The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No, Trump isn’t putting ‘America first.’ He’s putting himself first.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Trump’s extraordinary response to the horrifying murder of Jamal Khashoggi has renewed attention to what is widely described as his “America first” doctrine. But an error of logic has seeped into the coverage of this alleged doctrine and the bearing it has on the Khashoggi killing — and many other matters, as well.

It’s a subtle error, but a serious one.

In the media discussion of Trump’s response to the murder, you often see variations of the claim that Trump has revealed an unpleasant, unstated truth about his worldview — that Trump will put America first even if it requires sanctioning the most reprehensible conduct, or doing things that are necessary even if people find them deeply unsettling.

The lead story on Trump’s response in the New York Times, for instance, describes it as “a stark distillation of the Trump worldview,” which is “heedless of the facts” (correct!), but also “remorselessly transactional” and “determined to put America’s interests first.” A Post piece claims Trump is prioritizing America’s “bottom line.” A CNN analysis notes that “America first” means Trump will look the other way “as long as a foreign power enriches the United States,” adding: “Perhaps Trump should get marks for frankness.”

The suggestion here is that we are now seeing what “America first” really looks like. That is, when Trump says “America first,” he means it.

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But this concedes too much. In an inadvertent but pernicious way, it supports Trump’s preferred framing of his presidency. In this case and many others, Trump is not being “frank” about his real priorities, and he is not putting America first. He’s putting his own naked self-interest over what’s good for America, and prioritizing the real-world policy realization of his own prejudices and hatreds over any good-faith, fact-based effort to determine, by any discernible standard, what might actually be in the country’s interests.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) says there must be consequence for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who resided in Virginia. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir, Justin Scuiletti, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Trump’s idea of a ‘dangerous’ world

Trump’s core claim that we must overlook the killing to maintain our current relationship with the Saudis, and that this is good for us, is itself mostly nonsense. As a Post editorial points out, the failure to sanction those responsible for the murder — including the Saudi kingdom, per the conclusion of the CIA — buttresses a world in which “dictators know they can murder their critics and suffer no consequences.”

Trump’s response to this notion is the idea that “the world is a very dangerous place!” and that he will pursue our “national interests” in this dangerous world. But Trump’s statement on the killing relies on falsehoods to depict maintaining our relationship with the Saudis as in our “national interests.” As we’ve noted:

The Saudis did not agree to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States, a number Trump seems to have just made up; they did not order $110 billion in military equipment; and they will not be creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States.

But I’d like to take this further and point out that here Trump is not actually operating from any meaningful conception of what is good for the country. It isn’t just those lies. It’s also Trump’s insistence that we’ll never know whether the crown prince actually ordered the killing, which breaks from the intelligence community’s conclusion, and the subtle slandering of Khashoggi via the floating of the Saudi claim that he was an “enemy of the state.”

I challenge you to read those things as driven by any conception of what’s good for America. They are arguably damaging to the country, since they weaken faith in efforts to determine the truth, and could further distress Americans who are deeply upset by the murder. But what’s undoubtedly true is that they can only be about making Trump’s current stance politically easier for himself.

The bigger idea at stake here in Trump’s response is the notion that our commitment to international standards of human rights are to be jettisoned when they get in the way of our “interests.” It’s true that the United States has a long history of turning a blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses. But this does not preclude responding to this particular atrocity, and merely claiming Trump is revealing “the truth” about our previous realpolitik does not justify the current absence of any response.

More to the point, Trump is not merely acquiescing to this unfortunate “truth.” He’s actively weakening our commitment to human (and civil) rights on many other fronts as well, both at home and abroad.

The idea that adherence to international standards on human rights — but also international commitments on other matters, such as fighting climate change and taking in asylum seekers and refugees — is a zero-sum negative for America is of course supposed to be foundational to Trump’s worldview. But the administration has never actually defended this proposition on any of these fronts in a fact-based manner.

Lies, lies and more lies

This is most glaringly true on asylum seekers and refugees. Limiting their entry is also foundational to “America first” Trumpism. But Trump has not merely tried to reduce asylum seeking; he has justified this with all manner of lies about the supposed threat it poses to us. Trump has not just slashed refugee levels to historic lows and employed bureaucratic chicanery to reduce those levels further. His administration deep-sixed internal data showing them to be a net economic positive.

The point here, again, is that Trump is placing his prejudices — his determination to implement a white nationalist agenda — over any good-faith effort to determine what the actual impact of this agenda will be on the country. On the migrants, the self-interest runs even deeper than this. The lies about the “caravan” were all about keeping the House in GOP hands — he even used the military as a prop in this exercise — to prevent Democrats from taking the House and subjecting him to accountability.

Other aspects of Trump’s white nationalism underscore the point. Trump’s “many sides” comment after Charlottesville, which emboldened white nationalists rather than calming racial tensions; his pardoning of racist Joe Arpaio; his attacks on African American athletes — Trump reportedly believed these things would help him politically, never mind that they stoked civil conflict that harmed the country. Over and over, Trump’s prejudice and naked self-interest trump (as it were) any conception of the national interest.

Need more? The New York Times reports that Trump privately wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey. There is no possible way this is based on any conception of the national good, unless Trump is totally delusional, which would itself mean there’s no such operative conception here. Everyone knows Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general not because of Whitaker’s qualifications, but for the sole purpose of protecting himself from the special counsel.

There is no big and unpleasant truth at the core of Trump’s vision of what’s good for the country. That vision is largely a void filled with unchecked self interest, both disguised and sustained by lies.