By Peter Baofu, Ph.D.
The rise of Donald Trump's "populism" in America, in light of his recent victory in the 2016 presidential election, reveals a politically incorrect truth, which is painfully avoided in mainstream media, that is, the decline of the U.S. in our time. The "root cause" of Trump's populism (to "make America great again," as a way to reflect the wish of "the people") is neither a "white" backlash nor a "conservative" backlash as falsely blamed by his opponents in a deeply divided society, as these two backlashes are merely the "symptoms" (not the "root cause") of a rapidly changing world order in our time.
(1) THE PAIN OF AMERICAN DECLINE
America in 2016 is no longer America in 1945. For example, in 1945, the U.S. economy was not only the largest in the world but also had one-third of world GDP, when all other major powers suffered from massive destruction at the end of WWII. By 2014, however, China overtook the U.S. as the world's largest economy, as officially announced by the IMF and the World Bank (based on the more accurate "purchasing power parity" [PPP] estimate for the measurement of "production" and "consumption" -- which differs from the older "nominal" estimate based on daily fluctuating currency exchange rates for the measurement of "trade"), and by 2016, according to the IMF, the GDP (PPP) of China stands at 20.85 trillion dollars, whereas the GDP (PPP) of the U.S. is 18.56 trillion dollars. There are 3 reasons to keep in mind here.
Firstly, there is a good historical reason for economists (in the older days) to use the "nominal" (meaning "not real") estimate, as opposed to the new "real" PPP estimate, because in the early days of economics as an emerging discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no global database to measure the "real" prices of goods and services in different countries around the world, as the world at that time was not as well connected as ours is nowadays. The IMF and the World Bank did not exist then, so the data which are now available for the IMF and the World Bank to measure "real" prices of goods and services around the world did not exist two or three centuries ago.
Secondly, there is also a confusion by non-economists on the distinction between "production" (and "consumption" for that matter) and "trade." On the one hand, the "PPP" estimate is for the measurement of what a country actually produces (and consumes for that matter) each year, regardless of what the currency exchange rate on a given day or at a given minute of the day is. On the other hand, the "nominal" estimate is based on the currency exchange rate which is important for "trade" in the market (and may fluctuate daily or even at any given minute). For example, China (and other countries too) are known to have manipulated (or more precisely, "undervalued") their currency exchange rates in order to boost exports, so the use of the "nominal" estimate is a very misleading measurement of "production" (and "consumption" too, for that matter).
And thirdly, there is the politics of "envy," which psychologically tempts those in American mainstream media to ignore the "PPP" estimate, so as to perpetuate the popular (consoling) false belief that the U.S. is still number one in the world (by using the "nominal" estimate for a misleadingly higher figure).
In fact, the problem is far worse than that. The U.S. also lost the ranking as the world's largest trading power in 2013, when it was overtaken by China. In the last few years, China has also overtaken the U.S. as the most important bilateral trading partner in the world, with more than 130 countries having China as their largest trading partner, whereas less than 70 countries have the U.S. as their largest trading partner.
In much of the post-WWII period, the U.S. was regarded as the "best model for national development," even in Africa, where China was minimal (or negligible) in involvement at that time. But by 2014, China skyrocketed (from the bottom) in the ranking, according to a recent survey of 34 African countries by Afrobarometer, in which China (with 24%) and the U.S. (with 30%) were almost neck-and-neck, but the trend (or warning here) is for the Chinese model to grow considerably ahead in the next decade.
In the 1950s, the U.S. was the world's largest creditor, as its national debt was negligible at that time. In 2016, however, the U.S. becomes the world's largest debtor (with about 18 trillion dollars in total debt), whereas China (including Hong Kong and Macao, as part of China) and Japan are now not only the world's top two leading creditors but also the largest buyers of U.S. debts, as the U.S. is now dependent on Chinese (and Japanese) financing to keep its economy going. China, not the U.S., now also has the world's largest foreign currency reserves.
A major social malaise in relation to the total debt problem can be clearly seen in the financial crisis starting in 2008, which led to the collapse of the housing market, with millions of Americans losing their homes as they were unable to pay their mortgages, and the U.S. government had to inject hundreds of billion dollars to bailout the failing banks and business companies. Economists call this the "Great Recession," that is, the greatest economic crisis since the "Great Depression" in the Inter-War Period, and its negative effects on American society still linger on to this day, when the low unemployment figures released by the government are questioned by the critics, because many of those who could not find works in the last few years had given up and dropped out of the labor market, whereas others have opted to work "part-time" because they cannot find "full-time" jobs, while the "real" (again, not the misleading "nominal") wage rates in the U.S. "have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been adding or subtracting jobs," according to a report by the Pew Research Center. In fact, the "Occupy movement" in recent years is precisely to target the "multinational corporations" and the "global financial system" which, to the critics, have benefited primarily the business elites at the expense of the majority of the population, that is, the "ordinary" folks.
Another major reason for this increase of total debt has to do with the U.S. military expenditure which is by far not only the world's largest but also larger than the combined military expenditures of all other top major powers in the world. The very serious problem here is that, in economics, there is the well-known "gun vs. butter" tradeoff, which means that a country which spends much on "gun" will have less "butter" to consume. Does anyone still remember the collapse of the Soviet Union, which went "broke" in its arms race with the U.S.? Well, the U.S. nowadays is behaving like the Soviet Union, as its total debt has been growing exponentially over the past decades when its economy is in decline and losing its former glory, but its military continues to eat up a lot of its economic resources (especially in the historical context of the U.S. obsession with, or addiction to, military interventions all over the world year after year and decade after decade, spending trillions of dollars for endless wars over the years, like those in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, the Israeli-Arab hotspot, and so on, not yet to even mention the extremely expensive arms race with the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War -- whereas China wisely focuses instead on its economic development and has not involved in any foreign war for almost 40 years now. and its military expenditure, even when adjusted for the standard "military spending (as % of GDP)," is still much lower than those of the U.S., Russia, India, and others).
In the meantime, the public infrastructure in the U.S. is aging as it has been neglected for so long (as the focus has been to make the U.S. as the most powerful military in the world instead), so it should not be surprising for different states in the U.S. nowadays (with California and Nevada as two good examples) to ask China for help to build "high-speed" rails (as shown in the deal to build a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles with Las Vegas), and Trump has said time and again that the U.S. needs to focus more on its internal socioeconomic reconstruction to fix its aging infrastructure and other social ills (instead on spending trillions of dollars on foreign wars and interventions over the decades which have not brought sufficient benefits to the U.S. nowadays to make the money spent worthwhile -- not yet to even mention the sacrifices of all those GIs killed and wounded in action over the decades and the endless attacks by those anti-American militants who reciprocate the U.S. bombings abroad with a "vengeance," as the "September 11" terrorist attacks are the most memorable reminder).
In light of this decline, the only bright spot that the U.S. keeps repeating to everyone else in the world nowadays is that it has the most powerful military. But even here, the gap between the U.S. and China is rapidly closing. For example, in 1945, the U.S. had more submarines than anyone else, whereas China had none. By 2015, however, the U.S. had 75 submarines, whereas China already had 73, even though the quality of the former is still superior to that of the latter (with the exception of the newest Chinese submarines, which are difficult to detect, as they become very "quiet"), but the important point to remember here is that submarines used to be a weak spot in the Chinese navy, but even here they are rapidly closing the gap (and will be even more noticeably so in the next decade, when contrasted with the situation 30 years ago) -- as shown in the "nuclear triad" (i.e., land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) that China now has, for the first time in its entire history, which can strike the continental United States with nuclear warheads on three different fronts simultaneously.
On top of that, China also succeeds in developing hypersonic cruise missiles, aircraft-carriers (with 2 in the making), satellite killers, cyber weapons, stealth fighters, strategic bombers, BeiDou navigation satellite system, supersonic gliding space weapons, space station, heavyweight airlifters, and the like. In 2016, as another indicator of the closing of the technological gap (with both military and civilian implications), according to the latest release of the TOP500 report, the top 2 fastest and most powerful supercomputers in the world are no longer American, but Chinese, namely, "Sunway TaihuLight, at 93 petaflops, and Tianhe-2, at 34 petaflops." What is game-changing here about Sunway TaihuLight is that, for the first time, the entire supercomputer, including its micro chips, was made in China, without any import of its components from the United States. Furthermore, China is developing even more powerful supercomputers to widen its lead.
In 2014, according to the BCG Global Wealth Market-Sizing Database (2015), the North American region (like the U.S., Canada, and Mexico) held 31% of global wealth, whereas the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan) held 38%. But by 2019 (about 3 years from now), the North American region will hold only 28%, whereas the Asia-Pacific region will hold 41%, and the gap will continue to widen in the next decade.
In much of the post-WWII era, the U.S. was the world's largest manufacturing center. By 2010, China overtook the U.S. as the world's largest manufacturing center (or the "world's factory") and has widened its lead since then. In many countries around the world nowadays, one can easily find "Made in China" products in stores everywhere, but one does not see too many "Made in the U.S.A" products anymore, when contrasted with the Chinese heavyweight.
It is thus no wonder that Trump repeats time and again that he wants to bring manufacturing jobs (for instance, in agriculture and auto manufacturing) back to the U.S. (from overseas) by re-negotiating new trade pacts with countries in NAFTA and the "potential-disaster" Trans-Pacific Partnership (in his own words), because he is quite aware that America is in decline and no longer "great"; for this reason, his campaign rhetoric is blunt enough, "I want to make America great again." The key word "again" is important here, as it reveals his acknowledgement that America has lost its "greatness" (like what it enjoyed in 1945, for example).
Surely, all these examples as cited above are merely illustrative (not exhaustive), but they suffice to show the relative decline of America in our time (as I already went to great lengths to explain in my 2007 book titled "Beyond the World of Titans, and the Remaking of World Order"). So now the next question is: What is Trump's populism"?
(2) THE SOLACE OF TRUMP'S POPULISM
Trump's populism is based on the main idea that America's fall from "greatness" can be blamed on some fundamental policies (in regard to trade, immigration, affirmative action, the free-riding of U.S. allies, multilateralism, climate change, health care, etc.) by his predecessors over the last few decades, so this leads him to believe that to restore American "greatness" requires a reversal of these policies in a way which truly benefits America. Whether Trump is right or wrong here will be a contentious point for future U.S. historians to judge; but for now, what can be said about the features of his populism in more detail? Consider, for illustration, three main ones below.
(a) The 1st Feature of Trump's Populism - The Rhetorician
The first feature of Trump's populism has to do with what I call "Trump the Rhetorician," in regard to his "rhetorical" skill, mainly because of his years of being a TV show entertainer (as he made "cameo appearances" in films and television series and hosted "The Apprentice," a reality TV series on NBC). Trump is a master of using rhetoric to entertain his audience in a way to promote his own rating (or interest). When transferred to the realm of politics, Trump in his presidential campaign made rhetorical comments to appeal to his hard-core conservative support base, like the inflammatory remarks on Muslims (as "terrorists"), Mexican immigrants (as "rapists"), and the like.
But in a later presidential debate, he showed his rhetorical "regret" to have made these remarks, because he wanted to appeal, this time differently, to these minority groups for support as a way to steal votes from the Clinton camp. With the same rhetorical skill to twist words to his advantage, Trump promised to pursue Clinton email probe in regard to her violation of the law governing the use of classified info during a presidential debate, so as to attract the votes of her critics -- but now (after the victory) he says no to that (the pursuit of Clinton email probe) with a different excuse that she "had suffered enough." Thus, Trump uses certain words (or remarks) to attract certain groups he appeals to on one occasion but uses different words (or remarks) for different groups on a different occasion, and these comments are often inconsistent, not because he is a professional politician (not yet, for the time being) but because he is professional public entertainer. "Words" are treated like "candies" to target different groups with different purposes on different occasions.
The first lesson to learn here is: If you are easily carried away by Trump's rhetorical remarks, you will likely allow him to manipulate you successfully.
(b) The 2nd Feature of Trump's Populism - The Transactionist
The second feature of Trump's populism has to do with what I call "Trump the Transactionist," in regard to his "business pragmatism," mainly because of his years of being a successful businessman. Trump is a master of doing business to make money and therefore treats interactions with others in the business world as a form of "transaction." If you can do the job, "you are hired"; but, if you cannot, "you are fired." There is no sentimental nor ideological attachment here. For instance, when Rep. Paul Ryan, the influential Republican and also the House Speaker, openly criticized him time and again during the presidential campaign, Trump did not take it personally but is now willing to work with Rep. Ryan in order to move his Republican initiatives forward (that he plans for his first 100 days in office), and he knows that Rep. Ryan can help him on that.
And the same can be said about his rejection of any "climate change" accord during the presidential campaign, as he even suggested that the idea of "climate change" was a "hoax" intentionally created by China to harm "American business" -- but now, after listening to some criticisms, Trump suggests instead that he is more "open minded" about a "climate change" accord, depending on "how much it will cost our companies," as he recently told the Times reporter Mike Grynbaum.
The second lesson to learn here is: If you can show Trump a deal which can benefit him (or in the present context, his coming presidency) in practice (not in theory and certainly not in principle), he will likely do business with you, regardless of whether he likes you personally or not.
(c) The 3rd Feature of Trump's Populism - The Conservative
The third feature of Trump's populism has to do with I call "Trump the Conservative," in regard to his "current" version of "conservatism," because he had changed his political affiliation several times over the last decades (with the Democratic Party, the Reform Party, and the Republican Party), but what is distinctive about his current political stand concerns "alt-conservatism" (or "alternative conservatism"), since almost all "far right" groups (including the one led by the white nationalist David Duke) support his candidacy, though Trump is wise enough to distance himself from them. Perhaps a more correct way to describe his current conservatism is what he told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in his trip to Mexico during the presidential campaign about his old-fashioned patriotism, "I love my country very much," in his defense of "building the wall" along the American-Mexican border to stop illegal immigration. Of course, there are different patriots in the world, as they can be "conservative," "liberal," "moderate," "radical," and so on, but Trump's patriotism is the old-fashioned dream to make America "great again," that is, the "good old America" that he knew when growing up in the post-WWII era.
This was the version of America in the "good old days" which knew no equal, especially in the few decades after WWII, when the country enjoyed "trade surplus," no major "immigration overflow," no drastic "affirmative action" program (to give controversial "preferential treatment" to minorities like "blacks," "Latinos," and "women"), no "multilateralism" (as the U.S. was then the dominant superpower, even when increasingly challenged by the Soviet Union later on), no "climate change" accord (to "harm" American business), no resentment towards the security "free-riding" of U.S. allies (because the U.S. security umbrella with its poor allies at that time greatly benefited the U.S. hegemony in the world), and so on. Unfortunately, all these "good old days" have gone since then, and America in 2016 is no longer what it once was shortly after WWII. This is the "old" America which Trump misses so much in the "new" America of our time.
The third lesson to learn here is: If you can convince Trump about a policy which will make America "great again" in line with his conservative dream, he will likely listen to you and accept it.
So far, what has been said about Trump's populism in this article makes no judgment of whether he is right or wrong about his version of "populism" to make America "great again." This would be a political judgment, which depends on one's cherished ideology. So, if you are an "alt-conservative," you will likely support him. But if you a "far-leftist," you will likely oppose him.
Instead, the point to remember here is that the "root cause" of the rise of Trump's populism in America, in light of his victory in the 2016 presidential election, is the decline of America in our time, and this is something that many Americans find it "painful" to accept. So the message of Trump to make America "great again" is a timely "solace" to many of them. But there are 2 potential problems in this "solace" of Trump's populism.
The first problem is that the 3 features of Trump's populism are not necessarily consistent with each other, as they may conflict with each other. For instance, what Trump the "rhetorician" wants (for example, about the pursuit of Clinton email probe) is not necessarily what Trump the "transactionist" actually prefers to do (as he now says no to that). And what Trump the "transactionist" now wants to do (in regard to a more practical look at a climate change accord) is not necessarily what Trump the "conservative" considers as "great" enough for America (as he had passionately condemned any such accord as detrimental to "American business").
And the second problem is that there is an inherent danger to be a "populist," as so often seen in the history of Latin America (and elsewhere in the world), since this kind of leadership often ends up being more "destructive" than "constructive" in rebuilding a society and restoring its "greatness." After all, to restore the "greatness" of a single individual is already easier said than done, but to restore the "greatness" of a big country (like the U.S.) is certainly million times more difficult, to say the very least.
But in the end, this is exactly what the word 'solace" is supposed to mean, as Trump's populism timely "soothes" the "pain" of those Americans who find America's fall from "greatness" hard to accept, so they yearn for a leader to "promise" them that a new America could be great "again."
Dr. Peter Baofu is the author of 104 books and 93 new theories (as well as numerous articles), all of which provide a visionary challenge to all conventional wisdom in the social sciences, the formal sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities, with the aim for a "unified theory of everything" -- together with numerous visions of the mind, nature, society, and culture in future history. He was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and had taught as a Professor at different universities in America, Western Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia (besides having visited / lived in 73 countries around the world). He was educated in the states, with 5 academic degrees (including a Ph.D. from M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts), was a summa cum laude graduate, and was awarded the Delta Sigma Pi Scholarship Key for being at the top of the class in the College of Business Administration, with another student. He can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org