Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Around the world, democracy is under assault. Authoritarian governments are gaining power, and right-wing demagogues are gaining strength. Movements toward openness and pluralism have stalled. Inequality is growing, transforming rule by the people into rule by wealthy elites. And here in the United States, many Americans seem to accept—even embrace—the politics of division and resentment.
How did we get here? There’s a story Americans like to tell ourselves about how we built a liberal international order—one based on democratic principles, committed to civil and human rights, accountable to citizens, bound by the rule of law, and focused on economic prosperity for all. It’s a good story, with deep roots. But in recent decades, Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers started to believe that because democracy had outlasted communism, it would be simple to build democracy anywhere and everywhere. They began to export a particular brand of capitalism, one that involved weak regulations, low taxes on the wealthy, and policies favoring multinational corporations. And the United States took on a series of seemingly endless wars, engaging in conflicts with mistaken or uncertain objectives and no obvious path to completion.
The impact of these policy changes has been devastating. While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected. Efforts to promote the United States’ own security have soaked up huge resources and destabilized entire regions, and meanwhile, U.S. technological dominance has quietly eroded. Inequality has grown worldwide, contributing to an unfolding nationalist backlash that seeks to upend democracy itself. It is little wonder that the American people have less faith in their government today than at any other time in modern U.S. history. The country is in a moment of crisis decades in the making.
To fight back, we need to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few. We need strong yet pragmatic security policies, amplified by diplomacy. And the United States can no longer maintain the comfortable assumption that its domestic and foreign policies are separate. Every decision the government makes should be grounded in the recognition that actions that undermine working families in this country ultimately erode American strength in the world. In other words, we need a foreign policy that works for all Americans.
The urgency of the moment cannot be overstated. At home and abroad, democracy is on the defense. The details of the problem vary from place to place, but one cause stands out everywhere: the systematic failure to understand and invest in the social, political, and economic foundations on which democracies rest. If we do not stand up to those who seek to undermine our democracy and our economy, we will end up as bystanders to the destruction of both.
The globalization of trade has been tremendously profitable for the largest American corporations. It has opened up opportunity and lifted billions out of poverty around the world.
But U.S. trade and economic policies have not delivered for the middle class. For decades, both Democratic and Republican leaders asserted that free trade was a rising tide that would lift all boats. Great rhetoric, except that the trade deals they negotiated mainly lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown. Policymakers were willing to sacrifice American jobs in hopes of lowering prices for consumer goods at home and spreading open markets abroad. They pushed former Soviet states to privatize as quickly as possible despite the risk of corruption, and they advocated China’s accession to the World Trade Organization despite its unfair trading practices. They backed international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, even as those organizations pushed austerity, deregulation, and privatization—policies that reduced public faith in both capitalism and democracy and left governments with fewer fiscal levers when economic crises hit.
U.S. foreign policy should not prioritize corporate profits over American families.
And what has this brought us? Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies. Instead, efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out. Russia became belligerent and resurgent. China weaponized its economy without ever loosening its domestic political constraints. Other countries’ faith in both capitalism and democracy eroded. A program once aimed at promoting the forces of freedom ended up empowering the opposite.
Meanwhile, multinational corporations exploited their enormous influence on both sides of the negotiating table to ensure that the terms of trade between nations always favored their own bottom lines. Time after time, American workers got the short end of the stick. Median household income in the United States stagnated for a generation, and policy-makers’ choices helped the elite but put workers at an even greater disadvantage: decimated unions, lower labor standards, rising costs of living. Job training and transition assistance proved powerless against the onslaught of offshoring, providing little more than burial insurance for workers who lost their jobs. And as capital became more mobile, corporations and wealthy individuals sent trillions of dollars to offshore tax havens, robbing the U.S. government of needed resources to reinvest at home in updated infrastructure and public education. By the time the 2008 global financial crash came around, it only confirmed what millions of Americans already knew: the system was rigged against working people.
Donald Trump campaigned against that rigged system. But after two years in office, it is clear that his economic policies are beyond inept; they are deliberately rigged in favor of his family and his wealthy friends. His renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement raises drug prices for consumers while doing little to stem the flow of good jobs going to other countries. His tariffs have hit farming communities hard and driven trading partners into the arms of U.S. competitors. And his conflicts of interest with corrupt foreign governments—from expedited Chinese patent applications for his daughter Ivanka Trump to the millions in foreign money spent at the Trump family’s Washington hotel—raise obvious questions about who he is really working for. This president may have campaigned on a promise to put “America first,” but his policies have put the Trump family first and middle-class American families last.
A new approach should begin with a simple principle: U.S. foreign policy should not prioritize corporate profits over American families. To make sure that globalization benefits middle-class Americans, trade negotiations should be used to curtail the power of multinational monopolies and crack down on tax havens. Workers should be meaningfully represented at the negotiating table, and the resulting agreements should be used to raise and enforce labor standards. Washington should also work with like-minded allies to hold countries that cheat to account.
The United States’ economic policies must also reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. To address corruption, it is critical to work closely with allies to require transparency about the movement of assets across borders. If we are serious about privacy, we must protect data rights from global technology companies and countries that seek to exploit technology as a means to control their populations. To make progress on climate change, we should leverage foreign countries’ desire for access to U.S. markets as an opportunity to insist on meaningful environmental protections.
None of this requires sacrificing the interests of American businesses—although it will require some of them to take a longer view. U.S. businesses can compete with the best in the world when given a level playing field, and they are stronger when the American middle class is strong. If our trade and economic policies work for all Americans, shareholders and corporate executives will profit as well.
A foreign policy that works for all Americans must also be driven by honest assessments of the full costs and risks associated with going to war. All three of my brothers served in the military, and I know our service members and their families are smart, tough, and resourceful. But having a strong military doesn’t mean we need to constantly use it. An effective deterrent also means showing the good judgment to exercise appropriate restraint.
Over the past two decades, the United States has been mired in a series of wars that have sapped its strength. The human cost of these wars has been staggering: more than 6,900 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, another 52,000 wounded, and many more who live every day with the invisible scars of war. By financing these conflicts while cutting taxes, the country has essentially charged the costs of war to a collective credit card for future generations to pay, diverting money that could have been invested in critical domestic priorities. This burden will create a drag on the economy that will last for generations.
The costs have been extraordinarily high, but these wars have not succeeded even on their own terms. We’ve “turned the corner” in Afghanistan so many times that it seems we’re now going in circles. After years of constant war, Afghanistan hardly resembles a functioning state, and both poppy production and the Taliban are again on the rise. The invasion of Iraq destabilized and fragmented the Middle East, creating enormous suffering and precipitating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The region remains a tangled mess—the promise of the Arab Spring crushed, Iran emboldened, Syria devastated, the Islamic State (or ISIS) and its offshoots stubbornly resilient, and a massive refugee crisis threatening to destabilize Europe. Neither military nor civilian policymakers seem capable of defining success, but surely this is not it.
A singular focus on counterterrorism, meanwhile, has dangerously distorted U.S. policies. Here at home, we have allowed an imperial presidency to stretch the Constitution beyond recognition to justify the use of force, with little oversight from Congress. The government has at times defended tactics, such as torture, that are antithetical to American values. Washington has partnered with countries that share neither its goals nor its ideals. Counterterrorism efforts have often undermined other foreign policy priorities, such as reinforcing civilian governance, the rule of law, and human rights abroad. And in some cases, as with U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen, U.S. policies risk generating even more extremism.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I have seen up close how 17 years of conflict have degraded equipment, sapped forces’ readiness, and forced the postponement of investment in critical military capabilities. It has distracted Washington from growing dangers in other parts of the world: a long-term struggle for power in Asia, a revanchist Russia that threatens Europe, and looming unrest in the Western Hemisphere, including a collapsing state in Venezuela that threatens to disrupt its neighbors. Would-be rivals, for their part, have watched and learned, and they are hard at work developing technologies and tactics to leapfrog the United States, investing heavily in such areas as robotics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and quantum computing. China is making massive bets in these and other areas in an effort to surpass the United States as a global technological power. Whether the United States will maintain its edge and harness these technologies for good remains an open question.
It is the job of the U.S. government to do what is necessary to protect Americans, but it is long past time to start asking what truly makes the country safer—and what does not. Military efforts alone will never fully succeed at ending terrorism, because it is not possible to fight one’s way out of extremism. Some challenges, such as cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, require much more than a strong military to combat. And other dangers, such as climate change and the spread of infectious diseases, cannot be solved through military action at all. The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense in the 2018–19 fiscal year alone. That is more in real terms than was spent under President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War and more than all the rest of the country’s discretionary budget put together. But even as Washington spends more and more, U.S. military leaders point out that funding a muscular military without robust diplomacy, economic statecraft, support for civil society, and development assistance only hamstrings American national power and undercuts any military gains.
It’s time to seriously review the country’s military commitments overseas.
As a candidate, Trump promised to bring U.S. troops home. As president, he has sent more troops into Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, Trump claimed he did not want to police the world. As president, he has expanded the United States’ military footprint around the globe, from doubling the number of U.S. air strikes in Somalia to establishing a drone base in Niger. As a candidate, Trump promised to rebuild the military, but as president, he has gutted the diplomatic corps on which the Pentagon relies. He promised to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, but he has undermined a successful nuclear deal with Iran, has failed to roll back the North Korean nuclear program, and seems intent on spurring a new nuclear arms race with Russia.
These actions do not make Americans safer. It’s time to seriously review the country’s military commitments overseas, and that includes bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have fought with honor, but additional American blood spilled will not halt the violence or result in a functioning democratic government in either place.
Defense spending should be set at sustainable levels, and the money saved should be used to fund other forms of international engagement and critical domestic programs. The Pentagon’s budget has been too large for too long. It is long overdue for an audit that would allow Congress to identify which programs actually benefit American security and which merely line the pockets of defense contractors. Rather than mindlessly buying more of yesterday’s equipment and allowing foreign countries to dominate the development of critical new technologies, we should recommit to investing in cutting-edge science and technology capabilities at home. When it comes to nonproliferation, we should replace the current bluster and hostility toward nuclear diplomacy with a reinvestment in multilateral arms control and nonproliferation efforts for the twenty-first century, recommitting the United States to being a leader in the fight to create a world without nuclear weapons.
To achieve all these goals, it will be essential to reprioritize diplomacy and reinvest in the State Department and the development agencies; foreign policy should not be run out of the Pentagon alone. The United States spends only about one percent of its federal budget on foreign aid. Some Americans struggling to make ends meet understandably question the value of U.S. commitments and contributions abroad, and certainly we should expect our partners to pay their fair share. But diplomacy is not about charity; it is about advancing U.S. interests and preventing problems from morphing into costly wars. Similarly, alliances are not exclusively about principles; they are about safety in numbers. The world is a big, complicated place, and not even the strongest nation can solve everything on its own. As we face down antidemocratic forces around the world, we will need our allies on our side.
President John F. Kennedy, whose seat in the U.S. Senate I now hold, once wrote that “a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home.” With American power increasingly challenged from within and without, we can no longer afford to think of our domestic agenda as separate from our foreign policy. A stronger economy, a healthier democracy, and a united people—these are the engines that power the nation and will project American strength and values throughout the world.
Every day, shortsighted domestic policies weaken American national strength. The United States is in the midst of a reverse-Sputnik moment, reducing investments in education and scientific research even as potential adversaries expand them. At a time when growing inequality stifles economic growth, Congress’ response has been a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest Americans. Life expectancy in the United States is falling as overdose deaths skyrocket, and the country’s health-care system remains ill equipped to respond. Climate change poses a threat to our survival, but the government is gutting environmental regulations and subsidizing fossil fuels at the bidding of wealthy campaign donors. The educational opportunity gap is widening, while politicians starve schools of resources and saddle an entire generation with crippling student debt. And in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable reckoning, the president seems bent on keeping Americans frightened and divided.
Investments at home strengthen the economy, but they also serve national security. A twenty-first-century industrial policy, for example, would produce good jobs that provide dignity, respect, and a living wage, and it would reinforce U.S. international economic might. When workers and families are more secure in their livelihoods, the country is stronger on the world stage.
The needs for investment are many: Infrastructure projects to increase connectivity and expand opportunity across the United States. Educational and job-training policies to produce skilled workers, encourage entrepreneurship, and grow the talent base. Immigration policies to yield a more robust economy and a more diversified work force. Higher education to equip the coming generations for the future without crushing them with debt. High-quality, affordable health care to ensure security and productivity for every person. An economy that is fair and open to entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes. A progressive tax system that requires the wealthy to pay their fair share. A government that is not for sale to the highest bidder.
Underlying it all, we need to remain vigilant against threats to American democratic norms and processes. The 2016 election raised the alarm, reminding us that democracy is not a self-sustaining machine. We must fight for it every single day. That means protecting the electoral process and making clear that there will be severe consequences for anyone, foreign or domestic, who meddles with it.
Our democratic norms also require us to renew our commitment to justice. Fractures in society—racial injustice, political polarization, economic inequality—damage us from within, leaving us vulnerable to a toxic stew of hatred and fear. Hateful rhetoric fuels domestic terrorism of all kinds, whether in Charleston or Orlando, Charlottesville or Pittsburgh. And we must strengthen our determination to ensure that every American has equal access to opportunity in society and equal justice and protection under the law. We must do that because it is morally right—and because it is essential to our national strength.
The need to get our house in order is not theoretical. Whether our leaders recognize it or not, after years as the world’s lone superpower, the United States is entering a new period of competition. Democracy is running headlong into the ideologies of nationalism, authoritarianism, and corruption. China is on the rise, using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression. To mask its decline, Russia is provoking the international community with opportunistic harassment and covert attacks. Both nations invest heavily in their militaries and other tools of national power. Both hope to shape spheres of influence in their own image and ultimately remake the global order to suit their own priorities. If we cannot make our government work for all Americans, they will almost certainly succeed.
The dictators who run those countries stay in power not simply because they hold unwilling populations under brutal control; they also maintain control through corrupt economic policies that favor the wealthy elites who keep them in power. In China, President Xi Jinping consolidates his power and talks of a “great rejuvenation,” while corporations that answer to the state make billionaires out of Communist Party elites. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin attacks free speech and fans nationalism, but his real power derives from the careful intertwining of his government with state-run corporations conveniently overseen by friendly oligarchs.
Other countries have learned from this approach. From Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Brazil, wealthy elites work together to grow the state’s power, while the state works to grow the wealth of those who remain loyal to the leader. This marriage of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism is a direct threat to the United States, because it undermines the very concept of democracy. It enables corruption to spread across borders and allows authoritarian leaders to foment a global crisis of confidence in democracy. Free and democratic societies, the United States’ included, risk sliding toward corruption and kleptocracy, becoming democracies in name only.
Despite these growing threats, President Trump seems all too comfortable with this rising authoritarianism. He shamefully kowtows to Putin, even in the face of Russian attacks on American democracy. His trade policies toward China are hardly stopping Chinese economic malfeasance. Instead of strengthening crucial alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Europe, he is actively undermining them. And the president has displayed an unsettling enthusiasm for replicating authoritarian language and tactics at home, while autocrats abroad return the compliment by using the president’s words to justify their own misdeeds.
The United States has lived through devastating wars in the past, and no sane person wishes to invite conflict between great powers in the future. In fact, many of the trials of our time will require cooperation. But it is essential that we are honest and clear-eyed about the challenges the United States faces. Our democratic allies share our values, and we should join forces to protect not only our collective security but also our shared ideals. In Europe, we should work with our allies to impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia for its attempts to subvert elections, and we should work to help our European allies develop energy independence. In Asia, we should encourage our allies to enhance their multilateral cooperation and build alternatives to China’s coercive diplomacy. We should also respond to China’s efforts to force foreign companies to hand over sensitive technology in order to gain access to the Chinese market and penalize its theft of U.S. intellectual property. Around the world, we should aggressively promote transparency, call out kleptocracy, and combat the creeping influence of corruption. And we should stand with those who bravely fight for openness and pluralism in Moscow, Beijing, and beyond.
The world was changing before President Trump took office, and it will continue to change after he has gone. There is no going back, but we can shape the world we inherit.
We can adopt a foreign policy that works for all Americans, not just wealthy elites. We can protect American interests first and foremost, while recognizing that those interests are best served when we leverage the support of allies and partners. We can reform international institutions to make them more flexible and inclusive, while still preserving the United States’ global leadership role. We can make smart investments to deter adversaries and defend the country, while balancing our ambitions with our resources. We can adapt to the technological demands and challenges of the twenty-first century, designing policies that reflect the world not as it once was but as it will be. And we can recognize that global power is generated here at home, recapitalizing the American economy and reinvesting in American democracy at its roots.
None of this will be easy, but we persist. “America is not a country which can be confounded by the appeasers, the defeatists, the backstairs manufacturers of panic,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1941. He continued: “This will of the American people will not be frustrated, either by threats from powerful enemies abroad or by small, selfish groups or individuals at home.” His words ring true today. Despite the threats on the horizon, I am confident that we can pursue a foreign policy that works for all Americans—one that, for generations to come, safeguards government of the people, by the people, and for the people.