How did this happen? Donald Trump—a real estate mogul with a television show and no political experience—is America’s forty-fifth president. “Those that did not foresee” his ascendancy “are going to find it hard to discipline themselves to a balanced projection of his forthcoming first term,” Jonathan Haslam declared in a recent ISSF/H-Diplo essay. I’m in that group; maybe you are too. Polls aside, no major newspaper or magazine endorsed Trump’s candidacy, and a big chunk of the Republican Party establishment actively resisted his nomination. The GOP’s previous standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, said Trump was a charlatan, and Speaker Paul Ryan kept the candidate at arm’s length throughout 2016. Neither George W. Bush nor George H.W. Bush supported Trump, and President Barack Obama campaigned against the GOP nominee while enjoying an approval rate that hovered near 60%. Trump’s victory was unexpected because it was improbable.
Category: Policy Roundtables
No one is sure what effect Russia had on the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. intelligence community and private sector cybersecurity firms are confident that Russian intelligence agencies sponsored efforts to steal and release information from the Democratic National Committee, and from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. The stolen emails were mostly banal, but the Trump campaign used them as evidence that Clinton and her party were corrupt and untrustworthy. This may have had the effect of increasing support for Trump, or at least depressing the turnout among would-be Clinton voters. Even small shifts might have changed the result, given the razor-thin margins in key states. But the election was so peculiar in so many ways that it is difficult to attribute the outcome to a single cause. Alleged Russian ‘doxing’–the term for stealing and revealing private information–may or may not have been terribly important compared to other factors in a historically strange campaign.
President Donald Trump has now assumed control over the nation’s arsenal of more than 4,000 nuclear weapons. What will he do with them? We do not yet know the Trump administration’s approach to nuclear strategy, but Trump has offered some clues to his mindset. He has denounced nuclear arms control, declaring that he would welcome a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia. He has indicated that he might be willing to allow Japan and other U.S. allies to acquire nuclear weapons. And he has suggested that he might be willing to use nuclear weapons against the Islamic State.
Rumors of a Russian connection with the Trump administration continue to proliferate and leaks from the intelligence agencies show no signs of stopping. The Trump administration responds with accusations of its own; most recently, that Trump was illegally wire-tapped on the orders of President Barack Obama. We are far from the bottom of any of this, so it is difficult to write about allegations of improper relations between the Trump team and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia with any certainty, let alone with the historian’s preferred tool of hindsight. In fact, I write knowing that this essay is already almost surely out of date.
Donald Trump’s election will be “the biggest f**k-you ever recorded in human history,” predicted the film-maker Michael Moore in the summer of 2016. He reminded his Midwestern audience that it was Trump who had the audacity to meet with CEOs of Ford Motor Company and warn them: if you move your factories to Mexico, I will slap a 35% tariff on all your imports to the United States. We laughed. Trump won. Moore became a prophet.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The H-Diplo/ISSF Policy Series asks, among other questions, what diplomatic history and international relations theory tell us about the future of the U.S. in the world. I attempt to answer from the historian’s side, by focusing on economic nationalism in the 1930s. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 represents the most famous case of trade protectionism in American history, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s rejection of the World Economic Conference three years later added to the U.S. economic nationalist response to world affairs. Both issues inform us of the possible consequences of Donald Trump’s approach to the global economy. I think history offers some dismal lessons.
On the night of November 9, 1989, it was apparent to everyone on the scene in Berlin, and to spectators across the world, watching on TV, that history had reached a turning point. The ramifications of the opening of the Berlin Wall, as was also widely understood at the time, would not be limited to central Europe, but would reverberate around the globe. A little less than a year later, U.S. president George H.W. Bush, addressing Congress, articulated this understanding in calling for a ‘new world order.’ Separating this phrase both from its rhetoric of Cold War triumphalism and the various conspiracy theories that have grown up around it, I would suggest that the 1990s actually did see the development—tentative, hesitating, contradictory and incomplete—of a new world order, one reflecting the turbulent events of 1989 across the Eurasian land-mass, as well as the aspirations that propelled these events, the promises of 1989. But by the end of that decade and the beginning of the new millennium, a reaction to that order was beginning to emerge, which would strengthen across the early years of the twenty-first century. The two political upheavals of 2016, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump as American President, are major signs of the triumph of that reaction, the end of the new world order, and the failure of the promises of 1989.
A number of the essays in this series have grappled with the question of how big a departure Donald Trump’s presidency is from the theory and practice of American foreign policy and international relations more broadly. Having published a book on presidential deception not too long ago, I have been reflecting on this theme with particular reference to Trump’s strained (perhaps broken) relationship with the truth. Trump’s carelessness with the truth is by now well known. The fact-checking site PolitiFact awarded Trump’s statements “Lie of the Year” in 2015. As of 3 February 2017, it had rated fully 69% of his statements either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” By comparison, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election campaign, was charged with making “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” claims 26% of the time.
As with other aspects of the Trump presidency, it is impossible at this stage to predict how the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy will actually work out. But in his campaign rhetoric, and also in earlier statements over the years, Donald Trump made it clear that his predispositions are at odds with the orthodoxy that has shaped U.S. foreign policy for the past seven decades. The conjuncture of his accession to the Presidency with a decline in both America’s margin of economic pre-eminence and the public’s appetite for overseas military interventions raises the possibility that we are about to witness the most profound change in the structure of world politics since 1945. It is easier to understand this if we recognize that the nature as well as the scope of the global role that the United States has played in the last seventy years has been a departure from the norms of inter-state relations.