Having mocked use of a teleprompter last night, he used one, reading haltingly. He appeared ill at ease, nervous even. That may because the content, even as rudimentary and discombobulated as it was, did not stem from any thoughts or beliefs he might harbor. In that sense, the speech really was “foreign” to him.
At best, the speech was filled with platitudes and aspirational statements with zero content. “We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests and the shared interests of our allies,” he declared, having provided none. “Containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal of the United States,” he proclaimed, without explaining even in general terms how that might be accomplished. Written at a grade-school level, it suggests that Trump does not understand the meaning of “policy” — that is, a plan of action girded by principles.
Worse still were the internal contradictions. Our allies do not trust us, but we are going to be unpredictable. We are not respected, but we are going to hit up allies to pay more to support NATO. Having declared he wants to ban Muslims from the United States, he now vows to “be working very closely with our allies in the Muslim world, all of which are at risk from radical Islamic violence.” (Will we have to meet at a neutral site?) He says everything President Obama has done must be changed, but he essentially restates our failed Russian reset policy. (“I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength — is possible. Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end. … Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”)
And then there was the paranoia and explicit adoption of Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” policy, code words for neutrality against the Nazis and abandonment of our allies. His desire to retreat from the world, from modernity itself, was summed up in this proclamation: “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.” “Surrender”? It sounds like Germany in the 1930s grieving over betrayal by the victorious powers in World War I.
His devotion to protectionism appears to be as sincere as it is wrongheaded. “Our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is now approaching $1 trillion a year. We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own,” he said, not acknowledging that the trade deficit has little to nothing to do with “the theft of American jobs.”
He did have a few moments of clarity. “President Obama has not been a friend to Israel. He has treated Iran with tender love and care and made it a great power in the Middle East — all at the expense of Israel, our other allies in the region and, critically, the United States,” he said. “We’ve picked fights with our oldest friends, and now they’re starting to look elsewhere for help.” Those moments, unfortunately, were far and few between.
In a series of tweets, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) observed, “Trump speech is pathetic in terms of understanding the role America plays in the world, how to win War on Terror, and threats we face. . . . Trump’s [foreign policy] speech [was] not conservative. It’s isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought, demonstrates lack of understanding threats we face.” You cannot improve on that summation.
Trump’s toxic brew of protectionism and isolationism is straight from the history books, unfortunately from the chapters when frightened democracies tried to retreat, only to worsen their own economic recession and give evil aggressors room to accomplish their aims. The speech — and utter lack of minimally coherent ideas for addressing serious threats — should remind conservatives why Trump cannot be their choice. If their party for a century and a half falls under the spell of Trumpism, they will need to pick up and look elsewhere for a nominee. And yes, Trump is a lot worse than Hillary Clinton.