Today marks the end of the Obama presidency, and in some ways, it seems to mark the end of an era – or perhaps more pessimistically, the respite from the decline of an era that effectively ended with the events of September 11th, 2001.
Perhaps we’d been to unwilling to admit it over the last 8 years, but since 2001, the United States of America turned from being a leader for the multicultural, involve-everyone-everywhere sentiment to the navel-gazing self-interested country that its enemies had always accused it of being; where George W. Bush led the country into misadventures and tipping the delicate balance that had held for the 90s in the Middle East into the dumpster-fire, basket-case of a region it seems right now.
Obama’s efforts to revive American interest in the progressive, outward looking world seem an exception – the first years reacting to the financial crisis of 2008 that was never quite a full-blown multi-year recession, followed by the battles with the Republican opposition that organised into a parliamentary style opposition rather than the loose confederation that had always been the operating standard in the US Congress.
Obama’s efforts to rehabilitate America’s image post-W were for the most part successful – despite the ongoing issues in Syria, and the free hand used with drone warfare around the world, the open engagement with the world community and the level-headed leadership was respected. Adults were in charge. For a few years, it seemed like we could put the Bush years down as the anomaly.
Now… now we’re getting Trump and his henchmen. Bush wasn’t the anomaly, he was the prototype – a deep distrust of intellectualism and expertise infecting a populace convinced that things won’t change. The shame is the distrust of expertise, and the necessary recognition of this utility. Watching confirmation hearings for key executive branch positions, it’s clear the people being put in charge of these things have little to no idea of what they’re getting involved in. We’re going from people with deep knowledge and care to people who openly oppose the very notions of the departments they’re supposed to be running.
It’s like their assumptions are that everyone should have an equal chance at trying things, without realising specialist roles and knowledge are useful; the idea of putting a CEO in charge of an organisation and purpose that he or she does not know is not infinitely applicable; experience and excellence in the field of business does not equip one to consider a fundamentally different purpose in the public service space.
Add in Trump’s own openly declared insular views – withdrawal from NATO being on the table, a deep distrust of the UN and international processes, the childish ideas of a wall on a border, the hostility to global trade – and you see America steadily pulling its head in, repeating the experience of a hundred years ago as the post-WWI America retreated. Where they once led by example, now they disown any position of leadership beyond economic and military, both of which are likely to be overtaken soon by China and its particularly control-heavy model of society.
For most of my life, America’s been a presence that shows the way for a free and democratic society. The respect for law, freedom of speech and press, and the willingness of the people to experiment, try, fail, get back up – all ways in which the country and its culture has attracted people the world over for centuries. Sure, there have been foibles and ongoing failures, but now, it appears a dark curtain is falling across the country, and hope that America leads the way disappears.
Russia talks up hegemony in a oligarchical state led by a virtual dictator; Europe bifurcates as the populist movements tear apart international cooperation; China of all countries – the most successful notionally communist country – is a major proponent of free trade; Australia meanders directionless as leaders abandon leading; what hope do we have of solving big international problems like climate change – barring the fact that China itself recognises the costs, and India too commits to skipping the carbon heavy phase of development. With mistrust of expertise in the west though, I fear we just end up mired in the muck.
Today marks as strongly as November 8th did the decline and fall of American exceptionalism; for all that Trump claims to lead America to new greatness, is there anyone outside America that takes this credibly? The life he’s promising is long gone, the world moving on. Whatever comes next does not resemble the 1950s, but that’s what Trump and his followers hope and dream for – an era of greatness for a slice of the population not adapting to the world’s changing tides.
May you live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.