The United States used to pride itself on leading by example. But with the Trump administration’s self-defined role as global rule-breaker rather than rule-maker, we all had better hope that others are no longer following our lead. If countries start mirroring Donald Trump’s behavior, we’re going to see a global economic meltdown, not to mention a serious rollback in human rights and democratic freedoms.
Start with economics. The president’s decision to start trade wars that result in taxes on Americans—in the form of tariffs on various foreign imports—is bad for both the American economy and the global economy. And, unfortunately, countries are already following Trump’s lead on tariffs—we’ve gotten into tit-for-tat tariff cycles with China, and our largest trading partner—the E.U.—has already implemented retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, with more potentially in store if Trump decides to have another tariff temper tantrum. That could expose billions of dollars in American exports to tariffs—from one of our closest allies and trading partners. American products from airplanes to whiskey could suffer.
The precedent set by Trump’s tariff tirades is equally dangerous. His legal footing for threatening to put tariffs on Mexican goods is shaky at best (Mexican avocados and beer don’t constitute a national security risk), as were his tariffs on steel imports last year. If countries start following his lead, we could see tariffs on American goods whenever a foreign leader is frustrated with Trump or doesn’t meet his expectations. Following our lead on tariffs could lead to the very real scenario that most U.S. goods would face tariffs along with a meltdown in the U.S. economy.
If everyone followed Trump’s example and we saw a Trumpification of economic instruments, the global economy would be susceptible to any leaders’ mood swings or political campaign agendas. That would result in massive market swings, uncertainty, and unnecessary taxes on the American people.
Now let’s turn to the rule of law. Trump is all for the rule of law—when it suits his interests. The Department of Justice is rotten and engrossed in a witch hunt when it is investigating him, but Attorney General Bill Barr gets two thumbs up when he talks about spying on the Trump campaign and agrees to investigate the intelligence community. Trump tries to direct law enforcement to investigate his perceived opposition, and the only thing standing between Trump and a kangaroo court system is the strength of our Constitution.
Similarly, the president assails the media when it doesn’t serve as a propaganda arm for Trump, Inc. Our press freedom ranking has dropped since Trump took office, largely due to his policies, and he’s been accused of violating the basic norms of press freedoms. Members of the media are exposed to more risk today than they were before his presidency began.
If other nations adopted the Trump mantra of trying to make their law enforcement systems their personal security and defense teams or used inflammatory and inaccurate language against the media, we’d be lecturing them about the erosion of democracy and press freedom. We have in fact issued sharply worded statements against leaders whose “democratic” credentials need air quotes. Being democratic in name only is becoming too much of a farce when it comes to Trump, just like with Putin, Erdogan, Ortega, and others.
Adopting the Trump model would mean a global backsliding on democracy with potentially dangerous consequences for minorities and human rights around the world. The basic human rights and civil liberties that we used to insist that minorities intrinsically enjoyed would be rolled back globally. If we’re redefining basic rights for the transgender community in the United States, for example, who’s to say that any other bigoted leader shouldn’t roll back protections for minorities that he or she takes issue with?
Likewise, when Trump meddles in other countries’ politics, from Israel to the U.K. to Mexico, he sets a dangerous precedent that can backfire on the United States. If others mimicked Trump’s behavior, we’d have a free-for-all. Imagine a world in which foreign leaders are constantly weighing in on domestic politics. Elections would be controlled not just by the people, but also by the whims of foreign leaders who have their own fish to fry.
Finally, on LGBTI rights, the United States had been a leader under President Obama. But when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proactively issued guidance to his staff prohibiting their flying of the Gay Pride flag at U.S. missions around the world, it was a step back for the LGTBI community as well as a direct hit to our ability to advance a credible LGTBI agenda abroad.
Despite his own staff’s desire to fly the Pride flag, Pompeo’s ideology trumped all of that, and he rolled back permissions that would allow his own team to express themselves during Gay Pride month. If he won’t let his own staff express their support, it’s hard to imagine other countries taking him seriously when it comes to advancing LGTBI rights, especially based on the assault the Trump administration has launched on the LGTBI community, including its decision not to allow transgender Americans to serve in the military.
If Pompeo and Trump are leading by example, we would see other governments pull back the civil liberties and protections afforded to members of the LGTBI community. If we don’t practice what we preach about trying to advance LGTBI rights—or anything else for that matter—we’re hard=pressed to tell others to do so.
Our best shot at getting through the rest of Trump’s first term is hoping that countries go their own way and don’t follow his lead. But if he’s reelected and we’re stuck with Trump through 2024, Trump’s example will mean the assured demise of American leadership. Rival countries Russia and China used to be the global bad boys on trade, human rights, and more—but as Trump time ticks on, they’re more frequently pointing the finger at us for upsetting the international order. Yes, they’re being hypocritical. But sadly, they’re not wrong, either.