2. The harm to U.S. world leadership is grave and irreparable.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis liked to say that the U.S. wielded two great powers: the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation.
Under Trump, the power of inspiration has dimmed. Trump’s contempt for liberal democracy—his crookedness, bullying, and bigotry—has alienated allies and emboldened adversaries. Trump used American power not to protect allies and partners, but to extort weaker countries to fabricate disinformation for his reelection campaign.
Read: The president confirms the world’s worst fears
Until yesterday, those who looked to the U.S. for leadership could dismiss Trump as an aberration. But even if he loses, he cannot now be dismissed, or excused, as such. Trump received at least 3 million more votes amid the self-inflicted disasters of 2020 than he got in 2016. Every responsible world leader now has to take Trumpism into account when planning. Trump is not the whole of America. But he is part of America. The disease of Trumpism is on the loose. It has been contained, but not cured, and therefore it may recur at any time.
How does the U.S. look from the vantage point of Berlin or Seoul or Mexico City? How does it preach anti-corruption after four years of Trump apparently collecting payments from corporations and foreign governments, after four years of Trump seeming to divert taxpayer dollars to his hotels and resorts? How does it preach respect for human rights or the free press? Or religious liberty, after Trump sought to ban an entire category of religious believers from setting foot on U.S. soil? Trump insisted again and again in interviews that the U.S. was no different from, no better than, dictatorships such as Putin’s Russia. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump bequeaths that taunt as his enduring legacy to adversaries of the United States and enemies of liberal democracy. The idea that America should and did stand for something more than wealth and military power has been soiled by the Trump presidency—and whatever happens to Trump, those who assisted him in the soiling are not going away.
Meanwhile, the power of U.S. intimidation has also faded under Trump. On the eve of 9/11, the U.S. economy was eight times the size of China’s. Today the two countries are near peers. In terms of purchasing-power parity, the Chinese economy is now actually larger than that of the U.S.
The U.S. is no longer effortlessly the world’s strongest country. It cannot structure the world by itself, to suit itself. Trump tried, and Trump fell short. His trade war ended in failure that would very likely have pushed the U.S. into recession in 2020 even without the pandemic, according to the consensus view of the nation’s business economists.
The U.S. will emerge from the Trump presidency crushed by debt, under a gridlocked government unable to act against the debt. If the Republican Senate blocks the necessary fiscal stimulus, as seems likely, the job of restoring economic health will be left to the currency creators at the Federal Reserve, stoking inflation risk. The dollar will look a lot less almighty in the 2020s and the ’30s than in the recent past. And just as America’s friends will admire the country less because of Trump, its adversaries will respect and fear America less because of Trump.