After Donald Trump’s “major” foreign policy address, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), said that he was very impressed, extolling “the broadness, the vision” of the speech. The Wall Street Journal said it was “serious.” The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn opined that the candidate was “more restrained.” Clearly we now consider it a wonder of sorts that Trump can spend 40 minutes in front of cameras and avoid vulgarity, refrain from bigotry and read from a teleprompter.
The speech Wednesday was, in fact, an embarrassment — a meandering collection of slogans that were mostly pablum: “We must make America strong again”; “Our goal is peace and prosperity.”
It did not contain his most absurd and unworkable proposals — building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, stopping people from sending money to relatives in Mexico, banning all Muslims from entering the United States and implementing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. So it was an improvement, I suppose.
The most striking aspect of the speech was its repeated contradictions. “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military,” Trump promised (although Washington already spends more than the next seven countries put together). But almost in the same breath, he talked about pinching pennies because of the crippling national debt. Trump opposes humanitarian interventions but implied that we should have intervened to help embattled Christians in the Middle East.
Trump put the United States’ closest allies on notice that if they don’t pay their fair share on defense — a complaint that Washington has made for at least four decades — he would end U.S. security guarantees to them. “We have no choice,” he exclaimed. Then, he said that he would be a close and reliable ally. He promised to be “consistent” and yet “unpredictable.” Is your head spinning yet?
Trump’s speech was mostly populist pandering masquerading as a strategy. But one theme emerged: Donald Trump is a Jacksonian. In his book “Special Providence,” Walter Russell Mead explains that Andrew Jackson represented a distinctly populist style of American thinking that is quite different from the country’s other major ideological traditions. It is anti-immigrant and nativist, economically liberal and populist. In foreign policy, it is largely isolationist but, if and when engaged abroad, militaristic and unilateral. In trade, it is protectionist, and on all matters, deeply suspicious of international alliances and global conventions.
The Jacksonian tradition quite neatly describes Trump’s foreign policy — though one has to add the narcissism that pervades every aspect of the candidate’s worldview. (“I’m the only one — believe me, I know them all — I’m the only one who knows how to fix it.”) Jacksonians are exasperated not by enemies but by allies. They want to either abandon the world or utterly dominate it. What is deeply exasperating — in fact, intolerable — for them is engaging with the world and working with other countries to achieve incremental progress, manage conflicts and solve problems. Unfortunately, that happens to be what the bulk of foreign policy actually looks like.
If we want to defeat the Islamic State, for example, what is going to make that possible is complicated. It will be a series of military moves that wrest control of its territory, political and economic efforts to help local Sunni forces who can hold the land and provide effective government to the people, and intense diplomatic work with countries in the region to ensure that they will support this process rather than disrupt it.
But Trump has a better idea, a secret plan that will zap the group into oblivion. He won’t tell them — or us — what it is or when it will happen.
In 1993, scholar-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay titled, “Defining Deviancy Down.” In it, he explained that American society was quietly accepting as normal behavior what would be considered “abnormal by any earlier standard.” Welcome to the Trump campaign, of which his speech on foreign policy was only the most recent example.
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