Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 9 January 2024


Why I still believe in America 
The return of Donald Trump does not necessarily spell the end of American greatness 

 “I believe in America.” That phrase has rattled around my head, throughout the rise, fall and rise again of Donald Trump. Only belatedly did I recall that this comforting sentiment is the opening line of The Godfather. The words are uttered by Amerigo Bonasera: a man who has actually lost faith in America, and who is turning to a mafia don in search of vengeance. Trump is now telling American voters that “I am your retribution” — appealing to all those who have been “wronged and betrayed” by the system. One Must-Read This article was featured in the One Must-Read newsletter, where we recommend one remarkable story each weekday. Sign up for the newsletter here It is all very Don Corleone. And it is working. Trump is generally ahead of Joe Biden in the polls for the 2024 presidential election. He is the bookmakers’ favourite, not just for the Republican nomination, but for the presidency. 

 So how can I keep the faith in America, when the voters seem poised to elect a man who faces trial for trying to overturn the last presidential election? “Believing in America” can mean two distinct things. First, you can believe in what America stands for. Second, you can believe that America will come good in the end. The two ideas are related — but they are not the same. My belief that America is a force for good in the world has led me, over the years, into some bitter arguments — even in Britain, which counts itself as America’s closest ally. Whether it was the Vietnam war, Ronald Reagan’s arms build-up, the Iraq war or gun violence, America’s passionate critics have always had plenty to point to. My usual response is that, like every great power in history, America has done terrible things. But in the three great global confrontations of the last century — the first world war, the second world war and the cold war — the US was on the right side. In fact, America was the decisive factor in those conflicts, ensuring that the democratic world prevailed over autocracy or outright dictatorship. 

 That is why so much rides on my second form of belief in America — the belief that the US will come through in the end. For the past 80 years, America really has been the “leader of the free world” — both an example of democracy in action and as the protector of its fellow democracies, through a network of alliances with other free countries in Europe and Asia. If democracy begins to crumble in America, then liberal democracies all over the world will be in trouble. It is reassuring that the world’s richest and most powerful country is a fellow democracy. In a second Trump term that sense of reassurance might disappear. Many Trump supporters will respond that, if their man wins the election, his victory would be an example of democracy in action, not of a slide into autocracy. But a Trump election victory could not scrub the record clean. We know the character of the man. Trump is somebody who has already demonstrated that he has no respect for the most basic of democratic procedures — a free election. His promise of “retribution” also involves repeated threats to put his political enemies on trial, ranging from Biden himself to Mark Milley, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unlike the indictments against Trump, these would not be cases brought by independent prosecutors who have weighed the evidence. They would be political show-trials ordered by the country’s leader. That is the hallmark of an autocracy. 

 So how do I keep believing in America under those circumstances? First, and most obviously, nothing is foretold. There are still many months to go before the election in November. Second, America’s period of greatness and global leadership has always involved turmoil and melodrama, from John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to the “war on terror” under George W Bush. In the end, the country always righted itself and its underlying dynamism and constitutional system reasserted themselves. So it seems unlikely that this latest melodrama — “America season nine”, as some call it — will bring the series to a definitive and tragic conclusion. The melodrama that America churns up — even the Trump melodrama — can be a sign of vitality as much as sickness. The US is a country with a rebellious, anti-establishment streak that allows it to shake things up and constantly reinvent itself. Voting for Trump is a sign that people are demanding fundamental change. And even if Trump is not the right answer, his emergence is a sign of that restlessness and refusal to settle for the status quo. 

 Trump’s enduring popularity may even belatedly be prompting some necessary self-examination by the American elite. Biden’s effort to put equality back at the centre of US economic policy is one example of that correction. So is the beginning of a backlash against “woke” thinking. As one Biden aide put it to me, in a moment of introspection: “We’ve realised that a lot of people are frightened of the American left.” 

 Trump’s “retribution” against the left could take the US off in some new and frightening directions. But I believe in America enough to think that it would take more than one more term of Trump to destroy American democracy. The US is not Hungary. It is a big, complex country with many different sources of power and wealth. Trump and his acolytes could not bring them all to heel, in just four years. So you can still count me as somebody who “believes in America”. Me and Amerigo Bonasera.

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