When Ronald Reagan became president, people did not know what to expect. Yes, he was a conservative, but how would he govern? Was he smart enough for the job? Did he understand the challenges he would confront? There was no way to tell in advance.
As it turned out, the world was in store for a surprise. Reagan was a conservative and therefore he did try to contain the growth of the federal government. But packed in his portmanteau was another Big Idea. It was one few suspected.
The Gipper intended to defy the Soviets. He wanted to build up our military so that he could bring communism to its knees. At the time, this was regarded as madness. Everyone knew the Kremlin was invulnerable. Its armed forces were robust and its political will was intact.
Yet the conventional wisdom was wrong. Despite all of the invectives hurled at Reagan, he had assessed the situation correctly. He was not a stupid actor or an out-of–control cowboy. The Russian Empire was ripe for collapse. Its economy was a shambles and its subject peoples restive.
By beefing up our military, Reagan would push the Soviet Union to the brink. The Red Bear it did not have the resources to compete. Nor, if the United States created a shield against Russian rockets, would it have the means to threaten us. Reagan’s critics scoffed at Star Wars, but the commissars were not laughing.
Today we know how this confrontation ended. Those who insisted that the best we could manage was detente were proved wrong. The Soviet Union fell and the Cold War receded into history. Mind you, Reagan’s detractors were not prepared to give him credit for this achievement. But that had more to do with their shortcomings than his.
Enter Donald Trump. He is even more reviled than his predecessor. Also considered stupid and temperamentally unsuited for the job, his grasp of world affairs is likewise questioned. His America First policy, in particular, is regarded as nothing lass than the ravings of a nitwit.
Although people were not initially sure, Trump soon established his conservative credentials. By rolling back federal regulations and lowering taxes, he demonstrated a commitment to smaller government. This has long been mainstream Republicanism, into which he breathed life.
Nonetheless, it was in foreign policy where Trump revealed his uniqueness. The Republican establishment was more internationalist than the Democrats, whereas the new president railed against interventionism. He did not want to get the nation entangled in overseas wars.
Many assumed this meant Trump was an isolationist. He would turn his back on the rest of the globe, thereby increasing our vulnerability. This interpretation, however, turned out to be deeply flawed. It discounted Trump’s Big Idea, because it did not recognize it.
In the wake of World War II, the United States was the only major power left unscathed. Aside from Pearl Harbor, we had not been bombed. Our citizens had not been converted into refugees, nor had our infrastructure been devastated. The economy, if anything, had grown stronger.
Europe, on the other hand, was ravaged. Cities had been blasted into rubble and millions killed. It was even doubtful whether Western Europe possessed the wherewithal to hold off the Soviet menace. Happily, we stepped into the breach. With the Marshal Plan and NATO, we stabilized the situation.
Trump’s big insight is that this is no longer necessary. The rest of the world has recovered from the horrors of Nazism. Nations that could not have survived without our assistance are today capable to taking care of themselves. We therefore no longer have to regard them was feeble victims.
The way Trump sees it; this means they don’t have to be treated like dependent children. We can demand that they pull their own weight. Economically,
we can eschew treaties that provide them an advantage. Militarily we can require them to pay for their own defense.
Although we are still the world’s greatest super-power, we cannot maintain our greatness if we are forever deferring to the requirements of others. It is thus time that we attended to our own needs. Unless we do, we might fall so far behind, we can never catch up.
Maybe that’s not such a dumb idea.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University