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How the Republican Foreign Policy Elites Misdiagnosed Trumpism

Mainstream foreign policy experts have no fix for blue-collar Americans enraged at the failures of the liberal world order.

CONCORD, NC - MARCH 7: Donald Trump supporters cheer on the Republican presidential candidate before a campaign rally March 7, 2016 in Concord, North Carolina. The North Carolina Republican presidential primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
CONCORD, NC - MARCH 7: Donald Trump supporters cheer on the Republican presidential candidate before a campaign rally March 7, 2016 in Concord, North Carolina. The North Carolina Republican presidential primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is still on the rampage in the Republican primaries. From a foreign policy perspective, the establishment attacks against him have failed. Take, for example, the open letter published on March 2 by members of the Republican foreign policy community on the website War on the Rocks.

The letter rehearsed the standard critiques of Trump from both left and right: He’s a Muslim hater, a Mexican baiter, a Putin admirer, and a torture enthusiast — a man “utterly unfitted to the office” of president, as the letter concludes appropriately. But if this standard liturgy of attacks on Trump — salvos that have been fired relentlessly throughout this election cycle — were effective, why is he winning?

Because the letter is symptomatic of the very sickness for which it purports to be the remedy. It implies that the problem is Trump the man — as if his election can be frustrated through a series of ad hominem attacks, after which everything can just go back to business as usual. Yeah, right. Trump is a label for a movement. He’s channeling the anger of tens of millions of blue-collar Americans who feel sold out on free trade and immigration, and feel that the trillions of dollars spent on interminable wars abroad would be better spent at home.

Precisely because Trump has vacuous policy positions, it’s all too easy to make these the focus of criticism and attack him rather than address the actual grievances of working-class America. As for the standard liturgy itself, it’s self-defeating: it argues that there’s no substance to what Trump says, but then demands that his outlandish claims be taken seriously. You can’t have it both ways.

Trump is unfit for the presidency. But a potential dictator he is not. He’s just a con man who appeals to those who want someone to believe in, for lack of alternatives.

There’s something tragicomic about how some of the letter’s signatories just can’t see past the Trump movement’s vulgar leader to the underlying concerns of many Americans. Take this tweet on March 1 from Max Boot, a neo-conservative foreign policy wonk and one of the signatories, accompanying a poll showing GOP voters supporting Trump: “What’s wrong with GOP voters? Serious question. This is disturbing. #NeverTrump.” Now, that’s a keeper: Blame the voters for not recognizing your God-given right to rule. Once you go down that road, you no longer have standing to attack Trump as the autocrat. But seriously, it’s great that neo-cons like Max Boot are suddenly discovering that democracy can become a tyranny of the majority (#NeverNuriAl-Maliki – remember that sectarian maniac elected to office in Iraq?).

Reading the letter, you could almost picture the powdered faces of the French Ancien Régime aristocrats peering down from their carriages on the baying Parisian crowds in 1789, remarking nervously to one another how the masses were so awfully vulgar and wrong to be standing up for themselves. We all know how that worked out for them. And wasn’t the idea of kicking out unresponsive rulers the whole idea of the Tea Party? But calm down, today it’s different — it’s the voters who are wrong!

The letter itself refuses to engage with this reality. In its opening paragraph, it states piously that “[r]ecognizing as we do, the conditions in American politics that have contributed to [Trump’s] popularity, we nonetheless are obligated to state our core objections clearly”; then, like the kind of high-minded but limp-fisted U.N. Security Council Resolution it resembles, proceeds to offer nothing concrete to address the root problem it apparently recognizes.

To the working class, the letter’s policy arguments fall short. They read that Trump’s trade wars would be disastrous, that he’s humiliating Mexico, and that our allies like Japan should not pay vast sums for the costs of U.S. defense. What they don’t read is how to mitigate job outsourcing, address immigration, or tell U.S. taxpayers why they should subsidize foreign taxpayers for their own defense costs, or finance multitrillion-dollar wars.

Ironically, the letter suffers from a sort of Stockholm syndrome. It is, itself, somewhat Trump-like in its self-righteous assertion of how the reality television star’s “vision of American influence and power is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” And then it fails to offer any principles of its own, or mention that U.S. foreign policy has hardly been a model of consistency over the past two decades.

More ironically, the letter fudges on torture — the issue of principle if ever there was one — in its claim that its “extensive use … is inexcusable,” when a principled position would plainly be that any use of torture is inexcusable. In any case, it’s 15 years too late to suddenly announce that torture is not a matter of pragmatism, but a matter of principle. (Or is the letter actually worded to suggest that this is a matter of pragmatism? Some advice: If you are going to draw the sword of righteous principle, don’t get it stuck in the scabbard).

Some mainstream Republicans have accurately diagnosed the problem they face, and have offered concrete policy responses. Look, for example, at Reihan Salman on domestic policy, or Kori Schake on funding for America’s allies.

Now, having stressed the need for concrete policy responses, let me address those issues that fall in my lane on the security side. My policy prescription is straightforward: Support states against threats to their sovereignty from non-state actors or other sovereign states, or stay out. Should the United States lead strong global military alliances? Yes. Should it engage in regime changes of choice? No. This is not isolationism: It allows plenty of room to stand up to Russian aggression in Ukraine, for example, or to use intervention to back fragile regimes rather than overthrow them – like, for example, the successful French operation in Mali in 2013. Call it Westphalian, call it a hard-edged interpretation of the U.N. Charter, call it a modern version of the 1980s Weinberger-Powell doctrine.

Of course, what I’m arguing for is not much different from the default foreign policy positions held by the Republican Party before the neo-conservatives took over, positions that went a long way to winning the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. Yes, there was a time when the President George H.W. Bush could safely call the neo-conservatives “the crazies in the basement.” It was telling that the letter couldn’t garner signatures from more Republicans of the pre-neo-con ilk. The old guard’s posture could be explained to working-class America without difficulty: It maintained the values that the United States stood for in the world, while avoiding the expensive liabilities flowing from what Colin Powell later called the “Pottery Barn rule” — you break it, you own it Until, that is, the neo-cons scrapped that playbook.

We’re clearly living through a historical moment. U.S. foreign policy, now forced through the democratic process to respond to blue-collar grievances, could move in drastically different directions. The question is whether it will evolve in a nationalist or internationalist direction. Either way, the new direction will be fundamental to the shape of world order. The challenge for those of us who want the United States to remain a leader of the liberal world order is to find a way past Trump’s nationalistic direction, which would indeed be disastrous, and towards an internationalist vision that can move beyond the regime change fixation of the past 20 years. It failed in Iraq and Libya. And, yes, it would also fail in Syria, unless you can explain how knocking out the Assad regime would not lead to Libya-esque jihadist-chaos.

We must be frank about how far several mainstream foreign policy people — not just some of those represented in the letter, but across the left and the right — simply don’t understand that Trump is just the guy coming to switch off the lights at a party that working Americans have been leaving in droves for some time. The neo-cons are so pumped on their own beat they haven’t noticed — they need to skip their own playlist back a generation.

You can attack Trump the man all you want, but it’s a waste of time, not least because the Trump movement is going to survive regardless of how close he gets to the White House. The challenge is not Trump, but how to draw blue-collar Americans back into mainstream politics. To do that, internationalist Americans must either change the music, or face the music.

Photo Credit: Sean Rayford / Stringer

About the Author

Emile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer. @emile_simpson

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