Trump can’t win, it may be true. But that doesn’t mean the things he says don’t matter.
In the same way years of Republican rhetoric have turned many American demographics solidly blue, the cumulative effect of years of radical right-wing politics might be turning the world off from America altogether.
Trump isn’t just a flash in the pan. He’s no Herman Cain or Michelle Bachmann, clearly incapable of leadership, but also quickly dismissed from consideration. An openly racist businessman-turned-politician has been dominating the American political conversation. For months. Even if he doesn’t get the nomination, the damage he’s done to our international reputation will be harder to undo than we might assume.
Once upon a time
I made my first pilgrimage to Mecca at 18. Sitting in the circles formed around the Ka’aba in preparation for prayer, I noticed that many young Saudi men had the longer sideburns that were in vogue in America, too. An odd convergence, I remarked to my elder brother, who’d been living and working there for two months.
“Satellite television,” he explained.
The world’s only superpower was less distant than ever before. In the years since, it’s become closer still. Facebook and Twitter help the world stay in touch, instantaneously. But they also help the world consume information about the world’s most powerful country in real-time.
The world’s most powerful nation, America cannot be ignored. Business, policy, tourism, industry—nearly every major field in the world is affected by the men (and a few women) that we elect. (Think Al Gore would’ve invaded Iraq? Just a thought bubble.)
We tell ourselves that these early months of presidential sparring don’t mean much, that voters are simply kicking the tires. But to the rest of the world, the tires we even consider kicking are being closely monitored. Ben Carson and Rick Santorum may have unsettled international observers, but neither candidate compares to the current GOP frontrunner, who has been leading the pack for months now.
And keeps rising in the polls.
Saqib Qureshi, a Canadian academic and author of Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing with the God of Objectivity, tells Quartz that, frankly, “Trump is tanking the American brand globally.” Ordinarily, Qureshi said, “Canadians don’t pay much attention to the candidates at this early stage.” But this time Canadians are paying attention. “Despite all of America’s proclamations about freedom, equality, and human rights,” Canadians—and the world—will not forget “that a religious bigot and racist actually led one of the two political parties’ race to become president.”
Hard power, soft power, sans power
Future historians may look back at Putin’s intervention in Syria as the end of our brief period as the world’s sole superpower. Not only did Putin act against American interests, but he did so without any meaningful American response. In fact, he may have permanently scrambled whatever half-formed Syria strategy we had for fighting ISIL. Putin is leading, and Obama’s America is forced to operate on the margins.
Partly that’s because our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired resentment about our role in the region, and convinced many that we are not capable of bringing about the global changes we claim to want to see. But certainly it doesn’t help that we appear to be, as a nation, jumping the shark.
We are unique among developed nations for our skepticism about climate change. So the world may doubt whether it can count on us to help confront what may be the single greatest threat to the planet. We are the only major power whose citizens kill each other with alarming frequency, and yet seem powerless to stop it. The pattern extends to our foreign policy.
After president Obama’s speech on the night of Dec. 6, discussing terrorism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and the war on ISIL, one would have expected several days of debate, meant to move the policy conversation forward. Instead Donald Trump once again stole the stage, the after party, and harassed the reviewers. Instead of talking seriously about ISIL, we are now talking about banning Muslims altogether. Far from building an anti-terror coalition, we are asking whether or not we can even tolerate Muslim tourists in our midst.
Already, a leading Middle Eastern retailer, Landmark, has pulled Trump products from its stores. Emirati billionaire Khalaf al-Habtoor says he regrets “ever” supporting Trump. Posters for Trump’s branded properties, featuring the billionaire and his daughter, have been pulled down from construction sites in Dubai. That’s Trump’s effect on the great Sunni Arab powers.
It may not be different elsewhere.
Ruben Avxhiu, editor-in-chief of Illyria, an Albanian-American newspaper, tells Quartz that Albanians are “very pro-American,” but “many Albanians have taken to social media to condemn Trump’s comments.” He sees potential cause for concern: “The Balkans are a post-war region trying to rebuild trust between neighbors. The United States may find it hard to preach tolerance and cooperation if it elects a president like Trump.”
Mirnes Kovac, a Sarajevo-based journalist and author of The Siege of Islam, agrees. “The Bosnia [intervention] proved America’s impartiality in its international politics,” Kovac argued. That the United States intervened to protect Bosnian Muslims from genocide showed we were not “at war with Islam.” But now, Kovac says, “the same fears and hatred [are being] promoted in America now that were promoted in the early 1990s,” in Yugoslavia before the Bosnian genocide.
Trump, he says, “undermines America’s high ground.”
True to form, Trump has gone on the offensive elsewhere, mocking two of America’s most important allies. (He’s already offended the French ambassador to the United States.) Passed over by Time magazine in favor of Angela Merkel, he alleged the chancellor is “ruining” Germany. On Dec. 10, going for the Western-civilization-insult-hat trick, he tweeted that the United Kingdom is “trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem,” an allegation I am sure David Cameron appreciates as his government tries to reach out to Muslim citizens.
A master publicist, Trump is trolling the planet, and pretty soon the world will do what every experienced tweeter does: hit the mute button, and move on. But even if Trump doesn’t win the nomination, even if he doesn’t make it three more months in the campaign, the damage he has done, in the name of America, will be much harder to undo.