After 19 months of Donald Trump being the president, it might seem folly to seek a single area in which he has done the most damage. But I’d like to suggest one, which seems to me at least the most comprehensive: he has undermined the rule of law, both nationally and internationally.
The damage he’s done nationally to legal norms is well recognized. He has personally violated the law, both constitutionally and statutorily, in conspiring with a foreign power to turn the 2016 elections in his favor; in obstructing justice by seeking to thwart the investigation of the matter, including the dismissal of the chief investigator; in profiting grossly from his office in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution; in attacking and discrediting the fundamental instruments of law and justice, the courts, Congress, and his own Justice Department; in systematically undermining laws he doesn’t like and bending others to his will against their express intent. He has acted, in short, despotically.
And yet, I’d suggest, it is in the world at large that he has done the greatest damage. He’s played the schoolyard bully around the globe, smashed or neutered long-established alliances, walked out on treaties, thrown the world economy into disarray, and threatened annihilation against those who defy his will. This has received far too little attention at home, and very little pushback. But the rest of the world has paid great attention, and the image of America as a nation gone rogue will have lasting consequences that will be hard to undo.
To understand this, we need to place America’s unique historical role in the world in context.
America was born in revolution; that is, in the violent usurpation of existing government and established law. No other nation in the world had been created in that way before. America thus faced a crisis of legitimacy from its inception, even as in the first decade of its independence it struggled to create a new form of government. It had no natural friends, and the power that had materially aided its quest for independence, France, would within two decades be at war with it. Its first president, in his farewell speech, warned it against “entangling alliances” with others, and, a quarter of a century later, it introduced in the Monroe Doctrine a “cordon sanitaire” designed to keep any and all foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere.
The tradition this initial defensiveness inaugurated came to be called isolationism, a term out of favor since World War II but clearly a part of Trump’s mindset. Other countries are all potential enemies, or in Trump’s preferred usage, “foes”; they seek advantage over us, and we should deal with them, when we must, one on one, since treaties and alliances where we are simply one among many are never in our interest.
At the same time, two other traditions matured around us, partly entwined with isolationism and partly distinct from it. One was imperialism. Our Founding Fathers, from the Northwest Ordinance on, saw the United States as a continental power whose destiny lay on both oceans that defined its eastern and western land mass. Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from the French; the advocates of Manifest Destiny drove Mexico from the Southwest and California. The Monroe Doctrine essentially declared the Americas ours. By the end of the nineteenth century, having forced ourselves on Japan militarily, colonized Hawaii, and conquered the Philippines, we were a Pacific power. By 1945, after two world wars, we were the world’s major power, and, in the ensuing decades, we inherited much of the British and French empires. With the collapse of our only apparent rival, the Soviet Union, in 1991, we were prepared to declare a unipolar world in which our political system, our economic order, and our national will would be law for all.
Such a denouement might seem the very reverse of isolationism; in fact, it was in many ways its logical extension and triumph. The best way to gain security from others is, after all, to achieve dominion over them.
But there was a third tradition in our politics, one we partly claimed and partly had thrust upon us. That was internationalism. We were not shy about declaring ourselves based on universal principles applicable to all, notably personal liberty and political equality. This doctrine took root, and in 1789 and 1848 Europe was convulsed by revolutions based roughly on its ideas. For shorthand, it came to be called “democracy.” It was belied, of course, by our continued practice of slavery, and when the Civil War came it was not Abraham Lincoln alone who asked whether we could endure half slave and half free. To an extent we hardly appreciate even today, the world watched our struggle, and when France presented us with the Statue of Liberty — perhaps the most magnanimous gift ever made by one nation to another — it was to say that the land of the free had, finally, freed itself.
As time has taught us, from the failure of Reconstruction to Charlottesville, neither is history simple nor are its bills easily paid. But ideals aren’t simply specious either. It was America that, in the wake of two world wars, sought to create the first international organizations dedicated to world peace and human rights, the League of Nations and the United Nations, and if both were flawed (and, in the case of the League, ultimately rejected by American opinion itself), these institutions made the point that humanity could only survive in the modern world by thinking and acting globally.
It is this foundational truth that Donald Trump has done his best to trash and betray. It was an ideal; today, it is a necessity. In our warming and crowded planet, we will face challenges in this century and beyond that will require cooperation and sacrifice that are still beyond our practical, and especially our political conception. By its size and power, but beyond that by the best of what it has represented for nearly two and a half centuries, America needs to engage these challenges creatively and responsibly with its fellow world citizens. That will mean, frankly, putting our own house in order. It will also mean attaining a sense of our common human obligation and a due respect and humility toward the natural world whose recent guests we are, and which alone sustains us.
I don’t know whether we are up to this, but it’s going to be our job.