US Analysis: Trump Is Symptom of America’s “Decline” Crisis

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PHOTO: Man in Arizona stands with an upside-down US flag, a sign of distress, May 2015


Liam Kennedy of our partner The Clinton Institute writes for The Conversation:


A visceral sense of domestic decline is coursing through contemporary American culture and politics – and it’s become one of the central themes of this year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump in particular has used it to stoke the inchoate anger of his supporters, telling them: “Our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart….Our airports are, like, third world.”

And paradoxically, even as Trump laments the US’s decline, leading pundits are pointing to his remarkably successful insurgency as evidence of the same phenomenon. Andrew Sullivan, describing the election campaign as “dystopian”, argued that “America has never been so ripe for tyranny.“ He concluded: “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.”

But while they certainly have a deep resonance today, dramatic lamentations of American decline have a long history. Ever since the founding of the nation, Americans have gone through bouts of self-doubt, struggling to come to terms with national and global crises both real and perceived. American political culture is shot through with the theme of decline followed by regeneration, a distinctive pattern that helps frame the idea of American exceptionalism.

Political leaders frequently invoke this dynamic in their rhetoric, although usually to paint a picture of regeneration. Pessimism is not often rewarded. Jimmy Carter’s notorious “crisis of confidence” speech in 1979 may have been meant as a bold admonition to the nation to pick up its spirits, but its dour attempt at straight talk was no match for Carter’s sunnier successor, Ronald Reagan, who was re-elected by a landslide in 1984 as he declared it “morning again in America”.

Of course, Trump is trying to play both sides of the dialectic, invoking decline while promising to make America great again. But he is far from the original author of this discourse. It’s an ancient idea, and it reaches deeply into the nervous system of the body politic and shapes perceptions about American identity.

The Unwinding

For some, America’s decline is writ largest in a domestic crisis of liberal-democratic citizenship, a fracturing or unraveling of civil society and atomization of the populace. The political scientist Robert Putnam famously drew attention to this in 2000 when he argued that Americans were increasingly “bowling alone” rather than participating in civic life as they once did. There have been many echoes of his thesis in recent commentaries on a diminution of associational and communal experience in the US.

The journalist George Packer has described an “unwinding” of the nation:

In the space of a generation, [America] has become more than ever a country of winners and losers, as industries have failed, institutions have disappeared and the country’s focus has shifted to idolise celebrity and wealth.

Though short on solutions, Packer’s diagnosis resonates deeply – the game is “rigged”, the social contract “shredded”.

The hollowing out of the American middle class is not only an economic reality, but a matter of psychological malaise. Disintegration of the civic fabric means the loss of support networks to help people manage challenging economic transitions and feeds into the sense of disinheritance and declining expectations expressed by many Americans and particularly by less educated, middle-aged white Americans. Recent discussions of rising death rates among this cohort have suggested an “undiagnosed pathology” among people who feel “left behind”.

Perhaps most insidiously, discussions of urban poverty and disorder often use the narrative of across-the-board decline to explain very specific, entrenched forms of inequality and injustice. From the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in Chicago, Ferguson and elsewhere, to the water crisis in Flint, there is abundant evidence of structural violence and neglect, and of the undervaluing of black lives.

A sense of an ending

This civic crisis is mirrored by political sclerosis. Poisonous ideological division has not only brought Washington to a standstill, but gripped the body politic more broadly. There are limited options to remedy problems of accountability – all fuelling an uptick in political nihilism.

So is this current bout of declinism substantively different from earlier ones? Does it match real, enduring changes to the American system or worldview? Clearly, the political parties’ elites are deeply worried, and see or sense a seismic shift in the order of things.

As Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, recently observed:

The GOP always had internal tensions….What is happening now is bigger and less remediable in part because the battles in the past were over conservatism, an actual political philosophy. We are witnessing history. Something important is ending.

While Democratic leaders have generally been more sanguine about ideological turmoil, they too are anxious about what they see as a capricious electorate and the erosion of a political centre. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign not only reflects deep scepticism on the liberal left with politics as usual but also taps into the more general discontents that have energised Trump’s campaign.

President Obama felt a need to speak to the theme of decline in his final State of the Union address:

Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction … all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.

Throughout much of his presidency, Obama has been in the awkward political position of managing a nation’s diminished expectations. Of course, one would expect a sitting president to repudiate the claims of national decline under his watch, but Obama’s words make plain that he understands the anxieties at work.

Still, the current bout of declinism is a serious wake-up call. America’s political system and the sensibilities of the populace are desperately out of sync – and at some point, there will need to be a realignment of relations between the individual, the state and the market, and a re-balancing of rights and responsibilities.

The US’s capacity for regeneration should not be underestimated, but as the Trump surge indicates, the American polity’s growing tribalization and the country’s toxic political and social climate are symptoms of a deep malaise. It may be some time before it’s morning again in America.

The Conversation

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Lamenting for nothing was a fav british passtime,now the disease has spread across to America.When you got to do nothing you should do nothing.

  2. World economic crisis affected all. A military campaign may affect positively or negatively the economy.
    The question is : did Obama administration behavior accelerated the decline? Does his foreign policy influence the the trade balance of US? Because we have a new race for weapons right now. Countries buy weapons to protect themselves. UN is null; many lost confidence in US.
    —–
    Trump is a part of the decline of US; is a high level reality show;but it is a part of the American dream.
    To explain:if the economy has problems,lotteries,easy business dreams,pyramidal games prosper.
    In everybody of us is a bit of Trump or of Hugh Hefner… the dream of high level business, women and why not politics,fame and the ultimate function :POTUS. The American dream?!
    But Trump transformed elections in a huge reality show;and this it what he knows,a show for business.
    —–
    To learn to lead US ? It is an ultimate circus show to teach a monkey to drive a Ferrari and maybe it can learn;it can make good show. But to give it a license to drive in downtown is craziness.
    —–
    For instance,to return to the American dream, a good anchor from a big TV network ,specialized in economics,foreign policy could do successfully the job of US president:he(she)would have experience.
    —–
    HIGH LEVEL POLITICS MUST HAVE SPECIALISTS;

  3. Ahh yes, the decline of America. The worlds favorite topic. Yet the world still loves all the aid America provides, loves the ability to trade freely, demands America stop every war, demands that the all powerful and all mighty America solve all of their problems. Yes, America’s decline.. Listening to others is America’s decline.

    When the world basically is constantly looking at America to be the parent. So, yes, world, please consider America in decline. We would love to stop the handouts and all the other bullshit the world throws at us. Meanwhile, we’ll keep putting robots on Mars, exploring space, developing technologies (SpaceX), building infrastructure ( the cloud ), Electric vehicles, and the countless other things we do that the world wants to steal or use.

    Yes, America is in decline.

  4. America IS in decline. Millions of people are being poisoned by leaded pipes, bridges are collapsing or are closed due to imminent failure. For example here in a middle Atlantic state ( ok I will tell you – a still relatively prosperous Philly suburb) we have SEVEN bridges in a five mile radius that we have been told will NEVER be repaired or replaced as there is and will never be the monies to do so. The permanent traffic apocalypse created by this is unbelievable. You can go no where with waiting 1/2 Hr to 45 minutes at a stop light backed up for miles. Road edges are crumbling on major roads – both state and local that necessitate people taking turns going around them. Calls to the proper authorities tell us they have ‘no plans’ for repairs there. And the bits and pieces of public transport are often broken down and do not go where people need it to. No money you see….
    Young people cannot even find summer jobs as few places are hiring. Grocery stores have long( 20 minute waits are normal more at busy times) checkout lines as few cashiers are hired. Businesses are closing all over the country at an alarming rate. Downtowns long ago failed but now suburban centers are emptying quickly. Who shopping plazas are empty and newly built ones stand empty.
    People are walking away from homes due to long term unemployment and or under-employment of talented professionals. I have never seen so many abandoned houses.
    Oldsters are manning everything from minimum wage grunt work on up to high level professions. My doctor ( family medicine) said he would love to retire but his three kids are having serious trouble finding living wage jobs and he wants to be able to help them so he keeps on working. Older people who ought to be retiring and enjoying a bit of relaxation are forced to be on their feet all day because they are desperate for money since interest rates do not exist any longer and they are going or are broke. This in term fuels the lack of house buying family starting jobs for young people. Son can’t get a job because dad AND gramps are still having to work full time. And the automation continues apace….
    Meanwhile our government follows the example of Rome and drains what little we have in foreign adventurism to prop up the only remaining business – the war materials production industry ….. Our pols are mind deadened imbeciles – ie Trump though some still put on a facade of rationality. Like Obama. And pols with a genuine track record of actually working to better the country are talked about like THEY are the buffoons – ie Sanders. Not that a Sanders presidency could solve anything because of the unprecedented in modern times oafs a deadened and defeated uneducated populace keeps putting in office…
    Yep – we are going down. At in an ever increasing spiral. Throwing in a little climate change and an overblown fear of ‘terror in the homeland’ and a scoch of gun violence for good measure…

    • Then move, get a new education, or do something. This country wasnt built on whining about change. It was built on doing things. So much of your argument was the “poor me” argument with various combinations of x and y, to pull on some heart strings. This country didnt even start giving out handouts until fairly modern times. Everyone has it in thier ability to make thier lives better…that is what makes America great. Not saying the road can be easy by any means, but one exists. So, no America is not in decline.

      Its 20% unemployment where I live…I’m not on some far away planet

  5. Hamilton’s Rule. People are disposed to care for those who look and act like they do. It’s in our hard wiring to cooperate and defend the “group” for long term survival.. especially in harsh environments.

    Group identifiers are race and/or ethnicity and these allegiances trump all other bonds. A population steeped in a multi cultural stew survives only until there is scarcity.

    A zero sum economy fueled by an endless supply of cheap, abundant breeders from other cultures combined with the End of Work – and you have the recipe for perpetual War and the end of civilization.

    Combine this genetic directive with that of the r vs k strategies for reproduction,…. and this end is near.

    The r strategy for reproduction endemic to black Africa, most of the MIddle East, S Asia and much of Indian Latin America directs members to reproduce as often and quickly as possible, often without the benefit of 2 parents.. fewer resources are spent on each individual, and like pollen. Children are abundant, disposable and insure the next generation.

    A new twist on the r strategy [which has resulted in over 7 billion “success” stories… is the host parasite relationship between these 3rd world disposable people and an ‘altruistic’ instinct within White Christian nations to Save the Children.

    White Christians are more likely to practice a k strategy for reproduction… fewer children with more resources channeled into the development of the next generation. This strategy is shared by higher mammals such as elephants.

    So – Muslim babies hung on fences in Greece, – Latino Indian Americans sending children into deserts to find white hosts… are the RESULT, not the cause of our 21st century malaise.

    We have tough choices to make. We either continue to artificially shore up r strategy birthrates at the expense of every bird, butterfly, forest, river and stream… or save ourselves and the children we nurtured through sacrifice AND misplaced charity.

    This won’t be pretty… but then neither are the plains of Africa. We have come full circle.

    • What a sick twisted racist viewpoint. You are clearly part of the reason the US is in spirally decline….

      • This is the science of cultural choices. You may not like it… but it’s very real.

        Question for you…..

        How many Honduran women should we allow to fly into the USA, have a Zika infected Anchor baby, and leave the Million Dollar tab for us?

        Now… is it racist for me to say NONE?

        How many 3rd world healthcare bills should we pay?

        How many 3rd world immigrants should we take? … and how many before this lifeboat is swamped and our culture resembles the failed culture they escaped.

        You are not thinking with your brain…. the future is ugly no matter… the music has stopped and there are not enough chairs.

        I choose to survive. IF you don’t buy a ticket to Mumbai… and do your part.

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