America and Americans face a profound paradox. Compared with the past, today's challenges and dangers arguably are not existential and in many ways less than we have experienced before. But anger, outrage and vindictiveness have become manifest in the extreme polarization of the nation's politics and clash of political cultures that could break a system of checks and balances. Civility and compromise have become words of the weak. And much of this resentment is driven by tweet.
Donald Trump is not the cause of this malaise. He is a symptom. Some of the president's instincts in terms of challenging conventional practices are well-intended. Yet the president is invariably unable to execute or derive good outcomes from his often idiosyncratic and seemingly spur-of-the-moment policy ukases instantly transmitted to the public by tweet.
Calling on allies to spend more on defense has been a presidential cry since NATO's creation in 1949. But insulting friends and treating adversaries such as Russia and North Korea more amicably is not a prescription for success. While China has indeed broken many international rules and norms and must alter that behavior, embarking on a trade war that has no winners is an economic suicide pact.
The new defense strategy designates China, Russia and Iran as enemies. The bromance between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un has not produced any tangible denuclearization actions. And the Riyadh-directed murder of the Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi roils both the region and fans the uproar over the president's rejection of CIA analysis directly relating the crown prince to the crime.
The "best economy in our history" and the obvious "success" of "the largest tax cuts in our history" are false. The president's predicted annual economic growth of 4,5 or 6 percent is fanciful. Best estimates for 2019 are for no more than 2 percent. And the decline of stock markets shows no sign of reversing while the annual deficit heads ever upward.
In 1777, on hearing of Gen. "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga, a student at Edinburgh University moaned to the great economist Adam Smith that now "we are ruined." Smith thoughtfully advised the student to worry less, as "there is a lot of ruin in a nation." How much ruin this nation can tolerate may no longer be an academic issue.
Comparing the world of today to 1900 through the Cold War is illustrative. For much of that time, life was brutal, nasty, harsh and short. The financial crash of 1907 was followed by World War I and an influenza epidemic that killed more people than died in the Great War. After the "roaring '20s" came the Great Depression and Prohibition that institutionalized breaking the law as many Americans persisted in consuming alcohol. The 1930s were hard times.
World War II made America the sole superpower and ended the depression. A Cold War still brought the Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and an oil embargo. A presidential assassination, Watergate, the misery indices of the late 1970s, huge domestic unrest over civil rights and a presidential impeachment in 1999 likewise had powerful and negative impact on the nation.
But since the Cold War ended, and even though the United States has been "at war" since Sept. 11, 2001, relative tranquility had persisted for this nation. Fortunately, battling violent extremism, while costing trillions of dollars, has claimed far fewer American and allied lives than the first day of many battles of the world wars. However, is this period of relative tranquility ending?
Given politics that are as bitter and divisive as at any time since the Civil War, how much ruin can we absorb? Could this tweet-empowered president -- in which virtually every fact or finding that does not conform to his perception of reality is rejected, and key institutions of democracy, from the Justice Department and the chief justice to a free press and individuals, are regularly subjected to presidential Twitter attack -- induce more ruin than a nation can take?
Sadly, both political parties have seemingly put their collective backbones into very cold storage. Republicans quiver at the thought of taking issue with the president except those no longer seeking office. Democrats are praying that the vaunted "blue wave" will turn 2020 into a sweep of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, no electable candidate has emerged. And smart policies for correcting major ills and uniting the nation are in heavy disguise in both parties.
Compared with much of the last century, for America, the world is less dangerous and unstable. Yet, in an age of pernicious tweet-fueled politics, how much ruin can this nation endure? One wonders.