Donald Trump's grand vision for solving the problems facing America is that we should just dial the clock backwards and return to the time of our former prosperity. All we need to do is resume doing today what we were doing back then, and magically everything will be wonderful again.
This is a common theme in the conservative orthodoxy. It is often expressed in familiar phrases like "take our country back," or "return to the Constitution," or "get back to the original vision of our Founding Fathers." Indeed, this theme is central to Trump's ubiquitous campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again," with the operative word being "Again," indicating that the goal is to return back to the time of our former greatness.
There is a bit of a dark side to this theme as well that is consistent with some of the extremist elements in the conservative movement, like paranoia, fear, and isolation. Just imagine, for example, a caveman walking out of his cave and suddenly seeing for the first time an incredibly complex world with bright sunshine, a vast sky, giant trees, complicated plants, and all sorts of animals and insects running and flying around that could all pose an existential threat.
Instead of being fascinated and inspired by a desire to explore this incredible new world and devise new solutions to adapt to it, this conservative caveman is petrified with fear and his reaction is to run back into the cave for protection.
This is similar to Trump's theme of taking America backwards to a former time. It is reflected in many of Trump's views, such as building a border wall, banning foreigners from entering our country, and disengaging from locations around the world.
The complicated new challenges posed by our evolving world are just too overwhelming for Trump, so his solution is that we must all run back into our cave.
Admittedly, retreating does have some appeal. It would certainly be much easier to just go back inside and not even think about all the complexities outside. But a fundamental problem exists: This is not possible.
The world of today has changed so much that it is simply not possible to solve our challenges by going back to a former time. The former time no longer exists. There is nothing left to go back to. It is as if the caveman no longer has the option of retreating back into the cave because while the caveman was standing outside, a landslide suddenly buried the cave in rubble and sealed it off permanently. There is no going back. The caveman must face the challenges of the outside world that he now inhabits.
Like the caveman, our world has indeed changed. The wave of prosperity enjoyed by generations of Americans beginning around 1950 was due largely to the consequences of a single, monumental event: World War II.
America did not start World War II, but in a twist of fate, America emerged as a prime beneficiary in the aftermath of the war. One main reason for this was that America suddenly faced less global competition because its prime competitors had just been debilitated by the war. Europe was buried in rubble, Japan was flattened by nuclear bombs, and Russia was impaired by the war and beset with a corrupt dictatorship. China had not yet emerged on the world stage.
This left America standing alone and thus in a prime position to dominate markets and become an economic powerhouse.
America took advantage of this by giving itself an enormous boost: Massive government investment. This began prior to the war under President Franklin D. Roosevelt as America gradually became embroiled in the war, and it continued through to the end of the war.
Massive public funds were invested in manufacturing all across the nation in an enormous undertaking to suddenly produce huge quantities of products for the war, such as airplanes, tanks, battleships, submarines, railroad locomotives, vehicles, artillery, guns, ammunition, steel, natural resources, packaged foods, uniforms, and all sorts of other implements of war. It was perhaps the most extraordinary industrial mobilization in the nation's history. Massive public funds were also invested in scientific research and development.
Enormous government investment continued after the war as well. Public funds were dedicated toward the vast reconstruction efforts to rebuild Europe and Japan, such as under the Marshall Plan.
With this massive government intervention, the private sector of American corporations experienced a tremendous boom. After the war, these private companies converted their war manufacturing capabilities into the manufacturing of consumer products for an emerging mass market both at home and abroad. Government research and development was shared as well with the private sector to foster technological advancement and innovation.
This massive government investment, combined with the elimination of global competitors, created an era of enormous prosperity in America that lasted for decades. This is what nourished and strengthened the vital middle class in this nation that has served as the foundation of our modern-day society.
Unfortunately, however, this golden era was not to last. The progress began to reverse itself around the 1970s and then suffered a devastating assault in the 1980s under the neoliberal policies of President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan stopped investing in society and instead diverted the funds into the hands of the super-wealthy. He accomplished this in no small measure by drastically slashing taxes for the wealthy while simultaneously cutting government programs that benefitted society overall and the lower and middle classes in particular.
And boy oh boy did Reagan slash taxes for the wealthy. In our nation's history, dating way back to the creation of the income tax in 1913 and extending all the way through to the Reagan era, the very highest tax bracket for the super-rich averaged approximately 70 percent. And for about twenty years during the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, the top tax rate for the super-rich exceeded 90 percent.
Did these significant taxes on the wealthy cause the sky to fall? No, not at all. Society flourished. The super-rich were merely contributing their fair share.
But then along came Reagan. He slashed the top tax rate for the super-rich from 70 percent all the way down to 28 percent. This was a whopping tax cut for the super-rich of 60 percent. A real bonanza. As a result, all of this money was redirected away from the public treasury where it had been used to benefit society, and was diverted into the pockets of the super-rich.
Reagan accompanied his program with a public relations campaign that sought to turn public sentiment against government, especially so-called "Big Government." He portrayed government as the problem not the solution, and often said that his objective was to "get government off your backs." This stigma against government persists to this day.
Reagan kicked-off an era of decline that caused the stagnation of the lower and middle classes and led to the deplorable economic inequality that plagues us today.
The comparison is quite stark of how the massive public investment of the Roosevelt years resulted in decades of prosperity for the entire nation, whereas the gutting of public investment of the Reagan years resulted in decades of decline and drastic economic inequality.
Incredibly, Trump's solution to our current affliction of economic inequality is to turn the clock back to the Reagan years and slash taxes even further for the super-rich.
This, of course, is exactly the wrong response. It would only dig our current hole deeper and exacerbate the scourge of economic inequality.
Another major issue facing our next president is globalization. Trump's solution is again to turn the clock backwards by supposedly bringing back to America high-wage manufacturing jobs from overseas and putting an end to American corporations off-shoring jobs in the future. The world, however, has changed.
America is no longer the sole competitor like it was in the aftermath of World War II. There is no going back to this. Like it or not, other nations around the world have arisen and are now true competitors. As these nations emerge in their own right, the global dominance of America is reduced. We must acknowledge this reality. The world is more complex. We cannot impose our will upon these nations through brute strength, but instead, we must recognize these other nations, treat them with respect, and work together with them.
Trump's solution is to bully these nations into submission, and if they refuse to obey his demands, then he will cut them off from America. But anyone who can think more than one step ahead knows that this is not a viable strategy.
America is not a low-cost environment for production, and it simply cannot compete with other low-cost nations around the world. If China can make electronic devices far cheaper than America, then it makes no sense for America to also make the same devices at a higher cost. There would be no demand in world markets for the American-made products because all the other countries would buy the cheaper versions from China. And American consumers themselves would prefer to buy the cheaper versions from China as well.
Trump's bullying strategy is to prevent China from importing their cheaper products into America by imposing large tariffs. But this would only trigger a trade war with China and other nations and cause them to stop trading with America. This obviously would lead to a situation of unsustainable isolation. America cannot exist all alone as an island unto itself, but rather, America is dependent upon trade with other nations.
The way forward is not Trump's backward approach of isolating America from the world. We do not need to instigate trade wars, build walls, or prevent foreigners from entering our country.
Instead, our way forward is in the exact opposite direction. Our future lies in forging new kinds of international relationships, striving for greater cooperation among global peoples and nations, sharing one another's resources and burdens, and integrating ourselves ever more fully into the world community.
Leading the nation back into the cave is not true leadership.