The protagonists of American popular culture are outsiders with scant patience for authority. The Western heroes invented by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and portrayed by William S. Hart or John Wayne, and their urban cousins – the private detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – play loose with the law and play dirty with the opposition, but they have an inviolable inner code. They don’t betray their friends and they don’t exploit the weak. They don’t aspire to entry into the elites, and they don’t apologize for their vulgarity. They come in comic form, for example Huckleberry Finn, or nastily serious, like William Munny in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, or a bit of both in Hammett’s wise-cracking angel of vengeance, the Continental Op.
Religious or not, the entire dramatis personae of American fiction descends from the Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the original of which every product of the American literary imagination is a reworking. Americans are pilgrims. We have no settled culture, no inheritance of customs handed down over generations, no ancient vineyards or ancient recipes, no monuments from the deep past and no long memory. We invented ourselves as a nation out of the Protestant imagination, and we must journey towards a goal that we never will reach. The goal — salvation — always awaits just beyond the horizon. Our fiction lacks endings. Our national novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ends perforce the way it began, with Huck running away from home: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
There is nothing un-Christian in the fact that American pilgrims are rogues — rough men at best, killers and conmen at worst — for the English Puritans who imagined the United States as a “Hebrew Republic” believed that humanity was hopelessly depraved, and that only an act of special grace from God could save them from damnation. Trump is a Christian, to be sure, of a characteristically American variety: as the political scientist Joshua Mitchell observed, he was for decades a follower of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whose bestselling version of the prosperity gospel in The Power of Positive Thinking made him rich. Whether and in what way Trump is a Christian, though, is far less important than the fact that he is instantly recognizable as the protagonist in a Christian drama: the lone avenger who stands up to the depraved powers of the world and calls them out for combat.
Ted Cruz, an engaged and enthusiastic evangelical Christian, failed to understand the religious impulse of the American electorate. They did not want a politician-pastor to preach to them what they already knew. They wanted a hero, sinner though he be, to give battle to the forces of evil — a Jephtha or a Saul. The election of Donald Trump represents a radical return to America’s recondite nature. Some have compared his election to that of “populist” Andrew Jackson in 1828, which is wrong for many reasons: the comparison is the election of Lincoln in 1860.
That seems blasphemous, for Trump is no Lincoln; he is brittle where Lincoln was tolerant, resentful where Lincoln was self-deprecating, Philistine where Lincoln was intellectual, and often cruel where Lincoln was unfailingly kind. But the parallel remains. Not since 1860 have American voters rejected their elite and chosen a candidate without apparent qualifications. Ronald Reagan may have started as an actor, but he had served two terms as Governor of America’s largest state before he ran for the presidency. Lincoln had served a single term in Congress a decade before the election.
Having thrown out the failed elite, Trump has the problem of governing with newcomers and outright amateurs. Trump’s administration thus far is a bit of a mess, but critics should cut him a bit of slack. There is no foreign policy elite, and not much of a national security elite. Most of the grand names in the intelligence community bet on Trump’s defeat — which shows how deficient they are at intelligence. A good deal of mud has been thrown at his National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, who ran a relatively minor part of the intelligence community, the Defense Intelligence Agency. But Gen. Flynn refused to suppress intelligence showing that ISIS was growing into a major threat years before the Obama administration admitted it, and got fired for sticking to his guns.
A three-star general who won’t be bullied by his superiors into lying for political reasons is a moral and intellectual giant next to the mandarins of the Central Intelligence Agency, who got virtually everything wrong during the past twenty years. Give Gen. Flynn time to settle into his job. He has brought some very bright people into senior staff positions, and in my prediction will be far more effective than Condoleezza Rice during the Bush 43 administration – not to mention the miserable Susan Rice, whose appointment as National Security Advisor was a bad joke.
Rex Tillerson got off to a bad start at his confirmation hearings (his mis-statement about denying China access to reefs in the South China Sea sounded like a war threat, when it was simply the result of deficient briefing). Why choose the CEO of Exxon as Secretary of State? Because Trump didn’t have another candidate with the right kind of experience. He had plenty of candidates with the wrong kind of experience, to be sure, from Mitt Romney to John Bolton, but decided to choose an outsider with no ideological baggage.
Trump has been too quick to embrace individuals who he imagines to be populist comrades-in-arms, from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s former leader Nigel Farage to France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, while leveling harsh criticism against Europe’s most powerful leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (which resulted in a jump in Mrs. Merkel’s standing in the polls). Europe is not the United States: its social fabric is based on allegiance to elites and respect for authority, the opposite of Americans’ antinomian impulse. Trump is a mainstream politician. In fact, he represents the true American mainstream, for the same reason that Clint Eastwood plays mainstream American characters. The European far right always has a nasty element, and in the case of Germany’s “Alternative” party, more than a whiff of brimstone.
Most of all Trump wants to protect Americans from globalization, and rightly so. At the peak of its technological dominance in the decade after the Cold War, when America fielded the technologies that made the modern economy, America opened its gates to China (allowing it into the World Trade Organization) and Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement. This occurred during the Clinton Administration at the peak of America’s investment boom in technology. We invented semiconductors, lasers, optical networks, sensors, displays, virtually the whole of the modern economy.
But America was too complacent. Its share of global high technology exports (as defined by the World Bank) fell from 18% to 7% between 1999 and 2014, while China’s share soared from 3% to 26%. China used every lever of industrial policy, including state subsidies, loans from state-owned entities, and so forth, to create employment in tech industries. That is the Asian industrial model, and in many cases it works. It is hardly fair to expect America to play by free market rules while its competitors indulge in aggressive mercantilism.
The problem is how to protect Americans. The global supply chain is so closely integrated that it is hard to discourage some imports without doing real damage to American industries. The border tax proposed by House Republicans would prevent corporations from deducting imported inputs as costs for tax purposes. For industries like oil refining, that would create enormous distortions, while providing windfalls elsewhere. My own preference would be to use selected tariffs for products that benefit from government subsidies overseas, which is entirely permissible under World Trade Organization rules.
Ultimately, no government can protect American workers unless productivity growth resumes. American productivity growth has fallen to zero for the first time since the stagflation of the 1970s. Without productivity growth, American living standards will fall, irrespective of whether the government pursues protection or free trade. I have argued elsewhere in this publication that reviving military and aerospace R&D is the key to productivity growth.
Donald Trump could be a character in a Frank Capra film or a Sinclair Lewis novel. He is our generation’s incarnation of Bunyan’s pilgrim. I do not mean that as praise (I never liked Bunyan, as it happens). That simply is the kind of people we Americans are, or rather the sort of people we have become at two and a half centuries’ distance from our Revolution. We never have succeeded in training an elite. Whenever an American elite finds itself in power it chokes on its own arrogance. I cheered Mr. Trump to victory in the last election out of disgust for the do-gooders and world-fixers of both the Republican and Democratic mainstreams. Now I wish him good luck. He’ll need all the luck he can get.
David P. Goldman is editor-at-large for Asia Times