Why Trump Embraces America First

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary Magazine

April 28, 2016

Unsurprisingly, the media and his critics misunderstood the purpose of the foreign policy speech Donald Trump delivered yesterday. Of course, it was not aimed at convincing serious thinkers that he knew what he was talking about when it came to defining the purpose of American foreign policy in a Trump presidency. Given, as our Noah Rothman noted yesterday, the scale of the contradictions in the address, that was never a possibility. Far from a demonstration that Trump is studying up on the issues or being briefed on the nuances and the dangers facing the country, the speech was merely a compilation of campaign sound bytes aimed at Republican primary voters, not Washington, the press, foreign capitals, or even a broader audience of voters.

Thus, all of the analyses of the speech tend to miss the point about it. It’s a waste of time seeking for the answers to questions about how Trump plans to smash ISIS while also withdrawing from the Middle East and avoiding nation-building (i.e. how you ensure that ISIS or some other Islamist terror group doesn’t bounce back once Trump has kicked all the asses that need kicking). Those who ponder the tension between Trump’s criticisms of Obama and George W. Bush being too interventionist and his belief that the current administration has also been too timid in fighting America’s enemies are wasting their time. The same applies to those pointing out that a speech that accuses Obama of abandoning allies while also proposing to let allies shift for themselves in the face of threats makes absolutely no sense.

The purpose of that speech was no different than the rest of the Trump campaign on other issues: an appeal to the unthinking prejudices of a segment of the American people that believe their country is a perpetual victim. Though he read it from a teleprompter, unlike his other scripted speech — on Middle East policy that was given at the AIPAC conference — yesterday’s effort sounded like vintage Trump rather than the product of wiser heads versed in the issues. That applies to international trade, immigration or, in this case, a world filled with nations that are either friends taking advantage of U.S. generosity or enemies that perceive weakness. As with everything else in Trump’s world, foreign policy is an opportunity for the candidate to appeal to the narrowest nationalism in a way that allows Americans to feel he is standing up for them after the elites have supposedly sacrificed their interests.

Nor does it matter that a candidate that runs against the Washington establishment and who has blasted Republicans for being bulldozed by President Obama would have his speech endorsed by the senator that best exemplifies the problem that he raised. When Senator Bob Corker — the man who was rolled by President Obama on the Iran nuclear deal and who put his name on a bill that allowed that disaster to sneak through Congress with the votes of a minority rather than the two-thirds required by the Constitution to pass a treaty — says the speech was good that tells you all you need to know about its merits as well as Corker’s lack of both intelligence and integrity.

In that sense all of the postmortems about the speech — including those that correctly blasted its foolishness as well as those who tried to grade it on a curve — got it wrong. But even if we put it in its proper context as a pose rather than a declaration of policy, it is still worth spending a few minutes pondering the question of why a presidential candidate would embrace one of the most discredited foreign policy stances of the 20th century: America First.

As writers such as Bloomberg’s Eli Lake have pointed out, Trump’s embrace of the slogan of anti-Semitic isolationists that sought to keep America out of the war against Nazism is a curious piece of symbolism. As Lake also noted, given Trump’s support for Israel (when he’s not being neutral about its conflict with the Palestinians), the comparisons with Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism are off base. Nevertheless, Trump’s willingness to trash NATO and appease Russia is reminiscent of the old isolationists. It also raises questions about the real estate mogul’s dealings with Russia as well as those of his new consigliere Paul Manafort.

Let’s also concede that there was merit to many of Trump’s criticisms of Obama on Iran and Israel. Nor can it be denied that many of the decisions of George W. Bush that he criticizes don’t hold up well to scrutiny, though Trump’s claims to have opposed the war in Iraq “for many years” are contradicted by the record and undermine his already non-existent credibility.

But all of the deep dives into the contradictions in this disorganized and utterly superficial statement are missing the big picture. Trump doesn’t have a thought out foreign policy any more than he has well considered domestic stands. What he has are attitudes that go to our fears. That’s why, even if we strip away the worst of the isolationist baggage associated with America First, it is exactly the slogan that fits Trump.

Of course, every American president ought to put the country’s interest first. Even Barack Obama thinks he does that. The problem is that he believes it is in America’s best interest to both apologize for its exercise of power as well as to appease enemies and distance itself from friends (exactly what Trump seems willing to do with U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific).

But America First resonates with a segment of the American public today for the same reason it did in 1940. At that time, Americans were afraid of the threats looming in the world. They were right to be afraid just as Americans today are right to be afraid of the threats from Islamist terror, Iran, China, and Russia.

But though Trump claims only he understands that America’s foreign policy thinking is outdated, the lessons of the 1940s are still relevant. America will never be safe if it shrugs its shoulders at dangers looming against its allies. Far from Trumpian unpredictability being a virtue, it is a grievous fault if it allows rivals and foes to think Americans have discarded the responsibilities that go with being the leader of the free world. When that happens, enemies strike. America First is correctly regarded as not merely a failure but an ideology that was completely discredited by events because the price of listening to those who appeal to such sentiments is always paid in suffering and blood. Others will pay first but inevitably Americans will also do the same. America Firsters forget that if America ceases to exercise the responsibilities that go with being the world leading democracy, it will be America that will be the loser, not just supposedly free loading allies or foes that can’t be appeased or ignored.

Trump may lack the knowledge to understand how many problems he would create where he ever to become president and act on his impulses. But he’s an expert at marketing and knows that this brand of xenophobic fear-mongering will, at least in this primary season, turn out enough votes to get him the Republican presidential nomination. Many of us will always long for a strong man who will tell us we needn’t worry about others or that we can make the world pay. Those who cry “America First,” while really meaning to hell with everyone else, will always draw a crowd no matter how self-contradictory such a stance may be. But they will always be as dangerously wrong as their predecessors.