Election 2024: Is Donald Trump an Isolationist?
from The Water's Edge

Election 2024: Is Donald Trump an Isolationist?

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Donald Trump has long criticized U.S. foreign policy. That doesn’t mean he wants America to “come home.”
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 2024
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 2024 Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Is Donald Trump an isolationist?

Claims abound that he is. A quick Google search turns up titles such as: “Trump Is an Isolationist, Professor Says”; “Mike Pence Warns Donald Trump Is Embracing Isolationism Over American Leadership”; and “Donald Trump and the New Isolationism.” New York Times columnists state flatly that “he is an isolationist.” And, of course, “America First” was the slogan of choice more than eight decades ago of those who wanted the United States to stay out of the war in Europe.

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Of course, whether Trump is an isolationist or not depends on what one means by the term. If “isolationism” simply means being skeptical of how U.S. foreign policy has been practiced for the past eight decades and doubtful of the benefits to the United States of exercising global leadership, then Trump qualifies as an isolationist. Since taking out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post in September 1987, attacking Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries “for taking advantage of the United States,” he has been arguing that America’s friends and allies have been getting Washington to sacrifice America’s blood and treasure “to protect their interests.”

But if “isolationism” has any meaning beyond being an epithet invoked by traditional foreign policy elites against their critics, it is a call for geopolitical detachment. As Charles Kupchan writes in his deeply researched and thoughtful book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World: isolationism is “a grand strategy aimed at disengagement with foreign power and the avoidance of enduring strategic commitments beyond the North America homeland.”

And it’s here that Trump departs from true isolationists like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Trump has always been less concerned about whether America is engaged in the world and more concerned about what it is getting from that engagement. Trump’s many complaints about NATO and the U.S.-South Korea alliance, for instance, aren’t based on the fear that they entangle the United States in the geopolitical affairs of other countries. His complaints are instead that those allies haven’t paid enough for the privilege of U.S. protection. His mantra seemingly has been, “if you pay, we stay.” Likewise, the national security strategy issued during Trump’s presidency hardly read like a call to “Come home, America.”

Trump’s love for tariffs also doesn’t make him an isolationist. Throughout the nineteenth century, when George Washington’s “great rule of conduct” to “steer clear of permanent alliances” was the bedrock principle of U.S. foreign policy, tariff policy sparked bitter political fights. There the fault lines ran between states with substantial manufacturing interests, which saw tariffs as good for business, and states that depended more on agriculture, which didn’t.

Trump is better described as a protectionist, a nationalist, and above all, a transactionalist. The distinction is not merely an academic one. It points to the fact that a Trump return to the White House next January doesn’t mean an inevitable U.S. retreat from the world. The choices he makes will depend in large part on whether America’s friends and allies make good on their promises to do more and create space for him to trumpet his deal-making skills. U.S. leadership may be in less supply under a second Trump presidency, but U.S. presence abroad could well continue.

More on:

United States

Election 2024

Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Elections and Voting

Campaign Update

Joe Biden made news in a live interview today with radio host Howard Stern. The president said he would be “happy to debate” Trump. Biden didn’t say how many debates he would agree to. At a break during his trial in Manhattan, Trump responded on Truth Social:

Truth Social_

The results of Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary in Pennsylvania returned the spotlight to a potential Trump weakness. He won the race overwhelmingly, picking up 84 percent of the vote. However, nearly 17 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans who went to the polls on Tuesday voted for Nikki Haley, who dropped out of the race last month. The biggest anti-Trump votes were in the Pennsylvania suburbs. The results in Pennsylvania were similar to those in other battleground states like Georgia and Wisconsin.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Biden signed into law on Wednesday the bill that provides $95.3 billion in aid to Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine. He hailed the aid package because “it’s going to make America safer. It’s going to make the world safer. And it continues America’s leadership in the world, and everyone knows it.” 

Yesterday, Biden went to Syracuse, New York, to announce that the U.S. government will provide Micron Technology with $6.1 billion in subsidies to build semiconductor “fabs” in New York and Idaho. Biden argued that government support is “bringing advanced chips manufacturing back to America after 40 years. And it’s going to transform our semiconductor industry, a pillar of a modern economy. And it’s going to create an entirely new ecosystem in research, design, manufacturing of advanced chips here in America.”

The Chris Stigall Podcast released an interview with Trump on Monday. Asked about the House’s passage of the Ukraine aid bill on Saturday without any provisions for border security, Trump said he would “straighten out the border. I don’t need anything from Congress.” As for the situation in Ukraine, the former president said that “nobody can understand it” and that “Biden’s words to Putin, those words were essentially, if you know anything about psychology or anything else, those words were leading him to go in.” However, Trump didn’t criticize the decision to send aid to Ukraine or claim credit for forcing changes in the aid package. He instead argued that “you just can't leave, you just can't let that whole thing happen. It would be a slaughter, and we'll have to see what happens.”

Trump also declined to criticize aid for Ukraine in an interview on Real America’s Voice. He instead defended Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who cooperated with Democrats to move the bill to the House floor. Trump praised Johnson for turning some of the aid to Ukraine into a loan—though a loan that the United States can forgive—and being “very strong with me” in calling on NATO members to spend more on defense.

Biden told a story at a campaign rally that triggered a diplomatic tiff. He said that his uncle was killed during World War II after his plane was shot down over “an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time.” Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, responded with a statement that “President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labeled as such.” Marape further suggested that “it is time for the USA to find as many remains of World War II in PNG as possible, including those of servicemen who lost their lives like” Biden’s uncle. Trump jumped on Biden for his “cannibals” comment, saying that “everything’s a lie with this guy” and that “he’s a strange guy, he’s demented in many ways.” 

Cornel West gave an interview to the Washington Post on Monday. He argued that “the crisis in the Republican Party, the undercutting and the neofascism of Trump on the one hand, and now the Democratic establishment especially around Gaza” requires him to stay in the race.

What the Pundits Are Saying

The New York Times detailed how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. secured a spot on the Michigan ballot in November. Kennedy will be running as a candidate of the Natural Law Party, “For 22 years, [Doug] Dern, a bankruptcy lawyer with a small practice outside Detroit, has almost single-handedly kept the Natural Law Party on Michigan’s ballot.” Dern has done so out of a belief that “someday, a candidate is going to come along who’s going to be perfect for it. Someday, the third parties are going to be hot.” Being named the Natural Party’s candidate saved the Kennedy campaign a lot of work. Michigan state law requires “independent candidates without any party backing” to gather “between 12,000 and 60,000 signatures, including 100 signatures from each of at least half of the state’s congressional districts.” All Kennedy needed to make the Natural Law Party’s ballot was the consent of Dern, the party chair, and the party’s secretary.

Politico’s Alex Ward and Daniel Lippman examined the jockeying in Republicans circles for senior national security positions in a potential second Trump administration. “Among the names are Richard Grenell, a former ambassador to Germany whom Trump has called his “envoy” to the world and is known for fiercely fighting with the media; Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a former ambassador to Japan who is comfortable in Trump world and traditional Republican circles; Elbridge Colby, the former senior Pentagon official pushing American officials to invest more in countering China; and Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth national security adviser and a self-described Reagan Republican.”

A team of Reuters reporters examined the steps that U.S. allies are taking to ingratiate themselves with Trump and other Republicans in the event that the forty-fifth president returns to the White House. “Germany is waging a charm offensive inside the Republican Party. Japan is lining up its own Trump whisperer. Mexican government officials are talking to Camp Trump. And Australia is busy making laws to help Trump-proof its U.S. defense ties.”

What the Polls Show

Gallup released its Rating World Leaders report on Tuesday. Gallup polled people in one hundred thirty countries in 2023 about their views of a range of global powers. The median global approval rating of the United States was 41 percent, the same as in 2022 but down four percentage points from 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency. The median rating for the United States during Trump’s presidency ranged from 30 to 33 percent.

An Axios Vibes survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that 51 percent of Americans support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. In terms of party identification, support for mass deportations was highest among Republicans, with 68 percent expressing approval. But 42 percent of Democrats did as well. There was also substantial support for mass deportations across racial and ethnic lines, with 56 percent of Whites, 45 percent of Latinos, and 40 Blacks expressing support. Trump has vowed to conduct  “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.”

The Campaign Schedule

The Republican National Convention opens in Milwaukee in eighty days (July 15, 2024).

The Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago in 115 days (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 193 days away.

Inauguration Day is 269 days away.

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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