I have argued in the past that the damage Donald Trump could do is limited: balanced by a vast and enduring American state, every American president, regardless of the strength of their support or the breadth of their mandate, invariably finds their political capital spent. A could-be President Trump would be no different and a new president could readily course correct any of his excesses. This is a key reason why the United States continue as a superpower: its powerful executive is routinely and peacefully switched out, ensuring that bad ideas are cycled out of the state every four or eight years.
But that is not to say there is not an increasingly compelling argument against Trump. As his proposals become clearer, as his talking points repeat themselves, it becomes necessary to evaluate the Republican blowhard and identify precisely why President Trump is not in America’s interests.
But let’s be forward about what this article is not
There are a huge amount of feelings that swirl about Mr Trump. His penchant for speaking off the cuff, for saying quite literally what’s on his mind at that moment and for breaking the once-inviolate rules of political correctness both enrage and endear him to millions of Americans. His supporters love it; every outrageous comment reminds them of the freedom of speech they feel has been lost through “safe spaces”, Human Resources-imposed censorship and a vanilla mainstream media that is wildly out of sync with most Americans’ everyday experiences.
But such strict cultural control has been exercised largely to avoid alienating any one group of Americans. Americans are heavy on the use of identity politics: being a woman, white, black, Latino, etc., often dictates how an institution, from a newspaper to a political parties, treats you. As Trump talks from the hip, he has broken these rules, enraging different groups in different ways.
None of this much involves the geopolitical effect Trump might have: presidents may accelerate or slow down cultural change, but they do not cause it. Those upset, or thrilled, by Trump’s wording are missing the point.
Instead, we have two very specific bad ideas that have come from the Trump camp and they are worth discussing their geopolitical impact.
First: Donald Trump’s war on debt
Trump’s obsession with American debt is one of the few places where he and the establishment Republican Party align. Many Americans worry about the approximately $17 trillion debt load the federal government currently has; after all, isn’t debt always bad, while savings are always good?
The answer is, increasingly, sometimes. The limits of paper currency as an economic tool are rapidly being reached as technology outstrips the abilities of our dollars and euros to accurately reflect resource crunches. (This will be a deeper article later.) But Trump’s laser-like focus on overcoming the debt is a grave geopolitical threat to the United States and the world financial system.
Trump’s initial, bad proposal was to act as though the federal government were just a bankrupt company. This highlights Trump’s terrible leadership mentality: being a CEO is a vastly different experience than being a president. Nation states, after all, do not care about profit, but power and security.
Nearly $12.5 trillion of the American debt is owned by America itself — half a trillion to Social Security and other federal trust funds, half a trillion to individual Americans, states and cities, and the rest to the Federal Reserve, which has used debt as an inflation controller. To offer to pay back America itself less than its owed is pure insanity and demonstrates how much different national debt is from personal debt. This is like if you could borrow money from yourself to pay your today bills and not only would you get away with it, but everyone would encourage you to do so.
Of course, personal debt doesn’t and can’t work that way. But national debt can. National debt is far more artificial than personal debt. When a state not only produces money but also decides to allow itself to go into debt, the rules get wonky.
The bottom line is that a war on debt would be an irrational siphon of wealth toward many debts that don’t actually need paying. America’s current debt load has less to do with its fundamental economic situation than with the limits of our currency system. To embark upon austerity, or the nation-state equivalent of corporate bankruptcy, would be like applying football rules to the middle of a baseball game.
Second: Trump’s “America First” foreign policy
Like a war on debt, “America First” is a bad, bad idea. Trump has stated he’d force American allies to begin paying for the defense its provides. There may be some merit to that; American allies could pay some to help base America forces.
But the notion that American allies should do for America what America does for them is to reopen a geopolitical pandora box that was shut by World War II.
In order for American allies to be capable to project power to the United States, they would have to rearm and quite heavily too. Currently, with American power protecting them, they have no incentive to do so. This is a win-win-win scenario for many folks. Citizens of American allies don’t have to pay (or die in) vast militaries; elites of American allies needn’t worry about external security; meanwhile, American citizens and elites needn’t worry about threats from potentially very powerful nation states or be concerned that some distant spat will drag them into a murderous war.
Consider how many old rivalries American alliances have put to rest. Japan and Korea are now bound under the American aegis: so too are Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany, Italy and Austria, to name just a few. While Europe was once the world’s most warlike continent, today it is the most peaceful (Ukraine notwithstanding). That is entirely because America has secured Europe in a way that Europe never could.
More directly, if Trump gets his way, it would mean a rearmament of Japan and Germany — the two World War II foes who would over the course of the next century have increased incentive to challenge the United States not just economically but also militarily. Imagine a militarized EU under German domination: what would there be to prevent it from becoming a rival bloc to the United States? And while you might argue that Germans have learned the lesson of history, that cannot be taken for granted indefinitely. The generations that saw World War II and the Cold War must die off and when they do, those who replace them will have dim cultural memories of the war. The only guarantee of a peaceful Europe is one that is minimally armed.
This remains just as true for Asia, though Japan doesn’t sit at the center of anything like the EU. Without the US, Asian states will feel forced to close ranks against China. This could create a power bloc that might well end up looking much like a militarized EU, with existing American trade deals held in place minus America and American military power replaced by indigenous power. Japanese, Korean and even Vietnamese fleets could combine to form yet another force that might provoke World War III in a multipolar world.
Planet Earth is considerably safer with the United States as the dominant power precisely because it keeps vast swathes of humanity disarmed. It isn’t so much a matter of it being the United States as the geopolitical system being dominated by a single power that has already reached the natural limits of expansion — that last part being key because a rising power that hasn’t yet learned when to stop conquering is quite dangerous. America is out of the empire-building business; its best leaders are those who tend to its network of alliances and trade deals with an eye for stability.
So when someone tells you they’ll vote Trump because he’ll take on the debt and finally make America’s allies pay for all the free defense, here is your response
Trump’s plan to cut the federal debt is nonsense: so much of that debt is American owned that all he’d be doing is slashing benefits and cutting retirement funds for millions of Americans. Worse, the track record for austerity is not very good and in America’s case it’s not essential either.
Meanwhile, Trump’s plan to force allies to rearm is geopolitical madness: you never force defeated foes to pick up a gun unless you absolutely have to. America is nowhere near having to retreat from superpower status and to push rearmament on allies like Japan and Germany will create a long-term threat to world order and American primacy. A disarmed Europe and East Asia serves everyone except those who think who give into the demagogic impulses of men like Trump.
The bad news: the United States can afford a President Trump
Being a superpower with well-checked institutions, the United States can afford the mistake of a President Trump. But just because it can doesn’t mean it should. Americans must become more rational on their own or world events of their own making will force them to.
This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, June 8, 2016.