AMERICA IS IN DECLINE:
SIGNS, CAUSES, AND IMPLICATIONS FOR GLOBAL POLITICS
David Y. F. Ho
There are many signs that America is in decline. Below, I discuss the first two foreboding signs: the politicization of higher education and scientific research, and nepotism, and corruption. Next, I focus on how America’s internal problems are nakedly revealed during the pandemic, in the midst of which protests over Floyd’s murder have reverberated worldwide. I explain why Trump is such a dangerous president, and point to what I call the Trump phenomenon as both a symptom and a cause of America’s decline.
America is distressed by a double whammy, the pandemic, and the protests. It has reached a defining moment of whether it will regain a measure of its leadership in the West or go farther down into a spiral of decline. America’s decline is all the more significant for global politics when it is gauged against China’s dramatic rise in politico-economic power on the world stage.
Higher Education and Scientific Research
Higher education has been America’s national pride. But universities today have become largely self-funding, run like commercial institutions along corporate and managerial lines. Alas, self-funding is getting increasingly difficult. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, we may find recent headlines such as: “43% of College Fund Raisers Don’t Expect to Meet Goals” and “How to Recognize Warning Signs of a Death Spiral.” Such warning signs forebode a bleak future for U.S. academic institutions and threaten their faculty members.
To make matters worse, enrollment of foreign students has dropped sharply, due largely by the policies of the Trump administration that reinforce a close-the-door or build-a-wall mentality. The adverse long-term consequences are severe.
Chinese students have been singled out to be targets of expulsion. On May 8, 2020, The New York Times reports that the U.S. is set to expel Chinese graduate students with ties to China’s military schools. But university administrators say that the government is paranoid and that America will lose out. In a similar vein, Elisa Kania and Lindsay argue in Foreign Policy that “discrimination aimed at foreign students will only harm American competitiveness.” In particular, targeting Chinese students is embedded in the government’s policymakers who view China as a competitor, even an adversary. Trump is reported to have claimed in reference to China that “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy”—yet another symptom of paranoia.
Speaking for myself, I was a graduate student, originally from Hong Kong, studying in the U.S. in the 1960s, a time full of hope, not of disgust as now. I was no spy. Instead, I was baptized in participatory democracy for peace and social justice among other students—a valuable experience for which I remain grateful to America.
Cutting-edge research is critical to attaining preeminence in academia. Unfortunately, Trump is a master of political scheming, not a believer in science. As early as December 2016, the battle to defend science from being politicized had already begun. Michael Halpern, Deputy Director of the Center for Sciences and Democracy, reported that more than 2,300 scientists, including 22 Nobel laureates, issued an open letter calling on the president-elect and the 115th Congress to appoint cabinet members with a track record of supporting science and promoting diversity; protect the integrity and independence of government researchers, and provide sufficient funding for scientific research and data collection.
Predictably, these sensible recommendations have fallen on the deaf ears of the scientific illiterate. Just last month, 77 Nobel laureates asked for an investigation into the cancellation of a federal grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a group that conducts research on bat coronavirus in China. And the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, on behalf of 31 scientific societies, has written a letter of protest to the director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, “to be transparent about their decision-making process on this matter.”
Excellence in higher education has been instrumental in making America great; its decline will make America fall behind. I suspect too that there is a sinister aspect behind policies of the Trump administration. It is well-known that the educational level is correlated with leaning toward egalitarian-democratic-progressive ideologies. College campuses are full of anti-Trump faculty and students. If you have a mind such as that of Trump, wouldn’t you want to engineer an early demise of higher education to get reelected?
Never forget that education is inseparable from politics.
Nepotism and Corruption
The second foreboding sign is that nepotism and corruption have become more visible in present-day America. In my 2019 book Rewriting Cultural Psychology: Transcend Your Ethnic Roots and Redefine Your Identity, I talked about nepotism and corruption in China in terms of guanxixue (literally, guanxi learning; visit ). Guanxi manipulations for personal gain and getting things done “through the backdoor” have evolved into what is known as guanxixue, involving gifts, favors, and banquets in the “art” of social maneuvering.
Guanxixue is a commentary on the reality of social life in mainland China: the difficulty of personal advancement or getting things done through regular institutional channels. It has long caught the attention of international management and business researchers. An analogous social game in American society is networking—establishing the right connections for one’s professional advancement. Networking is not, however, as pervasive or sophisticated as guanxixue; neither does it carry as much danger of leading to nepotism or corruption.
Little did I realize that guanxixue may be applicable also to American society at the time I wrote Rewriting Cultural Psychology. Now I am awakened by Trump’s greed that sets a bad example for his countrymen. Ordinary Americans who pay their taxes are contributing to the unpresidential expenditures of the Trump family and buddies, many of whom pay no taxes. Additionally, it smacks of corruption for Trump to host foreign dignitaries (including President Xi Jinping) at his private resort for monetary gain.
Think further, then, guanxixue is no less applicable to the interlocking social connections among the super-rich and powerful that make up only a tiny percentage of the population—a catalyst for the formation for plutocracy. Sad to say, many of those who support Trump don’t know that they have been screwed, exploited by the policies and agenda of the very person they have voted into office.
First the Pandemic, Then the Protests
The pandemic has revealed American’s institutional inadequacies, healthcare, and human services in particular. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t have national healthcare for all its citizens. Its healthcare system is an exemplar of wastage and maddening complexity that frustrates people seeking medical service. It has shown itself to be woefully unprepared for the pandemic, such as lacking needed equipment and support of various sorts. Lethality is especially acute for minority groups, the homeless, and the imprisoned in overcrowded penal institutions.
As George Parker writes in the June 2020 issue of the Atlantic: “We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” A failed state? Failing is probably more accurate. Nonetheless, the contrast with success stories in East Asia is striking, particularly with South Korea and Taiwan.
The pandemic has speeded the decline of America’s leadership on the world stage, thus giving China more opportunities to assert itself. Two major forces are at work for this decline. One is the misguided belief in the supremacy of personal liberty without regard for the collective good. Witness the boisterous demonstrations against enforced social distancing and lockdowns: a manifestation more of recklessness than of rugged individualism.
The other, which is more critical, is the incompetence of the Trump administration, fueled largely by Trump’s dishonesty, selfishness, and plain stupidity. The most bizarre include suggesting that “injection inside” the human body with a disinfectant like bleach or isopropyl alcohol could help combat the virus, and actually taking hydroxychloroquine against medical advice.
Trump’s incompetence and self-centeredness in handling the pandemic have already resulted in too many unnecessary losses of life. Predictably, Trump and his obedient cabinet administrators have been shifting responsibility by blaming other people (e.g., former President Obama, Director-General of the WHO) or countries (China in particular), exemplifying the classic mechanism of scapegoating (see the painting The Scapegoat by William Hunt). Yet another sinister aspect is revealed in his use of the label “the Chinese virus” (also used by Mike Pompeo): Racial attacks on Asian Americans, verbal and physical, have been on the rise.
In the midst of the pandemic, widespread protests have erupted across America over the murder of an unarmed Black man George Floyd by a White police officer. Instead of leading the nation to reconciliation, Trump has repeatedly stoked up racial tensions in an already incendiary situation. He staged a photography opportunity, holding a Bible upside down at some point and standing in front of St. John’s Church in Washington DC, just moments after telling reporters he would deploy the military if state officials could not contain the protests.
Here is a sample of what Trump has said in public: “I think the concept of chokeholds sounds so innocent and so perfect”; sending the National Guard to go in Minneapolis to do their work (e.g., tear-gassing) was “like a miracle,” “a beautiful scene,” and “like a knife cutting butter.” These remarks are enough for making a lot of people feel that America has bankrupted its moral high ground on the world stage.
America’s pain is exacerbated and inflicted upon itself by none other than the leader Americans have elected into the presidential office. Trump’s confusing and incompetent leadership has resulted in dramatic losses of respect from traditional allies. His penchant to withdraw from international institutions (e.g., WHO) translates into America isolating itself from the rest of the world. People are fed up and angry.
Why is Trump Such a Dangerous President?
American Senator Bernie Sanders has said repeatedly that Trump is a pathological liar and is the most dangerous president in American history. As a professor of clinical psychology, I would like to clarify some relevant clinical points of interest.
Different types of liars (e.g., occasional, habitual, and pathological) should be distinguished. Pathological liars are among the most interesting to study; having succeeded in deceiving themselves, they are quite unable to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Also, the presence or absence of an intention to falsify information is a critical factor to consider. The presence of such an intention implies that in the mind of the liar is a distinction between two versions of reality: a “false” version for deceiving others, and a “true” version to be concealed from others.
Trump makes an interesting case study, as I have detailed in my book published in 2019 Rewriting Psychology: An Abysmal Science? (chap. “The pitfalls of psychiatric diagnosis: Is Trump immoral, mentally deranged, or both?”). He spends a lot of time tweeting, instead of governing. His tweets show impoverished ideation, not to mention subpar literacy. His compulsive use of “trust me” and “believe me” betrays a lack of inner conviction. His habitual denials of lying, publicly seen as lying, are ludicrous. They would qualify him as a pathological liar if he does lack the ability to know that he is lying when he is in fact lying; if he does not lack that ability, he would be a doubly dishonest man denying that he is lying when he knows he is.
Pathological lying is a manifestation of paranoia, a serious mental disorder. So, not surprisingly there is consensus among psychiatrists that Trump is mentally deranged. Bandy X. Lee has edited a book entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. Dr. Lee invokes the “Duty to Warn” rationale: “Public trust is violated if the profession fails in its duty to alert the public when a person who holds the power of life and death over us all shows signs of clear, dangerous mental impairment.”
Trump’s mental impairment is dangerous because he also shows strong psychopathic traits. According to a study by Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton published in 2016, Donald Trump has more psychopathic traits than Adolf Hitler. Now, religious leaders (Jesus and Saint Paul) are among the historical figures who score highly on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory. (The Inventory comprises three factors: Fearless Dominance, Self-Centered Impulsivity, and Coldheartedness.) Of critical importance, however, Jesus and Saint Paul both have low scores on Coldheartedness; Jesus has low scores on Fearless Dominance as well. Mahatma Gandhi has low scores on all three factors.
How do we interpret these results? First, psychopathic dispositions are common historical figures in leadership positions. Second, leaders characterized by fearless dominance enhance their charisma for drawing multitudes of followers; in and by itself, fearless dominance may not lead to disasters. Third, a combination of fearless dominance and self-centered impulsivity, especially when coupled with coldheartedness, portends incendiary consequences.
As I have stated in Rewriting Psychology: “The frightening concentration of power in a handful of political leaders, on whose decisions our survival depends, means that their idiosyncratic dispositions or actions can have magnified, even fateful, consequences for all of us.” That’s why we must be vigilant to guard Trump against doing more harm.
Trump and the Trump Phenomenon
It is most ironic that the man who peddles “Make America Great Again” is making America come in last. But I am more concerned with Trump as a phenomenon than with Trump as an individual. This phenomenon is a reflection of the underlying fear of losing supremacy among Americans. Angry about dysfunctional politicians at various levels of government, Americans have chosen a president who is more of the problem than the solution: The cure is worse than the disease, as in medicine. Even now, well after his incompetence and evil intentions are there for all to see, Trump still has a large following, especially among older, less educated, blue-collar Whites.
How does the Trump phenomenon manifest itself? Just see the shameless, cowardly Republican politicians who dare not offend Trump and sell their souls for political gain; Fox News as well as conservative, hawkish ideologues that bleed political illiteracy; large segments of fundamentalist Christians who speak and act in non-Christian ways. Readers interested in learning more about the Trump phenomenon may read The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, authored by a man who was part and parcel of that phenomenon, namely, John Bolton.
The Trump phenomenon is also a manifestation of socioeconomic pathologies that run deep in America: harboring mountains of debt, plutocracy leading to increasing socio-political polarization, domination by the military-industrial complex, racism, and prejudice, loss of civility and sense of direction. Collectively, these pathologies forebode an irreversible decline in American leadership on the world stage.
The Pandemic and Other Existential Crises
An existential crisis is a threat to the well-being, even survival, of humankind, such as, in increasing order of severity: the COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, and war between superpowers (the U.S., Russia, and China). In all cases, Trump has added fuel to fire: Our lives are imperiled because of his warped values (of getting reelected over saving human lives), scientific illiteracy (suggesting disinfectant injection into the body), and pathological denials of facts (saying that global warming is fake news).
Secretly, a choice lies in my mind between two fateful alternatives. One is strengthening the case for getting Trump out of office due to his failures to control the pandemic, at the cost of thousands of lives lost unnecessarily; the other is saving lives by attacking the pandemic effectively at the risk of having Trump reelected, which would accelerate the existential crises of global warming and war. The choice is dictated by my estimate of which alternative poses a graver threat to humanity. In any case, the pandemic has nakedly revealed American’s institutional-systemic inadequacies, healthcare, and human services in particular.
The End of The End of History and the Last Man
In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama advanced the thesis that the Western liberal democracies have triumphed over their ideological rivals on two major fronts: the proven ability to deliver, firstly, general prosperity and a rising standard of living for most citizens and secondly, guarantees of personal dignity. Thus, liberal democracy is the model of governance toward which all of humankind is heading.
By now, there is a clear antithesis in the rise of China over the past several decades as an economic superpower that has significantly increased the material (but not the spiritual) standard of living for its citizens, the level of achievement in science and technology, and the sense of national pride on the world stage. That is enough to “legitimize” China’s highly centralized, authoritarian governance. The security of having enough to eat (by no means guaranteed in Chinese history) speaks more loudly than the demands of free speech (the flowering of which has seldom been seen anyway).
Compared with democratic but inefficient India, China offers a more viable alternative model for developing countries—especially when the Western democracies are beset by lack of leadership, internal divisiveness, and wavering determination. Such an antithesis is the death knell for Fukuyama’s thesis: The end of History. And Trump is the agent who is accelerating the coming of the end.
A contributor to magazines and newspapers across the globe, David Y. F. Ho has held professorial appointments in psychology and humanities in Asia and North America. He was the first Asian to have served as President of the International Council of Psychologists.