t? China, Mexico, Japan, Iran, Germany, Arabs, everyone. Trump sounds like Rodney Dangerfield without the lovable side, using the royal we: We don’t get no respect, I get ya. No respect at all.
But with Trump it’s not funny, I tell ya. Not funny at all. It’s ominous. The aggrieved-nation shtick has been the strongman’s path to power many times in the past. We shouldn’t discount it today. Trump’s not just tapping into a preexisting anger: he’s defining that anger. You’re angry? he asks in effect. Here’s why you should be angry: THEM!
Trump promises to get even, to turn things around so that we eat their lunch, finally. For Trump a deal – and he is the self-proclaimed master of the art – is for the purpose of dealing someone a defeat. “I beat China all the time,” he told an interviewer, referring to his private business. (In reality trade is free cooperation for mutual benefit, a win-win endeavor.)
In Trump’s view (or in his view of what others want to hear), foreigners are not the only ones who abuse America. There’s also a fifth column that’s stabbing “us” in the back. These are the forces of political correctness – the pansy “liberals” who aren’t tough on protesters, illegal immigrants, Muslims and lots of other Others. These appeasers are as much the enemy as those outside the country. It’s a vast conspiracy aimed at real Americans to keep “our country” from being great again. And so they must all be stopped, even if it takes a little strong-arming.
Does anyone wonder why Trump rallies have a tinge of violence? The answer lies in the lust for vengeance central to Trump’s aggrieved-nation shtick. If he were to rule, would we see trade wars and shooting wars?
But there’s a problem. America is no 99-pound weakling. It’s more like a 900-pound gorilla that won’t leave the rest of the world alone. It’s not the abused – it is the abuser.
America spends more on military might than the next several countries combined. It has close to a thousand military installations around the world. It has alliances that are by nature aggressive. These are not passive things. U.S. presidents of both parties have used them to wreak bloody havoc in the world, whether by subverting governments, backing tyrants, sponsoring insurgent death squads, or conducting overt military operations by air, land, and sea.
And that’s just the beginning. The US government has repeatedly strong-armed other governments into voting its way at the United Nations, whether on behalf of Israel and against the Palestinians, or in favor of war resolutions supported by an American president. More than once an American UN ambassador has told a dissenting colleague: “That’s the most expensive vote you’ll ever cast.” Crossing the United States has consequences.
Trump rails against trade agreements as paradigm examples of the world’s ability to take advantage of America. He seems oblivious that a primary aim of those agreements is to impose strict intellectual-property laws on developing economies to maintain the supremacy of American firms. Woe to any upstart group in the developing world that dares to compete. Free-trade agreements shift but do not destroy employment here and do not hollow out manufacturing, but they do protect incumbent American corporations.
For all the criticism of Trump, surprisingly little is directed at his central message. I think I know why. To focus on and debunk his aggrieved-nation shtick, you have to spotlight the US record as a global military, economic, and diplomatic bully; you have to challenge the dogma that the US government has been a “force for good in the world.” For obvious reasons, neither wing of the war party wants to do that.
Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming book The Constitution Revisited: A Libertarian Look at America’s Counter-Revolution, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.