The Trump Doctrine, Explained


The Trump Doctrine, Explained

Colin Dueck's Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism seeks to position Donald Trump's trade, immigration, security, and foriegn policies within the past century of Republican and conservative thinking.

Turning to what he terms the “global versus national” debate within the Republican Party, Dueck points out that Barry Goldwater’s “hard tug in a conservative nationalist direction,” which incorporated criticism of the United Nations, support for military superiority, and opposition to containment, foreign aid, arms control and superpower summitry “indicated the late twentieth century direction of the Republican party.” Indeed, Goldwater’s orientation foreshadowed that of John Bolton, whose tenure came to a sudden end precisely because Trump was not prepared to accept his national security advisor’s hardline nationalistic approach, especially his opposition to summit diplomacy with America’s adversaries.

Richard M. Nixon was as staunch an anti-Communist as both Goldwater and his former boss, President Eisenhower. Moreover, like Eisenhower, Nixon adopted a less ideological, more realistic approach to foreign and security policy, what might be termed “internationalist realism.” Unlike Goldwater, however, Nixon pressed for arms control, summitry, diplomatic outreach to China and partial abandonment of Taiwan, and a desire to reduce the American military presence in Europe. On the other hand, he voiced strong support for NATO; implemented a fighting retreat from Vietnam that included the secret bombing of Cambodia; pursued the destabilization of Chile’s leftist government; provided support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War; and prompted the unilateral suspension of the dollar’s convertibility into gold.

In some respects, notably an interest in summitry, support for Israel, and a nationalist orientation in economic matters, Trump’s policies reflect Nixon’s approach. Unlike Trump, however, Nixon was an experienced foreign policy hand who, with Henry Kissinger, had a strategic sense of how best to assure America’s security in the face of both a hostile and aggressive Soviet Union and a chaotic domestic populace whose morale was being drained away by the seemingly endless war in Vietnam.

Gerald Ford’s brief presidency was followed by that of Jimmy Carter, under whom the American public’s morale did not improve. It was only with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency that American fortunes rebounded both internally and internationally. Liberals and Europeans alike feared that Reagan would be a reckless “cowboy” who posed a serious threat to international stability. Reagan was no such person, however. Having spent years developing his world view, and with experience as a twice-elected governor of California, Reagan was far more of a realist than many realized. As Dueck puts it, Reagan “began from a sincere set of policy beliefs, but was unwilling to risk disaster in order to maintain ideological purity.” He could demand that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, pursue economic warfare against the Soviet bloc, coordinate with the Vatican to liberate Eastern Europe from Moscow’s grip, and initiate a major American defense buildup that included an anti-ballistic capability that rattled the Soviets.

Yet at the same time, Reagan negotiated a major arms control treaty that eliminated intermediate-range ballistic missiles, contemplated the complete abandonment of strategic nuclear missiles, and refused to be drawn into an extended Middle East conflict in Lebanon. He supported the expansion of democracies worldwide, but, with the exception of Grenada, avoided regime change. His successor, George H.W. Bush, continued Reagan’s policies, with an even greater dose of realism. As Dueck writes, “in terms of foreign policy … the presidency of George H.W. Bush … was a kind of [sic] successful denouement to the Reagan years, managed with hands-on professionalism…” Rather than stressing grand designs, he applied the Hippocratic Oath to matters of foreign policy: “First do no harm.” It is a lesson that Trump has yet to learn.

Bush did not endear himself to the right wing of the Republican Party, whose foreign policy priorities had essentially lain dormant since the days of Robert A. Taft. Dueck rightly notes that Pat Buchanan, who challenged Bush for the 1992 Republican nomination, not only tapped into those priorities but also foreshadowed much of Trump’s appeal to his party’s base nearly twenty-five years later. Dueck quotes Buchanan at length:

We call for a new patriotism, where Americans put the needs of Americans first, for a new nationalism where in every negotiation, be it arms control or trade, the American side seeks advantage and victory for the United States … He [Bush] is a globalist and we are nationalists. He believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put America’s wealth and power at the service of some vague New World Order; we will put America first.

Reagan’s former speechwriter could have written the same words for Trump’s stump speeches at his campaign and post-election rallies. Dueck notes that although Buchanan did not win a single state primary, the fact that he still amassed three million votes was an indication that he had tapped into that dormant vein of Republican conservative nationalism. 

Conservative internationalists drowned out Buchanan’s views throughout the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His views hardly fared better in the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns, in which Republicans nominated the internationalists John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom lost the election to Barack Obama.

Dueck devotes but two pages to Clinton’s eight-year presidency, and quickly turns to that of George W. Bush, who, as Dueck rightly points out, “was initially cautious regarding arguments for multiple military interventions.” Indeed, he was highly ambivalent about military adventures. I recall then-Governor Bush asking his foreign policy and national security advisors at a meeting in Austin whether they would have intervened in the Balkans as Clinton had. Apart from myself and one other, all present supported what Clinton had done. Bush’s reply was telling: “My head would have stayed out but my heart would have told me to go in.”

9/11 profoundly altered the president’s views regarding military intervention. Moreover, it brought to the fore his sincere desire to promote democracy worldwide in the most active way possible. Dueck notes that in responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and, initially in attacking Iraq as well, “Bush … tapped into the uncompromising nationalism so dear to American conservatives, redirecting it toward a remarkably high-risk, assertive, idealistic and even Wilsonian strategy within the Middle East.”

The Iraq War marked the high point of neoconservative influence, whose muscular, interventionist approach hardly differed from that of Bill Clinton’s Balkan interventions or, for that matter, that of Barack Obama in Libya. Bush had chosen not to attack Iraq with anything like the force levels that had marked his father’s war with Saddam Hussein, however. As a result, the United States and its coalition partners found themselves confronting an insurrection that morphed into a civil war. Bush ordered a surge of American forces in 2007 that only temporarily stabilized Iraq. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, public opinion tired of both.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump both capitalized on public disillusion with Middle East wars. There was also growing bipartisan public resistance to America’s long-standing support for lowering barriers to free trade. As Dueck notes, in the years leading up to the 2016 election, “perhaps half of Republican voters—contrary to GOP establishment preferences—had turned sour on the benefits of globalization. No Republican presidential candidate had quite captured that frustration in previous cycles.” Actually, no Democrat had done so either. It was significant, therefore, that all four candidates who lasted through their respective party primaries—Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—all advocated trade restrictions and in particular opposed American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration had initiated. Having defeated Cruz and won the nomination, Trump, more than Clinton, tapped into popular discontent with longstanding internationalist American policies. It proved to be a major factor in his successful run for the presidency.

DUECK ASSERTS that, despite criticism that Trump has no worldview, “[his] public statements during a period of roughly thirty years revealed, if not a fully elaborated ideology, then at least a broad perspective with a certain amount of continuity. And that perspective was one of populist American nationalism.” To support his assertion, Dueck cites various Trumpian pronouncements over the years—though he doesn’t specify which—such as “we don’t win anymore” and “defending nations for nothing.” It would have been helpful if Dueck provided citations for these quotes. In fact, the first was a statement that Trump made during his 2016 campaign, the second was from a 1990 interview in Playboy magazine—hardly the venue for serious thinking, even if Trump meant what he said.

In any event, during the 2016 campaign Trump articulated what Dueck terms

a kind of Fortress America, separated from transnational dangers of all kinds by a series of walls—tariff walls against foreign exports, security walls against Muslim terrorists, literal walls against Hispanic immigrants … for longstanding and hardline nationalists like Pat Buchanan this was music to their ears—vindication, after decades in the wilderness.

Trump’s views may reflect grassroots Republican opinion, but it is unclear whether his behavior as president—although it appears to reflect several of his campaign promises—fits neatly into any of the three categories that Dueck lays out in his opening chapter. He is certainly no internationalist, yet neither is he a non-interventionist in the Buchanan mold.