What President Trump’s “Nationalism” Means for the World

We’ve spent the last week analyzing Donald Trump’s nationalism.  Having covered the difference between nationalism and plain old racism or ethnocentrism, the fascist leanings that are often coupled with (white) nationalism (Part 1, here), and Trump’s Apprentice-style worldview of race and ethnicity and what that means for the United States (Part 2, here), today we will explore how President Trump’s idiosyncratic brand of nationalism shapes his foreign policies and his general outlook toward the rest of the world, and the ways in which his foreign policy may not actually be as crazy as we think.

As I detailed last time, even though Donald Trump has adopted a pretty well-defined label – nationalist – to define his approach to the presidency, his actual views and actions in the domestic sphere are rather unorthodox and more idiosyncratic than ideological, and he essentially treats America as another Trump-branded product, much like his company or former reality TV show, with Trump playing the role of capricious and mercurial boss.  Many commentators argue that Trump’s approach to foreign policy is equally as haphazard and directionless as his domestic governance, and can always point towards his flip-flops on NATO, seemingly impulsive withdrawal from bilateral treaties and multilateral agreements, and high-profile spectacles like the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or continuing bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin for evidence.  Yet, despite the Twitter tirades and general bluster, Donald Trump’s approach to the world actually looks much more like an established worldview than his detractors acknowledge.

Believe it or not, President Trump’s broad approach to the world seems to rely on a few basic principles:

I. Isolationism: Minimizing alliances, treaty obligations and military engagements abroad

Let’s take a look again at Trump’s “nationalist” quote in context.

A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist. [Audience cheers]. Nationalist, let them use that word. [Audience begins chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.”]

Trump’s announcement contrasts nationalism with the bogeyman of “globalism,” a broad term that can mean anything from recognizing that the United States and the rest of the world are interconnected to a New World Order style nightmare scenario of world government.  While Donald Trump may or may not subscribe to the conspiracy theories (he is all too willing to invoke them in order to drum up support), he generally views foreign entanglements as a burden to the United States. In doing so, he is actually placing himself in a long line of isolationist thinking that dates back to George Washington, but which last manifested itself in the 1930s, between the two World Wars.

Trump’s presidency has been marked by one of burning bridges with allies and ripping up agreements.  With his cost-cutting, profit-maximizing business mindset, Trump often sees U.S. allies as free-riders who rely on American spending and military power to protect them while offering less than their fair shares in return.  He has been ambivalent at best toward NATO, and even called into question whether the US would honor its commitment to defend other members of the alliance if one of those members came under attack (say, from Russia) – a guarantee that has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy.  In addition to calling into question relationships with allies, President Trump has withdrawn from international agreements generally, ranging from the Paris climate agreement to the Iran Nuclear Deal to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia.

II. Maximizing American strength through a strong, industrial economy and military spending

Many people have tried to figure out when exactly the “again” in “Make America Great Again” references.  One likely candidate is the so-called Gilded Age, the period in American history from roughly 1870-1900 that was marked by another round of isolationist foreign policy coupled with rapid domestic industrialization and economic growth (and growing inequality, corruption, xenophobia and racism), led by the so-called robber barons – men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who amassed massive financial empires through sometimes ruthless means.  Donald Trump would have fit in well in this era (Donald’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, even had some indirect business dealings with Rockefeller in a mining town). Donald Trump’s focus on manufacturing, trade barriers and deregulation has reminded many of this previous age, and Trump has tied his economic policies to the security of the country from external threats.

Even though Donald Trump never served in the military – famously receiving several draft deferments to avoid service during the Vietnam War – he revels in the might of American armed forces (or, as he likes to say, “my generals and my military”). He has appointed more military men (yes, men – and also “yes men”) to senior administration positions than any president in recent memory. Trump’s approach to the US military – massive spending, glorification of generals and military prowess (a massively expensive proposed military parade has been postponed), and threats to aggressively use American might overseas – has led some commentators like Stephen Wertheim to argue that Trump is not an isolationist but a militarist who wants to govern domestically and internationally based on military might.  Militarism has a long history outside the United States, including both Kaiser-era Germany or imperial Japan.  Militarism is also a key feature of fascism – an ideology that aligns in many ways with Donald Trump’s preferred style of leadership – in both Nazi Germany and Italy under Mussolini.

Trump’s militaristic approach might not, however, been an alternative to isolationism, as Wertheim argues, but actually a strategy to achieve it.  If America is strong enough, masculine enough, and if Trump’s belligerent rhetoric is scary enough, the thinking goes, America can bully its would-be adversaries into cooperation; this is the approach that Trump took with North Korea, and his fans see this strategy as a useful one for US diplomacy more generally.  Whether or not the President himself has actually thought it through, however, is unclear, as is the effectiveness of such an approach against countries such as Iran that are in a less vulnerable position than North Korea.

III. Hard-nosed trade negotiations, coupled with protectionist policies

When President Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it was not a surprising move given that candidate Trump’s rhetoric on the issue agreement divided both Democrats and Republicans.  President Trump has since laid the groundwork for a trade war with the European Union, started a tit-for-tat series of tariffs between the US and China, and threatened to tear up NAFTA in order to force Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the agreement Although the NAFTA process may likely have been more about both petty squabbles with the leaders of Mexico and Canada and rebranding the trade agreement (Donald Trump always insists on branding his products) than substantive policy changes, the general theme of Trump’s trade policy has been to operate from the premise that the US has not made the best  “deals” it could and to play hardball in order to renegotiate trade in the United States’ favor. For Trump, tariffs are both a useful tool for pressuring other countries to offer more favorable terms to the US and a politically useful way to protect American jobs in the short run, perhaps a shortsighted view that reflects how little experience the billionaire president has with international trade.

IV. Highest-level, personalistic diplomacy

As mentioned before, Donald Trump approaches most relationships and interactions in terms of “winning,” so it’s not surprising that he views international relations as a zero-sum game.  For Trump, international engagement is a process of dealmaking, and he considers himself the man who literally wrote the book on that subject.  So, while his cutting up of treaties, erecting of  tariff barriers and allowing the State Department to wither away may seem like isolationism, they are ultimately part of a larger strategy of renegotiating America’s place in the world through highest-level consultations that center around Donald Trump’s personal charisma and acumen.  This is how Trump can simultaneously vilify China as ripping off the United States while praising Chinese President Xi as a fine leader with whom Trump claims to have a personal friendship. Similarly, US withdrawal from the INF treaty with Russia is not a crack in the Trump-Putin relationship, but a feature of it; we don’t need outdated treaties to manage such issues when Trump believes he can simply hash things out directly with Putin.

Put these four principles together, and you have a fairly consistent approach to foreign policy, a short term policy of political and economic withdrawal combined with increased focus on domestic industrial economy, which all serve the longer term strategy of Donald Trump personally renegotiating America’s place in the world. It’s a surprisingly coherent strategy; one cobbled together from pieces of America’s “great” history and likely misguided (but may also be effective to some extent).

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