Back to the Future: Donald Trump and the Debate Over American Decline

The 45th US President is caught in a constant rerun of the debates of the 1980s, argues Charlie Laderman.

Charlie Laderman | Published in 16 Feb 2017

By White House photographer. - Ronald Reagan Presidential Library., Public Domain,

Nobody embodied the culture of 1980s' American materialism and Wall Street capitalism like Donald Trump. As the British journalist Polly Toynbee put it after interviewing him in 1988: ‘Donald Trump is New York. Glitz, greed, glamour and an ambition so colossal that it will probably not rest until he rules the world – which one day he just might.’ Just the year before, having cemented his status as New York’s showiest real estate developer and the personification of the nation’s get-rich-quick ethos, Trump had bullishly inserted himself into national politics for the first time. In doing so, he had offered an insight into the scope of his political ambitions and outlined a foreign policy philosophy that he would continue to push for the next three decades.

In September 1987, Trump paid almost $95,000 to take out a full-page newspaper advertisement that ran in the New York Times and several other outlets to air his grievances with America’s leaders and its allies. The advert was an open-page letter to the American people that criticized successive US governments for ‘paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves’. This letter was the opening gambit in Trump's first flirtation with running for high office.

Coming at a time of widespread concern about huge rises in the US federal budget deficit and before Americans realized that their principal geopolitical competitor, the Soviet Union, was on the verge of collapse, Trump's letter reflected a widespread anxiety in US society. Many Americans feared that their country was in terminal decline and about to be overtaken by a rival. Japan, whose economy was surging at this time. Japan was the nation that many pundits predicted would take the place of the US as the number one power in world affairs. The book that captured the spirit of the moment was the British historian Paul Kennedy's landmark study, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). Drawing on 500 years of international history, Kennedy's book expertly explored the relationship between economic power and military might. It concluded with a warning that the US was at risk of ‘imperial overstretch’ because the ‘sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously’. Kennedy's scholarly study offered an historically informed insight into the American predicament and proved to be a publishing sensation. It soared as high as second place on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. The book at number one? Donald Trump’s memoir, Trump: The Art of the Deal.

Kennedy’s book was also a bestseller in Japan, where it was seen as predicting Japan’s imminent ascendancy to number one status. Japan’s economic transformation since its crushing defeat in the Second World War and occupation by the US had been stark. Japan’s economy had grown an average of 10.5 per cent a year between 1950 and 1973, aided in no small part by the fact that it spent relatively little on its defence; the legal basis for this was its US-drafted, postwar constitution that determined that it would be a ‘demilitarised’ country and the 1951 US-Japan security treaty, which sanctioned America’s military presence on its territory. Benefitting from America’s strategic protection, the US Navy’s commitment to keeping open its sea lanes and an international trading order which depended on US leadership, Japan could concentrate on building an economy that grew at a startling rate and was the envy of the rest of the world. There were, of course, many other reasons beside the fact that Japan sheltered under the American strategic umbrella to explain its economic success and experts have emphasised various cultural, sociological, technical, political, educational and fiscal reasons. Nevertheless, there was a widespread American perception, which Trump expressed particularly vociferously, that the US, despite its own economic travails, was defending a wealthy competitor and being taken advantage of by its ‘so-called ally’.

Boosted by its determination to keep its currency at an artificially low level, Japan’s exports flooded into markets across the world as it became the dominant producer in a bewildering array of industries, particularly new high technology products. Its automobile industry was responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s global production by the mid 1980s. On the other hand, many foreign manufacturers were prevented by various formal and informal constraints from gaining access to Japanese markets. The glaring exception were the raw materials on which Japan depended, notably its reliance on foreign sources for 99 per cent of its oil. In a remarkably short period, Japan also emerged as the world’s leading creditor nation, as its banks expanded their influence across the world. At the same time, the US States had been just as rapidly transformed from the largest lender nation to the biggest borrower.

With Japan’s booming wealth came calls for restrictions on the flow of their goods into US markets and Trump was vocal in that campaign. He also railed against the low amounts that Japan spent on defence and castigated American leaders for allowing them to ‘free ride’ and rely on US protection. In fact, Japan had been making payments since 1978 to defray the cost of maintaining US bases on their territory, ultimately amounting to around a third of the expense for supporting the almost 50,000 troops stationed there. At the same time, the US government was pressuring Japan to help share the burden of defending East Asia and raise its defence spending to around 3-4 per cent of GDP – the same amount that it was then endeavouring to get its European NATO allies to spend. However, any attempt to get the Japanese to spend more on defence came up against the constitutional constraints that precluded sending troops abroad and the nation’s entrenched anti-militarism since the Second World War. Memories of the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s ensured that there was little appetite amongst Japan’s neighbours for expanding its military presence in the region. There was also opposition from Japanese elites to raising the deficit or increasing taxes to pay for defence spending. In any case, these Japanese objections were received with disdain by many disgruntled Americans, who disliked the fact that the burden for defending the region and protecting the Pacific sea lanes fell overwhelmingly on the United States. It was this context that provided the backdrop to Trump’s first major policy intercession and it was a theme that would continue to animate his rhetoric over the coming years, even as he shifted his focus from Japan to other nations, China in particular.

Trump’s 1987 open-letter rehearsed many of the themes which would dominate Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the next 30 years. It draws a direct link between foreign policy failure and US economic weakness and warns that if the United States was a corporation it would be bankrupt. Trump maintains that the US receives a bad deal from its allies, singling out Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In particular, Trump asserts that America’s allies, particularly Japan, are taking advantage of the United States over trade and pocketing their military protection without contributing anything meaningful in return.  Above all, it reflects Trump’s belief that for the US to become a ‘winner’ again and reassert its greatness, all that is required is effective leadership. As the headline accompanying the letter proclaimed: ‘There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.’

The same day that letter appeared, in a CNN interview with Larry King, Trump widened his critique of America’s allies to include the NATO nations. He told King that other countries ‘laugh at us behind our backs, they laugh at us because of our stupidity and [that of our] leaders’ and declared that the US should not be the ‘World’s keeper’. Trump was adamant that not only were America’s allies not pulling their weight, in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but these ‘friends’ were taking unfair advantage of the United States with respect to trade. Ultimately, Trump tells King, the United States may be ‘a great country … but it’s not going to continue being great for long’ if it continues to defend countries that are ‘money machines’, who would be ‘wiped off the face of the Earth if it weren’t for America’, without receiving sufficient tribute. It is evident that similar remarks made in the 2016 election campaign were neither opportunistic nor did they come from nowhere.

One of the great surprises about Trump’s foreign policy interventions in the 1980s is the relative lack of interest in the Cold War, even though anxieties about the waning of US power in the face of Moscow’s global activism were very much part of the context in which Trump’s pronouncements were received. Trump himself made only glancing reference to Russia and, while no apologist for communism, rated other threats to the United States more highly. He seems, in fact, to have seen himself as a peacemaker on the subject of nuclear weapons at least, perhaps a portent of his current hope to bring Washington and Moscow together.

Within a few years of Trump’s 1987 letter, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War was over, ushering in a period of US hegemony that the commentator Charles Krauthammer would christen the ‘Unipolar Moment’. Furthermore, during the 1990s, the prediction of Japan’s imminent ascent to number one status proved illusory as Tokyo experienced a ‘lost decade’ of stagnant economic growth. Yet Trump does not seem to have joined in the triumphalism of the era. This may be partly explained in the early years of the decade by his focus on addressing his financial difficulties and dealing with the fallout from his high-profile divorce. Indeed, in this period it was Trump, rather than the US, that experienced the consequences of ‘imperial overstretch’. After after his high profile ‘comeback’, Trump seemed less willing to intervene in foreign policy discussions than previously. Yet when he did return to the national political scene in the lead up to the 2000 election, when he entertained the idea of running for president on the Reform party ticket, we see the same sense of decline and lost respect in his rhetoric. This despite the fact that many would regard the year 2000 as the apotheosis of US global power. Despite the much-changed international landscape, Trump remained fixated on the concerns that he outlined in that 1987 letter.

By the end of George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, the United States was engaged in a ‘War on Terror’ and engulfed in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US economy was in the throes of the ‘Great Recession’ and China had now emerged as America’s principal global competitor. Consequently, the position of the US as the pre-eminent global power was once again being questioned. The political commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote of a ‘Post-American world’ and foresaw the ‘end of Pax Americana’. To illustrate his argument, Zakaria recalled that, during the 1980s, when he would visit India, where he grew up, people were fascinated by the United States. The figure that particularly intrigued them was Donald Trump. As Zakaria noted, Trump was ‘the very symbol of the United States – brassy, rich, and modern’. He ‘symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America’. Yet Zakaria also observed that India now had dozens of its own businessmen who were ‘wealthier than the Donald’. For Zakaria, this epitomised a wider global trend that he referred to as the ‘rise of the rest’, which signalled an end to America’s unipolar moment and a global power shift towards countries of the non-Western world.

Zakaria was adamant that this transformation in the balance of power should not unsettle Americans. He urged them to recognise that the post-American world was actually a product of ‘American ideas and actions’, a result of ‘trends that have created an international climate of unprecedented peace and prosperity’.Yet, as Zakaria recognised, many Americans did not see things like he did. They had become suspicious of free trade, economic openness and immigration. What was not yet clear was that it was Trump who would emerge as their champion.

When Trump returned to the national political scene in the lead up to the 2012 election, his trade and security concerns began to fuse in his increasing preoccupation with immigration, which enabled him to target both radical Islamist terrorism and the economic threat that he perceived from Mexico. It was during this period that Trump adopted a far more nativist posture than was evident in his previous political interventions. In general, though, there was a remarkable consistency to Trump’s worldview, from the 1980’s through to his 2016 presidential campaignt. Unlike free-traders and globalisers, who see all boats rising on the tide of a growing world economy, Trump has long taken a much darker and mercantilist view of a zero-sum game. Economically, it is now China and Mexico, more so than Japan, who are accused of stealing US manufacturing jobs after the reduction of tariff barriers. But, just as he did in 1987, Trump continues to blame America’s principal European and Asian allies, particularly Japan and Germany, for free riding under the US defence umbrella and taking unfair advantage on trade.

For more than 30 years, Trump has lampooned America’s leaders as ‘foolish’ and ‘stupid’ for allowing the country to be exploited by wily foreigners and charged them with presiding over a ‘crippled America’. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump claimed that only he could arrest what he views as America’s long decline and ‘make America great again’. In response, many commentators have derided Trump’s assessment of America’s global position, accusing him of gross misrepresentation, mythmaking and outright lies. Others have pointed to Trump’s own rise as an indication that the US is now in decline, both in relation to the health of its republican institutions and its continued leadership of the international order, and conclude that the ‘American Century’ may now be over. What is clear is that, having vigorously pushed a narrative of American decline for over 30 years, Trump is now in a position to help determine America’s destiny and shape its place in the world.

Charlie Laderman is a lecturer at King’s College London. He is the co-author, with Brendan Simms, of Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview (Endeavour, 2017).