Donald Trump’s Message

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media Saturday in Florida. Photo: Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

By Joseph S. Nye

CAMBRIDGE – Donald Trump’s lead in the race for the Republican Party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in November has caused consternation. The Republican establishment fears he will not be able to defeat Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. But some observers worry more about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Some even see Trump as a potential American Mussolini.

Whatever its problems, the United States today is not like Italy in 1922. The Constitution’s institutional checks and balances, together with an impartial legal system, are likely to constrain even a reality-TV showman. The real danger is not that Trump will do what he says if he reaches the White House, but the damage caused by what he says as he tries to get there.

Leaders are judged not only on the effectiveness of their decisions, but also by the meaning that they create and teach to their followers. Most leaders gain support by appealing to the existing identity and solidarity of their groups. But great leaders educate their followers about the world beyond their immediate group.

After World War II, during which Germany had invaded France for the third time in 70 years, the French leader Jean Monnet decided that revenge upon a defeated Germany would produce yet another tragedy. Instead, he invented a plan for the gradual development of the institutions that evolved into the European Union, which has helped make such a war unthinkable.

Or, to take another example of great leadership, Nelson Mandela could easily have chosen to define his group as black South Africans and sought revenge for the injustice of decades of apartheid and his own imprisonment. Instead, he worked tirelessly to expand the identity of his followers both by words and deeds.

In one famous symbolic gesture, he appeared at a rugby game wearing the jersey of the South African Springboks, a team that had previously signified South African white supremacy. Contrast Mandela’s efforts to teach his followers about a broader identity with the narrow approach taken by Robert Mugabe next door in Zimbabwe. Unlike Mandela, Mugabe used colonial-era grievances to build support, and now is relying on force to remain in power.

In the US today, while the economy is growing and the unemployment rate is at a low 4.9%, many feel excluded from the country’s prosperity. Many blame rising inequality over the past few decades on foreigners, rather than technology, and it is easy to rally opposition both to immigration and globalization. In addition to economic populism, a significant minority of the population also feels threatened by cultural changes related to race, culture, and ethnicity, even though much of this is not new.

The next president will have to educate Americans about how to deal with a globalization process that many find threatening. National identities are imagined communities in the sense that few people have direct experience of the other members. For the past century or two, the nation-state has been the imagined community that people are willing to die for, and most leaders have regarded their primary obligations to be national. This is inescapable, but it is not enough in a globalizing world.

In a world of globalization, many people belong to a number of imagined communities – local, regional, national, cosmopolitan – that are overlapping circles sustained by the Internet and inexpensive travel. Diasporas are now connected across national borders. Professional groups like lawyers have transnational standards. Activist groups ranging from environmentalists to terrorists also connect across borders. Sovereignty is no longer as absolute as it once seemed.

Former President Bill Clinton has said that he regrets his failure to respond adequately to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, although he was not alone. Had Clinton tried to send US troops, he would have encountered stiff resistance in Congress. Good leaders today are often caught between their cosmopolitan inclinations and their more traditional obligations to the people who elect them – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has discovered in the wake of her brave leadership on the refugee crisis last summer.

In a world in which people are organized primarily in national communities, a purely cosmopolitan ideal is unrealistic. We see this in widespread resistance to acceptance of immigration. For a leader to say there is an obligation to equalize incomes globally is not a credible obligation, but to say that more should be done to reduce poverty and disease and help those in need can help to educate followers.

Words matter. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it, “Thou shalt not kill is a test you take pass-fail. Honor thy father and thy mother admits of gradations.” The same is true of cosmopolitanism versus insularity.

As the world watches the US presidential candidates wrestle with issues of protectionism, immigration, global public health, climate change, and international cooperation, we should ask what aspect of American identities they are appealing to and whether they are educating followers about broader meanings. Are they stretching Americans’ sense of identity as best they can or just appealing to their narrowest interests?

Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the US and his demands that Mexico pay for a wall to stop migration would be unlikely to pass constitutional or political muster were he elected President. Then again, many of his proposals are not policies designed to be implemented, but slogans crafted to appeal to an insular populist mood among a segment of the population.

Given his lack of a strong ideological core and his celebration of “the art of the deal,” Trump might even prove to be a pragmatic president, despite his narcissism. But good leaders help us define who we are. On that score, Trump has already failed.

Joseph S. Nye is a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of 'Is the American Century Over?'

Copyright 2016, Project Syndicate