For many Americans, blowing up the global status quo is seen as a necessary precondition for the revival of American greatness. The sense of American victimhood that lies behind this kind of thinking has triggered nothing less than a deep-seated Gulliver complex at work on a world stage.
There’s a near continuous barrage of negativity coming out of the United States these days. Most recently, President Donald Trump launched a concerted attack on the American-devised World Trade Organization. “I don’t know why we’re in it,” he said. “The WTO is designed by the rest of the world to screw the United States.”
The latest news out of Washington is a leaked draft of Trump’s proposed United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act, which would give the president unprecedented powers to unilaterally withdraw from WTO so he can pursue his goal of one-on-one trade deals.
But, of course, WTO is not the only trading institution to feel the wrath of Trump. He’s openly intimidating Canada and Mexico, long-standing trading partners of the United States, and has made significant threats towards the European Union, which he recently described as “worse than China.”
Amazingly, the domestic response to Trump’s actions has been all too subdued. Consider the following from movie director David Lynch: “Donald Trump could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.”
For many Americans, Trump’s attacks are liberating. The irony in this position is overwhelming, for the post-war status quo has the stamps of American idealism and system design all over it.
Dean Acheson (1893-1971), a U.S. secretary of state in the administration of Harry S. Truman, in his book Present at the Creation analyzes the role of the United States in fashioning the post-war world. Acheson was not only present at the creation, he was one of the principal architects of international institutions that generated one of the longest periods of broad-spectrum prosperity in history.
Given these contradictory impulses, what explains the stubborn popularity of the most polarizing president in the history of the United States?
Certain Americans have developed a sense that ‘little people’ are encumbering their greatness. The perceived grievance seems to involve a global conspiracy that has bound the United States in institutions, agreements and one-sided trade deals that have hobbled this once noble and exceptional nation, leaving it reduced and humiliated.
Regrettably, many Americans view the world through a Disney-like lens. In this worldview, there’s one real country surrounded by a host of fairyland nations that are childlike clichés rather than serious peoples.
Americans affected by this complex seem suddenly to have awoken to a Gulliver’s Travels moment. In Jonathan Swift’s famous novel, Gulliver, having been shipwrecked on a faraway island, wakes with a shock: “I felt something alive moving on my left leg … when bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high.”
Alas, these Lilliputians had bound our giant Gulliver to the ground, leaving him helpless and humiliated. In Swift’s savage satire, the Lilliputians are both physically and morally inferior to Gulliver. They are arrogant, selfish, deceitful and yet surprisingly dangerous despite their diminished stature.
A growing proportion of Americans see themselves trapped in similar fashion. This Gulliver complex and the corresponding sense of victimhood are rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism.
Americans have believed themselves special from the moment of the nation’s birth. As the original Puritans disembarked upon arrival in the New World, they promised to “be as a city upon a hill.”
Thomas Paine described America as a “beacon of liberty for the world.” Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the United States to be “The last best hope for mankind.” More recently, John F. Kennedy declared “More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and duration, not for ourselves alone, but for all who wish to be free.”
Obviously, if jobs are in short supply for this exceptional nation, it must be somebody else’s fault. Regrettably, there may be just enough Americans who suffer from this complex to swing the approaching mid-term elections.
If so, this deeply-conflicted titan will continue to destroy its own creation until its bubble has burst. Unfortunately, the rest of us are being dragged along for the ride.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.