In Sylvester Stallone's 1985 film Rocky IV, American Apollo Creed faces Russian Ivan Drago in a battle of West against East. The showboating Creed dances into the arena wearing a Stars and Stripes top hat. James Brown belts out Living in America as showgirls gyrate. Drago looks on stone-faced. "You will lose," the mountain of muscle tells Creed.
The film plays on something that gnaws at every number one – the fear of being usurped. The United States, top dog for as long a s anyone can remember, is no exception. Every little while, Americans are seized by anxiety that they are being surpassed by people who are tougher (the Russians), cleverer (the Japanese) or harder-working (the Chinese).
Political thinkers call it declinism – the belief that your society is heading into decline – and the United States is suffering from a feverish bout of it right now. Declinism is helping to fuel the rise of Donald Trump, who whips up his cheering supporters with claims that other countries are eating America's lunch. His baseball caps trumpet his promise to "Make America Great Again!" – as if the world's most powerful nation has already fallen to second-rate status. "We're like a Third World country," he laments. "We have no money."
American decline is at the very centre of the insurgent campaign that has taken the braggadocious real-estate mogul and reality-TV star from long shot to Republican candidate for president. "Our country's going to hell. We have a problem," he says.
Or, as he put it in his dark, to-hell-in-a-handbasket speech to the Republican convention last month: "Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World conditions, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps." Or this masterpiece of hyperbole: "This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast. We can't do anything right. We're a laughingstock all over the world. The American dream is dead."
His fans eat it up, cheering as loudly at the claim that their country is in the dumpster as they have in the past for the claim that "we're number one."
Mr. Trump isn't the only one complaining about American decline, even if he complains the loudest. Democrat Bernie Sanders, too, says that the country has fallen into a slough of meanness and inequality. Right and left seem to agree: A corrupt elite is bringing America down.
This sort of thing has a long history. The world sees Americans as self-confident, even cocksure, but they have a self-doubt- ing, self-critical side, too.
Since the U.S. became the world's pre-eminent power at the end of the Second World War, it has been hit by periodic waves of insecurity. It happened when the Soviets beat them to the punch by putting the first satellite into space in 1957. It happened during the Vietnam War.
And it happened during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, when president Jimmy Carter warned that Americans were having a "crisis of the spirit."
Japan as Number One by Harvard University Asia specialist Ezra Vogel, published in 1979, saw the dynamic Japanese economy leaving the United States in the dust. The same year, social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism: "Hardly more than a quarter-century after Henry Luce proclaimed 'the American century,' American confidence is at a low ebb. Those who recently dreamed of world power now despair of governing the city of New York."
In 1987, in the final years of the Cold War, Yale historian Paul Kennedy touched a tender spot when his surprise bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers reminded Americans that many pre-eminent countries overreach themselves, then decline.
The prophecies of doom have not come true. The Soviet Union collapsed not long after the book came out, and the United States was left the last man standing in the duel of the superpowers. Japan lost its vigour and slid into decline. The idea that it might surpass the United States seems farcical now.
'Political hot air'
Although the rise of China presents another challenge, the United States still leads the world in military, economic and technological power. Its top universities crowd best-in-the-world lists. It cleans up at Nobel Prize time. American companies like Google, Apple and Amazon are tops in the tech field. It spends more on its armed forces than the next eight countries combined.
Battered by the financial crisis and the slow recovery that followed, the American economy has been gathering steam. The unemployment rate in July stood at just 4.9 per cent. House prices have bounced back. Wages are growing. The stock market is setting records.
"All the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air," President Barack Obama told Americans in his State of the Union Address in January. "Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. … It's not even close."
"America is already great," he told the Democratic Party convention last month. "America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump."
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled The Once and Future Superpower: Why China Won't Overtake the United States, authors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College argue that "everyone should start getting used to a world in which the United States remains the sole superpower for decades to come." Harvard foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye comes to a similar conclusion in his 2015 book, Is the American Century Over? "America has many problems, but it is not in absolute decline, and even in relative terms, it is likely to remain more powerful than any single state in the coming several decades."
'I think China owns us'
Mr. Trump is on to something, all the same. Whatever the numbers say, many Americans feel they are in a rut. Just walk into a tavern in upstate New York.
Crossway's in Ilion, near Utica, stands just across from a huge Remington firearms factory, one of the last big manufacturing outfits in a Rust Belt region. If it goes, says bartender Nancy Nabinger, 55, there will be tumbleweeds blowing through town. As for the country, "we're definitely going backwards." She works two other jobs – as a waitress in a pizzeria and as a house cleaner – to get by. Patron Ron Hodom, 62, chimes in that "I think China owns us, actually."
You would expect things to be different a short drive away at the campus of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute. A huge new centre for research into nanotechnology is under construction there, part of a big effort to replace lost manufacturing jobs with high-tech ones.
But computer-science major Robert Robbins, 20, says the States is losing out to its overseas competitors, who have taken American jobs.
"We import so much. We're not exporting any goods, we're exporting jobs. We're giving it to them, almost," he says, a big, superpowered laptop computer that he calls The Beast sitting in front of him on a study table.
"I would definitely say we've fallen down the ranks," says friend Ashley Klumbach, a 22-year-old sociology student. "We aren't as strong as we used to be, and we depend a lot on other countries."
A Pew Research Centre poll found that, although a majority of Americans believed their country was one of the best in the world, the view that it "stands above all countries" declined by 10 points between 2011 and 2014, to 28 per cent.
Polling this month from Bloomberg Politics indicated that 68 per cent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track, up from 52 per cent in September, 2009.
Even if the financial crisis is years past, many Americans have not recovered from the blow of seeing their jobs disappear or their mortgages go under water as real-estate prices crashed.
Less-educated white Americans, in particular, seem to feel left out or left behind. One 2011 poll showed that 56 per cent of whites lacking higher education said that the country's best days are over and that the economy will take a long time to bounce back. The Atlantic magazine dug up the poll recently as evidence that these Americans, in particular, were ripe for Mr. Trump's declinist message when he jumped into the presidential race last year.
Trump voters, said the Wall Street Journal in a recent editorial, "are at heart nationalists who see the U.S. in retreat abroad and the economy failing to raise wages at home, and they are revolting against both. Unlike the Japanese or the French, they aren't going to accept decline without a fight."
Mr. Trump plays on their insecurities with crude virtuosity. He said he would build a wall on the Mexican border to keep out illegal migrants, slap a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and get even with China for having the temerity to pull itself out of poverty by making cheap stuff for Americans to buy at Wal-Mart.
"Think of it," he said. "They have taken our money and our jobs, our manufacturing, but they have taken everything. It's one of the greatest thefts in the history of the world."
Like Ronald Reagan, who ran for election in 1980 on the almost identical slogan, "Let's make America great again," Mr. Trump promises to put the country back on top. "We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored of winning," he said last September.
It's a false hope. No country wins all the time. Even at the height of its power from 1945 to 1970, Joseph Nye reminds us, Washington failed to stop Moscow from getting nuclear weapons, Castro from taking control in Cuba and the Soviets from crushing rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Trump is conjuring a past that never was. Worse, he is painting a misleading picture of a hobbled country that is cheated by its competitors, humiliated by its enemies and exploited by its free-riding allies.
Every demagogue thrives on fear. Every great country fears losing its greatness.
The United States is far from alone. Britain's shocking vote to exit the European Union sprang in part from a yearning to put the great back in Great Britain. Like Trump, Brexit campaigners warned of national decline under the pressure of runaway globalization and immigration.
In Rocky IV, Ivan Drago hits the overconfident Apollo Creed so hard that he kills him. Hollywood being what it is, that isn't the end of it. Creed's trainer, Rocky Balboa, decides to avenge his friend's death. He travels to the Soviet Union to fight Drago.
Instead of showboating, he gets to work, training in the frozen wild by chopping wood, lifting rocks and pulling a heavily laden sleigh through the snow.
You guessed it: Rocky wins.