We’ve all heard the old quote generally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Well, a few days ago, I ran across this post at Salon: Donald Trump, national embarrassment: The rest of the world is gawking at his campaign — and us. The title of the post tells you all you need to know. And, if you’d pondered the matter, you wouldn’t have felt the need to research whether America is a subject of ridicule on the world stage these days, thanks to the millions of ignoramuses that support Mr. Trump.
Then the thought occurred to me: America on the world stage is channeling that old Gandhi quote, but in reverse.
For decades, in the middle of the 20th century, we were winning. We were the envy of the world. That feeling peaked during Kennedy’s presidency, an era often referred to as “Camelot.”
Gandhi’s four stages are of course not discrete in time. They overlap. While you’re largely still ignored, the ridicule commences, for example.
And so it was with America, but in reverse. While we were winning, we were also entering a phase of constant fighting. Starting with Korea, where we essentially fought to a tie, then in Vietnam, where we lost, the results of our fighting started trending negative, at the same time the constancy of that fighting increased.
The fighting has not only been military in character. It’s also been economic.
Ironically, it is when one stage seems to peak that it is already in decline and the next stage is kicking into high gear. Just as America landed on the moon, for example, the Vietnam war reached a point where America’s first defeat at war had become baked in the cake. And, at about the same time, Datsun (now Nissan) started selling cars on the U.S. market.
We’re still fighting, but, with the election of W, the ridicule stage began. Trump of course has taken it to a higher level, but probably not the highest level we’ll see.
And, again, the perceived peak of one stage, in this case fighting, coincides with the acceleration of the next, in this case ridicule. Nick Turse recently reported on the presence of America’s forces in 135 different countries. At the same moment, here at home we’ve gone completely round the bend. It’s not just Trump. It’s Huckabee. It’s Kim Davis. It’s Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. It’s Fox News. Imagine how all this looks to reporters and opinion writers at BBC or Das Spiegel.
If the Gandhi principle holds, but in reverse, we’re headed to the last stage: insignificance. I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, and it’s hard to conceive of America being entirely ignored on the world stage, but I think my kids will see a day when America plays a dramatically smaller role in global politics than it does today.
And that may not be a bad thing. It all depends on how well we can manage the transformation.