Last fall, as the presidential primary season was about to begin, I was concerned about what the Middle East policy of a Trump administration might look like. Trump’s failure to address Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, along with his deference to Russian autocrat President Vladimir Putin, was perilously similar to the approach taken by President Obama.
Six months later, Trump has emerged as the Republican nominee but his achievement hasn’t altered my worries about how he would shape American foreign policy. Before explaining why, I think it’s worth making some general observations about Trump’s approach to politics, so as to put all this in context.
First, one has to distinguish between Trump’s sensibilities and Trump’s abilities. He is not a stupid man (far from it) and he flourishes when his rivals underestimate him. But he clearly distrusts intellectuals, cares little for history, and disdains the kinds of political speeches that are peppered with literary and philosophical references.
For all his bombast about making America great again, references to the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution, and the endurance of the American republic across nearly three centuries all are conspicuous by their absence from his podium addresses. All we are told is that “it’s gonna be fabulous.” We just don’t know quite how.
Yet when it comes to the operational aspects of his campaign, Trump has shown himself to be a master communicator in terms of the timing of his messages. In every tussle and confrontation he has proved that whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. Trump’s insertion of TV reality show values into the presidential contest is jarring and crude, but it has worked for him so far.
Season 1 of “Trump” just ended with his assumption of the GOP nomination. Season 2, his contest with Hillary Clinton, is just beginning. If we get to a Season 3, it’s because Trump is in the White House. Season 4? That means a further presidential term. We have to hope that Trump has enough respect for the two-term presidential limit for there not to be a Season 5.
I make that last point because, in studying Trump’s style and discussing his campaign with friends and political contacts, I’ve noted a couple of observations that are regularly made. First, that it is pretty much impossible to find a proto-Trump among the individuals who have already served as president of the world’s greatest democracy. Second, that therefore leads to comparisons with foreign leaders, none of them remotely encouraging.
I’ve seen or heard Trump invoked alongside Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan tyrant; Juan Peron, the former Argentine dictator; and Jean Marie Le Pen, the former leader of France’s National Front party and the most prominent of Europe’s postwar neo-fascists.
Indeed, the respected political analyst Daniel Pipes, a conservative, has made a persuasive case that Trump is deserving of the neo-fascist label.
Trump has done little to allay these anxieties. Even though some of his advisers want him to be more “presidential,” which in his case simply means not tossing out bizarre conspiracy theories and puerile insults, he is not at this point prepared to transform his rhetoric. Nor is he willing to disavow the ravings of his supporters on social media, many of whom have descended into open anti-Semitism in attacking the their guru’s critics.
One such target was Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist who recently penned an unflattering portrayal of Trump’s wife Melania for GQ magazine. Ioffe quickly found herself receiving threats in the form of Nazi imagery and anonymous phone calls consisting of recorded Hitler speeches. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump about the baiting of Ioffe by his supporters, his response was, “I don’t know about that. I don’t know anything about that…You’ll have to talk to them about it.… I don’t have a message to the fans.”
This is exactly the Trump many of us have come to know and dislike and even fear. In a purely abstract sense, it is conceivable that a President Trump could be more of an international statesman than seems possible at present; as in sports, nothing in politics should ever be discounted. Nevertheless, there is precious little evidence for the moment to back up such an assertion.
When it comes to relations with America’s allies, it is deeply troubling that the only foreign leader of whom he speaks with consistent respect is Putin. Trump is still smarting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of his unconstitutional proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Ditto for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called Trump’s demand “stupid and wrong.”
Entering office with a record of contemptuous remarks about the leaders of our traditional allies is hardly a solid foundation on which to build the relationships a neophyte like Trump will need – and need them he will – in order to conduct foreign policy.
While I believe we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a Trump presidency, I cannot find even a grain of comfort when it comes to projecting what his foreign policy will involve. One of his advisers recently told the journalist Ruthie Blum, with regards to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, “I can’t think of a better guy who can sit at the table and try to bring everybody together.”
This mantra from the Trump camp, and its underlying hubris, will be sorely tested should he be inaugurated in January.