In 1956, in an interview with journalist Anna Louise Strong, Chinese leader Mao Zedong famously said of American imperialism: “In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger.” It wasn’t the first time he had used the image. Ten years earlier he had told Strong that, even with its new world-ending weapon, the atom bomb, the U.S. was a paper tiger, adding of that bomb, “It looks terrible, but in fact it isn’t. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon.”
More than half a century later, with nuclear weapons once again on the table, Mao’s language seems a bit dated. Paper? What’s that? And America as a tweetable (or Twitter) tiger doesn’t exactly do the trick, does it? Still, whatever its truth at the time, that ancient Maoist image might possibly have a second life in a new century. You know, the century in which the United States was finally led by a “very stable genius.”
As TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, suggests today, we finally seem to have reached the paper-tiger stage of American imperial history. After all, we have a president who just screened The Greatest Showman, the new movie on P.T. Barnum and the founding of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, at Camp David and is himself, tweet by tweet and statement by statement, turning the empire into a failing sideshow in the ever more riveting three ring circus of Trump. Perhaps it’s fitting that 2017 was the year Barnum’s circus had its final performance.