I spend a lot of my writing life cataloguing the ills that are plaguing the United States. Everywhere one looks, it seems, the news is bad. The insinuation of political correctness and the ideology of “wokeness” into American life have rendered large swaths our cultural life ridiculous. Kindred impulses, under the name of “Diversity-Equity-Inclusion” initiatives, have poisoned the atmosphere and drained the joy out of the workplace. Radical environmentalism, with its concomitant attack on fossil fuels, has been a godsend for those who hate prosperity, at least prosperity enjoyed by people not themselves. And in the realm of politics, we are being led by a senile gerontocracy supported by an unaccountable cadre of bureaucratic globalists who seem to believe that “democracy” means “rule by Democrats.”
On the domestic front, they have weaponized the police power of the state against anyone who dissents from the regime narrative on issues from COVID and abortion policy to the celebration of transexual identity in primary schools and the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. In foreign affairs, our leaders exhibit a combination of moralism and naïveté that is preposterous at best and dangerously provocative at worst.
I could go on. The point is that when we ponder the place of the United States on the world stage, there is a lot to criticize and a lot to worry about. At least since the end of World War II, when it indisputably emerged as the world’s dominant power—a status that got a large boost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991—the United States has been the world’s cynosure of political liberty and economic prosperity. Is it still?
I think it is, and in this brief essay I will lay out some of the reasons I believe those who have written off the United States are mistaken.
Let’s give the first word to Adam Smith. Responding to a young British soldier who wrote to complain about how Britain was faring against America in the Revolutionary War, Smith consoled him with the observation that “there’s a deal of ruin in a nation.” “Especially this nation.” That’s what the cultural critic John O’Sullivan replied when I quoted Smith’s line to him several years back. Then as now, economy had suddenly turned very interesting, in the dismaying way that your doctor finds your latest symptoms “interesting,” and a sentiment of gloomy inertia, a heavy, energy-sapping miasma, lay upon the land. Back in the 1940s, Cyril Connolly announced that “It is closing time in the gardens of the West.” Was he right at last? Or was Smith–O’Sullivan closer to the mark? Adam Smith had written to calm a young correspondent who contemplated with alarm British losses in the American War of Independence. As it happened, Britain absorbed the parturition of the United States with aplomb, growing ever stronger for more than a century. Where are we now? There’s lots of ruin about: no one disputes that. But how is the United States faring?
We should guard against the myopia of the present tense. The Biden administration has been like a gigantic wrecking ball, smashing the extraordinary achievements of the Trump administration. In two short years, Biden has managed to undo much that Trump, with his “Make America Great Again” initiatives, brought about in his first term. That is depressing. But remember, Trump had inherited from Barack Obama a demoralized, economically moribund country whose standing on the world stage has sharply declined. In four years, Trump completely transformed the standing of the United States, spiritually as well as materially.
Some particulars: Trump passed a huge tax cut, which benefited some 85 percent of taxpayers, cut the corporate tax rate, and thus created millions of jobs and primed the pump of the economy. When Trump took office, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at some 18,000. When he left, it was 30,000. How many trillions of dollars of value does that represent?
Obama had neglected, or rather, actively disparaged the U.S. military. By contrast, Trump invested more than $2 trillion to modernize the military, which had the collateral benefit of revitalizing morale in the services. He also created Space Force, an entirely new branch of the armed services.
Trump also, as he promised on the campaign trail, undertook a tooth-and-claw attack on regulatory excess. He promised to get rid of at least two obstructionist regulations for every new regulation: the actual ratio was something like 16 cashiered for every new one. Trump made some missteps in dealing with COVID—his partnership with the egregious Anthony Fauci was perhaps the worst decision of his administration—but he business acumen and support for the entrepreneurial spirit brought three vaccines to market in less than a year, something that experts predicted would take a minimum of three to five years to achieve.
On the domestic front, he largely unwound the insane witch hunts undertaken on college campuses under the auspices of supercharged Title IX and other politically correct mandates. He began a similar attack on the racialist initiatives undertaken throughout the federal bureaucracy under the rubric of “critical race theory.” Nor were his initiatives on this front all negative. His 1776 Commission was part of a larger effort to revive in schools, colleges, and the culture at large an appreciation of America’s noble founding ideals as a counter to the “blame-America-first” mentality abroad in academia, the media, and large swaths of corporate culture.
In the sphere of foreign policy, Trump’s MAGA agenda meant “putting America first.” He insisted that our NATO allies shoulder their stipulated financial burden, challenged China on trade and military adventurism, and scuttled the disastrous Obama-era nuclear deal (since renewed) with Iran. Russia, it is worth noting, made no moves against Ukraine during the Trump years. It had gobbled up Crimea during the Obama administration and launched its current invasion last February under Biden’s, er, watch.
Trump also stood firmly against the democracy-exporting policies of the Bush era. America would go to war not to promulgate democracy but only to defend its own vital interests. His Abraham Accords brought peace to the Middle East and saw the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab countries, a world historical achievement for which Trump deserved the Noble Peace Prize.
And how did all that work out? Pretty well, I’d say. By the time Trump left office, America was a net exporter of energy; illegal immigration had been slowed to a trickle; before the onslaught of COVID, his policies had resulted in the lowest unemployment in decades, the lowest minority unemployment ever. Wages were rising, especially at the lower rungs, and the stock market was booming. All-in-all, MAGA equaled American prosperity and success. Something similar can be said about Trump’s policies in the realm of foreign affairs.
“But,” you object, “all that is being unwound as you write!” True enough. Joe Biden and his globalist handlers have well and truly botched things. But Trump’s extraordinary and rapid reversal of the economic, political, and spiritual torpor he inherited from Barack Obama suggests that the mess Joe Biden has created could also be transformed by the right sort of energetic president.
That prospect, combined with the obvious and widespread “revolt of the masses” against Biden’s policies offers grounds for hope. The truth is that the big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States is once again facing a serious challenge from an invigorating populist spirit. We’ll see its first fruits in a few weeks when the GOP takes over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 2024, the president will either be Trump or a Trump endorsed candidate.
The historian Conrad Black was right when, in a recent essay, he called America “the indispensable country.” The United States, he argued, “has not fallen into irreversible decline.” On the contrary, it has adapted effectively to changing circumstances and remains the lynch pin and economic motor of the free world and a bulwark against rising tyrannies in China and elsewhere. It no longer bestrides the world as the sole colossus, but it is still the world’s cynosure. Are things bad? Is it late? Yes, and yes again. But to adapt what Lord D’Abernon said about Englishmen, “An American’s mind works best when it is almost too late.”
Roger Kimball is an American art critic and the editor and publisher of The New Criterion.
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