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Donald Trump has made liberal internationalism great again

A new poll shows that most Americans are not keen at all about America First.

President Trump speaks during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September. (Bloomberg News)

Donald Trump expressed a lot of themes in his inaugural address, but the overriding one was that foreign policy would be conducted through the prism of America first.

From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

For a president who mangles his words a lot, that seems pretty clear. Trump’s foreign policy rested on the principle that the global status quo was screwing over America, whether through bad trade deals, influxes of immigrants, or allies free-riding off America’s security umbrella. With an America first strategy, Trump pledged to abrogate trade deals, sever alliances, and shut off flows of migrants to ensure native Americans benefited.

Most of the foreign policy community deplored this policy cocktail. Many pundits, however, argued that Trump’s populism would appeal to Americans disillusioned with the stale offerings of the liberal international order.

Some of us pointed out that maybe, just maybe, Trump’s populism was not all that popular. But we were coastal elites, so what did we know?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Yesterday the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released its first in-depth poll about what Americans think about America first [Full disclosure: I am on the advisory board that oversees this survey.] My Post colleagues Dan Balz and Emily Guskin suggest that the reports are not good for the Republican Party:

The council’s survey finds that Trump’s most fervent supporters solidly support his views on these issues, but Republicans with less favorable impressions of the president are far less enthusiastic and are more closely aligned in their attitudes with the overall population.
The survey also underscores the degree to which Trump, despite the bully pulpit of the White House, has been unable to shift public opinion in his direction on foreign policy issues. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Public attitudes have moved away from a number of the positions he espoused during his campaign and since.

This echoes the conclusion that the authors of the Chicago Council report, led by Dina Smeltz, reach as well:

The 2017 Chicago Council Survey, conducted roughly six months into the Trump administration, tested the appeal of these ideas among the American public. The results suggest their attraction remains limited. For now, public criticism of trade deals, support for withholding U.S. security guarantees from allies, and calls for restricting immigration mainly appeal to a core group of Trump supporters (defined in this report as those Americans with a very favorable view of President Trump). Yet, aside from the president’s core supporters, most Americans prefer the type of foreign policy that has been typical of U.S. administrations, be they Republican or Democrat, since World War II. . . .
Indeed, in key instances, Americans have doubled down on these beliefs. Public support has risen to new highs when it comes to willingness to defend allies, the perceived benefits of trade, and a desire to grant undocumented workers a path to citizenship.

It’s worth looking at some graphs to appreciate the boomerang effect Trump’s presidency has had on public attitudes toward foreign policy. Here are the survey results over time on how effective Americans think maintaining existing alliances is to achieving the foreign policy goals of the United States:

Continuing a trend from 2015, Americans put more faith in alliances despite Trump’s rhetoric. Indeed, as the Chicago Council noted, “for the first time, majorities of Americans are willing to use U.S. troops to defend South Korea if it is invaded by North Korea (62 percent) or if NATO allies like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia are invaded by Russia (52 percent).”

The results on the trade question are even more provocative. When asked whether international trade was good at doing a variety of things, there was a marked shift in positive attitudes:

Republicans are less enthusiastic about trade than Democrats at this point, but the overall public shift toward a more favorable opinion toward trade cannot be denied.

Finally, the immigration numbers are the most surprising. When asked whether large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States were a critical threat to the country, the public has decided that it is not as much of a big deal as Trump claims. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who said immigration was a threat fell to a historic low:

Now it could be argued that Republicans are less anxious about migration because of the Trump administration’s hard-line approach. But this explanation does not jibe with polling responses on what to do with illegal immigrants already living in the United States. A strong majority of Democrats (77 percent) support a pathway to citizenship. What is interesting is that among Republicans, support for this option increased from 44 percent to 52 percent over the past year, while support for deportation fell from 42 percent to 36 percent. In other words, even Republicans clearly shifted away from Trump’s stated policy preferences on immigration over the past year.

It is not surprising that Democrats have shifted away from Trump’s policy views. It is surprising, however, that independents have done the same. It is even more surprising that so many Republicans have moved away from Trump’s worldview as well.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has repeatedly stressed the degree of presidential impotence across all areas of Trump’s presidency. He cannot get Congress to do what he wants. He cannot get other countries to do what he wants. He cannot even get his own executive branch to necessarily do what he wants.

In response, Trump’s populist supporters like to argue that these other actors are thwarting the will of the people. When it comes to foreign policy, however, Trump’s policy instincts do not reflect some deep-seated groundswell for radical change. It is the president’s own policy instincts that are out of step. He has, in his customary witless manner, made liberal internationalism great again.