Donald Trump, American Nationalist

Donald Trump’s real niche, carved out in his own strange way, is simply American nationalism. And this is a powerful force among Republicans.

In the Republican presidential race, while Donald Trump’s star has faded a little, he continues to lead nationally in most polls. To be sure, he is not going to be president. Trump is more of a circus barker than a plausible commander-in-chief. But his continued polling success should indicate something about his appeal that observers from both parties would best understand. And partly, believe it or not, this has to do with U.S. foreign policy.

Trump has staked out a combination of foreign policy positions that leave him with a distinct niche, however unwelcome to elite opinion. He opposes free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and favors draconian punishments for illegal immigrants. He says it’s time to get tough with China and Japan on trade—and “beat Mexico,” while we’re at it. He supports a strong U.S. military, including increased defense spending. He claims to have opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He declares that America has little to show for its years of intervention within the Middle East, and suggests that if Vladimir Putin wants to engage more deeply in Syria, he’s welcome to it. In fact Trump says he could get along very well with the Russian leader. At the same time, Trump favors a much more aggressive U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State.

Obviously Trump is neither a liberal internationalist nor a conservative one. His critics call him an isolationist, but that’s not quite right either. Genuine isolationists on both left and right, however wrong-headed, tend to be more high-minded, principled and pristine than The Donald. Trump’s real niche, carved out in his own strange way, is simply American nationalism. And this is a powerful force among Republicans.

As I describe in my book The Obama Doctrine, the Republican Party is today divided between three main foreign policy impulses. The first is conservative internationalism, the belief that the United States should be active and engaged overseas, militarily, economically and diplomatically. The second is conservative or libertarian isolationism, favoring strict avoidance of foreign wars, reductions in defense spending and cuts in U.S. bases and alliances overseas. The third impulse is conservative nationalism—and this is where Trump has found his not inconsiderable niche.

Conservative nationalists in the Obama era are deeply skeptical regarding the benefits of U.S. foreign aid, nation-building and multilateral humanitarian interventions. At the same time, GOP nationalists continue to favor bolstered armed forces and an unyielding stance toward America’s adversaries overseas. They oppose diplomatic concessions to hostile dictatorships and favor robust counterterrorism. Internationally, they favor sticks, not carrots.

Historically, conservative nationalists used to vote Democrat. Based in the Southern, Western and Greater Appalachian white working class, these anti-establishment voters were drawn to FDR’s economic populism, even as they backed muscular foreign policies under his Democratic successors, from Truman to LBJ. The left turn taken by the Democrats on cultural, fiscal and national security issues by the 1970s alienated this constituency and encouraged them to become Reagan Democrats. Now, after seven years of Barack Obama, they are simply Republican—and while often derided as a shrinking demographic nationwide, in fact, within the GOP they’re as important as ever.

After 9/11, conservative nationalists were entirely on board for the war on terror announced by President George W. Bush, and they remained staunch supporters of his to the end. In the Obama era, however, they became far more skeptical of the benefits of well-intended pro-democracy interventions within the Middle East. When convinced of a real security threat, as with ISIS, conservative nationalists are still as ready to fight as anyone. They believe that reputation matters, and that weakness invites aggression. In a word, they are hawks. But where the case for intervention seems abstract or convoluted, they have become considerably more cautious.

Conservative nationalists matter in 2016, especially in the coming GOP primaries, because they form something like a plurality among Republican voters today. The numerical weight of strict non-interventionists at the grassroots level is often overestimated by outsiders, and has certainly been reduced over the last year or so as international threats appear to gather. Conservative internationalists, for their part, have historically taken the lead in Republican foreign policy, and their numbers by comparison are often underestimated. But it is the third group, conservative nationalists, that form the median within the GOP today on the issue of foreign policy, and they will certainly help to determine the next Republican nominee. So it might be worth at least listening to what conservative nationalists have to say, even though they are sometimes mistaken, because they can smell elite disrespect from a mile away—and will punish it.