The world is caught in a vise between two great transitions: one in the United States and the other one in China. This article comments on the first of these transitions. It will be followed by an article on the second, or Chinese, transition.
I write this note on the eve of an American presidential election that is billed as a turning point in the history of the superpower. Those who think so believe that the American colossus is entering a period of transition between a liberal-democratic republic and a more despotic imperial regime (for which we still don’t have a name). In this light, the presidency of Mr. Trump is considered a pivoting moment –the historical equivalent of Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.
We all know the story. Caesar broke precedent. He rose to power not as a conventional Roman dictator (the institution had term limits) but as a tyrant (a despot sine die) with the support of the populares (the anti-elite plebs). He was eventually assassinated by the Republic’s senators, who acted convinced that the only way to temper tyranny was tyrannicide. After considerable turmoil, the regime that eventually followed claimed to restore the old system but was in fact a new authoritarian one under the guise of the old institutions. Caesar Augustus presided like a semi-god over 40 years of a consolidated Pax Romana, before Rome entered a long period of fitful decline.
The analogy seems a bit far-fetched, and I will not insist on it except as a platform from which to pose a question: is the Trump presidency –whether lasting one term or more– an aberration or the harbinger of a new era? The US system has had a very bad few years during which many hallowed precedents have been broken. Polarization is rampant and it is stoked from the very center of power. Trust in the institutions is broken, the balance of power has become a deadlock, and politics has moved to the streets. Members of the American elite past and present are duly alarmed. Still others are comforted by the fact that regular elections offer the possibility to change course and appoint new leaders. Hence the hope deposited by many on a regular and tested politician in the old mold: Mr. Biden. The US can get rid of President Donald Trump — and may be about to do so, but what if it doesn’t? And even if it does, will it be enough to repair a broken system?
I am convinced that an answer will not be found in economic arguments, which is the field of first resort in many published discussions or in common discourse. If you look at the data and at the economic indicators of the last few American presidencies you will not be able to extrapolate from them the political or the cultural turmoil that afflict the society. Nor will you be able to infer the great shifts in the geopolitical balance of the world. The following charts, culled from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the US Department of Labor Statistics, and published by The New York Times, plot some basic indicators under subsequent presidencies.
As we can see in the graphics, the presidencies of one party or another do not count for much in mega trends. Events out of their control do. The two most salient ones are the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008-9, and the Covid-2 pandemic of 2019-20. The key is: vision and preparedness (or lack thereof) in the face of disruptive events.
Does this mean that policies don’t matter? Nothing could be farther from the truth. But the key variables, in my estimation, are cultural and political, against a background of underlying sociological trends.
Policies matter significantly in two ways. First, decisions made at the beginning of a crisis, and its subsequent management, matter a lot. Once again: much depends on vision and preparedness. This was the case, in the distant past, during the Great Depression, with FDR’s New Deal and the establishment of public works and a social security administration. In recent crises, during the Great Recession, president Obama’s rescue package of the industrial and financial sectors mattered. These measures are important but they represent short-term initiatives in emergency management. Second, policies do matter in the long run, as they shift the direction of the entire economy and either foster or hinder its sustainability, especially in four areas with global and geopolitical implications: energy, climate, incomes, and health.
In these two domains of policy –crisis management and long-term strategy– we can gauge the quality of leadership. It can be either opportunistic or statesmanlike. And in these two fields the Trump administration has shown a remarkable lack of competence. In short: Donald Trump acted like Donald Duck. He rode on the accomplishments of his predecessors while taking credit for them, as long the times continued to be good; and he failed to manage a crisis when it hit, showing an erratic and haphazard response, much of which made matters worse, while blaming scapegoats for the failures that predictably ensued.
Complacency, short-term vision, and quick fixes revealed a shocking lack of vision. These are features of American culture, but they were greatly exaggerated under Trump. As long as the living was easy, they allowed an indulgence in perverse passions typical of the man and his constituency, which translated in destructive initiatives with serious implications in a larger, longer lasting, geopolitical sense. By fostering social resentments, a backward look at a mythical past, and a hatred of the Other –be it internal minorities, immigrants, or foreign nations—these initiatives did lasting damage to previous accomplishments and weakened the global position of the superpower.
As the election approaches, the basic choice (what the French call l’enjeu, or what is at stake) is one between the tough and the worse: to try and get out of the rabbit hole, or to fall deeper into it. Meanwhile, thousands of sea miles away, in the Far East, another great power is rising fast, and it too is undergoing a “great transition”. Much in the world will depend on its direction and management. In partnership with America, it could steer the planet in a sustainable direction. In conflict with America, it could steer the planet straight towards the shoals. This will be the subject of a future note.
 See an unsung classic: Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness. American Culture at the Breaking Point, first published in 1969.
 For a preview, see Gideon Rachman, “China’s Covid triumphalism could be premature,” Financial Times, 26 October 2020.
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