I have been thinking lately on the nature of soft power— American hard power has seen its limits since 9/11, as we have not been able to forcibly shape the world according to our whims and desires. Soft power, however, cannot be measured objectively through the number of warships or central bank loans, but the inexorable push of American ideals across the globe. And when I speak of American ideals, when I speak of patriotism (since I consider myself a patriot), I do not mean the fallacies and follies of blundering foreign policy, but that idea of the “city on the hill,” towards which we should always strive. Lincoln’s better angels of our nature. And surely, I do not share the exact ideals of America as any other person—the creep of capitalism is definitely American soft power, but I would hesitate to view capitalism as our beacon—but the very fact that we can and do have this conversation about what it means to be American, what America truly stands for, that very idea is at the core of our soft power. Civilian control of the military. Government accountability. Peaceful transfers of power. The right and responsibility to protest. The fundamental and integral ability to break from our past, acknowledge our wrongs, and foster change. This is the soft power I’m proud of, this is our export to the world.
And we squander it. This bank of civics and exemplar that we have built up since at least the modern era, but I would argue since 1776, does not have unlimited coin. When America’s leader spouts nationalism, the world takes notice. Those who voices condone hate and foster cruelty are empowered. Those who fight for democratic rights, the rights of a responsible citizen, shudder in fear—if the United States won’t stand up for human rights, who will? When we are seen to embrace the faux-democracy and repression of Russia, what message are we sending? When we align with the violence of Duterte, who else do we embolden? Which tinpot dictators see America’s shirking of the liberal world order as a free pass? Which generals and colonels are currently contemplating a permanent change in leadership?
Trump is profligate with this most effective form of international currency. He signals a continued divisiveness—he is still fighting against perceived enemies on Twitter. That I even had to write that sentence hurts my heart. He brags about long standing ovations as if he were running in some high-school popularity contest. His inauguration speech was the detritus of his “us vs. them” campaign. He trades in alternative facts and speaks about total allegiance. These are the initial quiet footsteps towards an America I cannot recognize.
And what does this mean for the citizenry of the world? Not the bankers and authoritarians empowered by a shirking America, but those who looked towards the United States as proof that someday, somewhere, something could change. I don’t mean to ignore or slight the failures of foreign policy we must own, or to imply that all people must view America as a shining light, but that America and her institutions can supply hope. Universally (though an admittedly selection-biased group), every non-American I have met since November has asked me to interpret what happened. They cannot understand how the United States went so far off the rails. Their narrative does not include this harsh version of America—those suffering under authoritarians wonder whether they have seen a door slam shut; others simply cannot comprehend an America so inward-looking, so ready to reject the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.
Trump’s America First is a dangerous path. It is degrading to both the rest of the world and ourselves. It is the upset child taking his toys and going home. It is the willful blindness of those who choose not to look, not to reach out. It belongs in the ash heap of history.
I believe wholeheartedly in America. I believe that it is bigger than that which can fit in the small hands of Donald Trump. I believe that our institutions, our ideas, our 240 year experiment with democracy will outlast this tide of misplaced nostalgia and cowardice. Trump and his ilk can rage and moan, but ‘alternative facts’ will never replace truth, justice, and the American way.