New Zealanders old enough to remember will be thinking they have seen this week before, says

John Roughan

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A big, jowly head on television, a heavy frame newly installed on the seat of power, small pudgy hands signing orders that will set his country back.

We remember now how business fawned, stockmarkets rose on the prospect of quick gains at lasting cost to the country, responsible leaders dared not criticise him in case their people suffered for it, how opposing politicians were demoralised and media were unpopular when they spoke the plain truth.

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It feels like this is where I came into the movie, not knowing it was on continuous rewind.

I thought when most countries abandoned closed economies in the 1980s, New Zealand a bit later than others, that I'd never see a reversion. But here it comes. America First.

In that stump speech that was supposed to be an inaugural address, it was probably significant that only one passage had some oratorical flourishes.

He tried to sound positively Kennedyesque as he said: "We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, from this moment on, it's going to be America First."

Kennedy and every other president of the American century would be feeling just sick at heart. America has been so much better than this.

It is interesting that over the 500 years since Europeans began trading across oceans, colonising and dominating the world, each dominant power has lasted only for a century or so.

Spain ruled the 16th century, the 17th century largely belonged to the Dutch (who "found" New Zealand in 1642). The 18th century was France's until the defeat of Napoleon, and the 19th century was Rule Britannia.

Germany hoped the 20th century might be its turn, but despite fomenting two big wars it was not to be.

Britain's former colonies in America, long independent, more recently united, newly vigorous and wealthy, came in decisively on the side of the old empire. The United States of America was to dominate the 20th century.

Probably we should date the American century from 1917, the year the United States came into the First World War.

But for a long time thereafter America was ambivalent about its power. Protected by oceans on both sides, few Americans saw a need to care what happened beyond their hemisphere.

Woodrow Wilson was a world hero for winning the war but he had been re-elected the previous year because he'd kept America out of it. Franklin Roosevelt did not dare take America into the Second War until it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor.

After that war, it became easier to convince Americans they had global responsibilities. Communism was foreign to everything they regarded as free, rightful and good for people everywhere.

That strange thing called "American exceptionalism" - the conviction that America is uniquely blessed with a degree of freedom and democracy that it models to the world - is deeply embedded in the American mind.

But so is isolationism.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's adoption of private enterprise, the nearest thing to a global threat has been terrorism in the name of Islamic nationalism. When it struck the US directly, the country struck back disastrously in Iraq, feeding its cause.

George W Bush and the "neocons" had really believed their invasion would bring democracy to the Middle East. It may have been the last fling of messianic American exceptionalism.

The isolationist impulse now reigns supreme.

Americans, and all of us in the West for that matter, don't begin to understand this Islamic extremism and don't want to. Best to keep our distance, bomb its bases and patrol our borders. If somebody reckons he can destroy it, elect him.

If only that was all he wanted to destroy.

Ever since watching him declare America First "on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs", and start to withdraw American leadership from economic liberalisation, climate change and anything else beyond his knowledge, I have been wondering what happened to earlier empires that sent them into decline after lasting as long as Europeans have ruled the world. How did the rot set in?

Did it start with an emperor who was seriously delusional, insisting there was a crowd where there was none. Did he decree that the day of his accession was henceforth to be known as "The National Day of Patriotic Devotion".

Did he declare a supreme Constitution to be "parchment", subject at all times to the will of "the people". Did he start building a Great Wall.

Did he cancel free trade and invite countries in a previously liberal cosmopolitan empire to come to him separately to be screwed.