Donald Trump painted a picture Thursday night of a nation and a world that have descended into violent anarchy and offered himself as the sole solution: “I alone can fix it.” I’ve covered speeches by strongmen around the world — Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf — and Trump’s message sounded more like theirs than like Ronald Reagan’s. “America First” has been Trump’s catch phrase for his vision of a contradictory and idiosyncratic worldview doesn’t fit a neat intellectual category like interventionist or isolationist. But make no mistake, he does have an organizing principle for his foreign policy — that he’ll do for the country what he’s done for himself: put its interests above all others and drive the hardest bargain in a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world. In his Thursday night Republican National Convention speech, he referred to it as “Americanism, not globalism.” The Trump Doctrine, in layman’s terms, is: Be a tough boss, don’t be a chump, and always win.
Its simplicity is its appeal, but of course the world isn’t simple, and outside of reality TV shows, there aren’t easy winners and losers, and you can’t fire a country like a contestant on “The Apprentice.” Trump’s worldview is, at its core, transactional — scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours — and that’s something any voter can understand. Trump says European allies should pay more if they want our protection; maybe Japan and South Korea should get their own nuclear weapons so we won’t need to shield them; Arab nations need to put up troops and foot the bill to stamp out Islamic terrorists, and we need to “get a better deal” from business and trade partners like China. His latest affront to decades of American foreign policy gospel is saying he wouldn’t reflexively defend NATO allies from a Russian attack as required under the post-World War II military treaty; he’d first decide whether they’d “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Leave aside that Trump may not be aware that his “America First” doctrine has the ugly echo of the name used by a movement of Nazi appeasers and sometimes anti-Semites who tried to keep the United States from entering World War II. Sure, Trump’s pitch is full of shallow, populist slogans like “make America strong.” And yes, his vision is rife with contradictions — he vows “America is going to be a reliable friend and ally,” but warns “countries we are defending must pay” for defense or lose it; he promises “to be unpredictable” to keep enemies guessing, but says we have to be “disciplined, deliberate, and consistent” to reassure the world.
Not surprisingly, the man on the cover of “The Art of the Deal” views international relations as a series of negotiations to win and hard bargains to drive. Twenty-six years ago, Playboy magazine presciently asked Trump what his foreign policy would be if he were president, and he laid out a vision that hasn’t changed much: “extreme military strength,” never trust anyone, make allies pay. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump wrote, “foreign policy has to be put in the hands of a dealmaker.”
But the real reason Trump riles not just Democrats, but also Republican foreign policy elites, is that he’s challenging the longstanding bipartisan consensus over America’s role in the world and the received wisdom about the utility of promoting US values and democracy overseas. Trump has said he wants to get “out of the nation-building business” and has challenged the notion of America spreading “universal values.” He’s frequently expressed admiration for authoritarians, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which seems less surprising after last night’s performance. Trump has said he believes the Middle East would be better off if Saddam Hussein, Moammar Khadafy, and other dictators were still in power, and he wouldn’t waste energy on ousting Bashar al-Assad from Syria or tell authoritarians like Turkey’s leader not to purge adversaries after squelching a coup. With his challenge to the notion that our alliances with democracies are indispensable and that the U.S. should be a force of moral leadership, Trump has shaken the foreign-policy establishment.
Here’s the thing: His argument appeals to a lot of Americans weary of the United States seeming to get mixed up in “other nations’ problems,” and that’s part of why they’ve gravitated to Trump. Foreign policy elites have an obligation to explain to ordinary people why our alliances and democratic values matter; if they can’t be bothered to do that, then their orthodoxy can sound just as hollow as Trumpism. The challenge in this election for Hillary Clinton and those who deride Trump as reckless and dangerous is to take on his arguments and refute them in terms people can understand, instead of just dismissing his worldview as ignorant, the way elites tried to dismiss Trump himself. That hasn’t worked out so well, has it?