The Pax Americana was a sort of empire; certainly America was for a long time very much first among equals. But it was by historical standards a remarkably benign empire, held together by soft power and respect rather than force. (There are actually some parallels with the ancient Pax Romana, but that’s another story.)
And while you might be tempted to view international trade deals, which Trump says have turned us into a “piggy bank that everyone else is robbing,” as a completely separate story, they are anything but. Trade agreements were meant to (and did) make America richer, but they were also, from the beginning, about more than dollars and cents.
In fact, the modern world trading system was largely the brainchild not of economists or business interests, but of Cordell Hull, F.D.R.’s long-serving secretary of state, who believed that “prosperous trade among nations” was an essential element in building an “enduring peace.” So you want to think of the postwar creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as part of the same strategy that more or less simultaneously gave rise to the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO.
So all the things happening now are of a piece. Committing atrocities at the border, attacking the domestic rule of law, insulting democratic leaders while praising thugs, and breaking up trade agreements are all about ending American exceptionalism, turning our back on the ideals that made us different from other powerful nations.
And rejecting our ideals won’t make us stronger; it will make us weaker. We were the leader of the free world, a moral as well as financial and military force. But we’re throwing all that away.
What’s more, it won’t even serve our self-interest. America isn’t nearly as dominant a power as it was 70 years ago; Trump is delusional if he thinks that other countries will back down in the face of his threats. And if we are heading for a full-blown trade war, which seems increasingly likely, both he and those who voted for him will be shocked at how it goes: Some industries will gain, but millions of workers will be displaced.
So Trump isn’t making America great again; he’s trashing the things that made us great, turning us into just another bully — one whose bullying will be far less effective than he imagines.