Restoring national greatness – a false promise of change

Change is inevitable, and you won’t like it.

That virtually ironclad rule plays a big role in today’s politics.

When Donald Trump, the presumed GOP presidential candidate, promises to “Make America Great Again,” he is offering to repeal change that some people don’t like.

They miss an America with such superpower strength it could do almost anything it wanted in the world. It had a favorable balance of trade and could dispatch massive armed forces almost anywhere.

They miss a country in which one didn’t need to be careful about offending members of minority groups or risk being called a racist for expressing the views of the dominant and historic majority.

They miss a country before the arrival of a large and growing Hispanic population and with an African-American population that “knows its place.”

They miss the brash, self-confidence that comes with not having to compromise and to have citizens and countries give way to the will of the American majority.

Or look at the older voters in the U.K. who want a country that is purely British with no immigrants with strange sounding names and even stranger languages and accents. They dislike being subject to rules made by European institutions in Brussels instead of by the British Parliament in London.

They miss being an island nation, enjoying its isolation but benefitting from good but arms-length links with the European continent and the U.S. Some even miss the fading days of the Empire when the Queen was more than a tourist attraction.

Brexit brought all that back, at least for a short while.

Or take Russia, which misses the days when the USSR was a superpower that could dominate half a continent. It could ignore the poverty of large parts of its population and instill pride because it had the hydrogen bomb, sputnik and a massive military.

Vladimir Putin offers to restore Russia to the place of the USSR. Though all of the former Soviet republics have become independent countries, Russia has occupied territory in both the Ukraine and Georgia.

Missing superpower days, Russia sends warplanes to buzz U.S. naval vessels, showing more muscle than brains.

Russians miss their glory days in the Olympics and other international sports events and have resorted to the extensive use of performance enhancing drugs.

Despite the longing to repeal change and return to a favorably remembered past, these efforts to bring back “the good old days” can’t succeed.

In the U.S., however much Trump opposed President Obama and questioned his birth, an African-American president has been twice elected. Millions of Latinos are in the country because their labor is needed, and they want to be Americans.

Relatively soon, the country will no longer be majority white. That represents change that cannot be blocked.

Britain will pay a high economic price for its decision to leave Europe. Perhaps a majority now consider the price worth paying. But it is likely that what is now a middle-ranking power cannot make it alone and will have to make a deal with Europe for its own well-being.

Russia cannot afford to indulge its nostalgia for the days of the USSR superpower. Putin’s moves have been financed by oil reserves that are losing their value. At some point, Russians will resist paying the price in personal consumption to support the quest for lost power.

What about those who seek change? Bernie Sanders or Trump supporters have been encouraged by promises of change if their candidate prevailed.

Change will inevitably come, but it may not be the change they seek. As the first Obama campaign showed, the promise of change on the campaign trail does not easily translate into the planned results. See promises of Afghanistan withdrawal, closing Guantanamo prison.

The path of change is subject to many pressures. No single political leader has enough power to assure promised change, when they must deal with powerful foreign adversaries, legislatures, economic forces and competing constituencies.

Voting may bring about a change of direction though it is unlikely to result is specific promises being kept. Clearly, the UK can leave the EU, but it is hazy about exactly what comes next. With Trump, voters are asked to trust the future to his self-proclaimed abilities.

The U.S. can choose between a flawed candidate familiar with the limits on executive power imposed by the system and a flawed candidate who would have to learn painfully those lessons on the job.

In short, the world has a kind of momentum that guarantees change, but will disappoint those who hope for specific changes.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.