Candidate Trump, and then President Trump, advocated for a dramatic change in the direction of American foreign policy, which he labelled “America First.” His vision stood in stark contrast to the liberal internationalism (LI) pursued by most presidents since World War II. For Trump, unilateralism would replace multilateralism; retrenchment would replace global engagement; pursuit of short-term, transactional American interests above all else would replace international cooperation. These dramatic changes in direction were to be accomplished through many smaller steps taken in relation to each issue area and across many countries.
By the time he lost his bid for reelection, President Donald Trump had fulfilled many of his campaign promises regarding international law. On trade policy, he abolished the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced it with a revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and he launched a tariff war with China in hopes of making a better deal on bilateral trade. On climate change, he pulled out of the 2016 Paris Accord, as promised. As far as we know he did not fulfill his vow to defy domestic and international prohibitions on torture, as his main military advisers counseled against it, and he listened for a change. Reflecting an animus against arms control treaties with Russia, even longstanding ones negotiated by Republican predecessors, Trump withdrew the United States from the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, and he expressed eagerness to resume testing of nuclear weapons, an action that would violate the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, had the United States ever ratified it.
Historians seem to have a problem with Trump. I do not mean by this the dominance of partisan hostility to Trump in the ranks of the historical profession, or even the way in which many historians have been offended by the way in which the president has treated history as a resource to be exploited, rather than a reality to be respected or understood. The more substantial problem posed by Trump is that for many historians he simply should not exist. The possibility that the conclusion of the evolution of the United States across the half-century since the 1960s could be the election – albeit against the weight of individual votes – of a man who boasts of his distaste for the goals of racial equality, wider health-care provision, and a narrowing of income differentials, seems to many historians to be somewhere between an institutional outrage and an absurd accident of history. But the political is supplemented by the personal. Trump’s swagger, and his disregard for bureaucratic procedure and legal constraints, stands as a refutation of deeply-held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work. The complexity of institutional procedures, the careful reconciliation of competing interests, and above all the prestige of the presidency as the symbol of democratic legitimacy, have all been bulldozed by a man whose personal qualities – or lack of them – seem like an insult to the historical narrative.
Unlike, perhaps, any previous occupant of the Oval Office, the election of the 45th president of the United States in 2016 triggered intense soul-searching in America, and this introspective exercise is likely to continue for some time yet. Unfit for office in the first place, far from being tamed by the weight of his responsibilities, President Trump became more disruptive and dangerous with time. But whatever the economic costs or the social, racial, and cultural divisiveness of his brand of politics or the strain he has placed, by design, ignorance, or recklessness, on America’s constitutional arrangements, his turbulent presidency also left an imprint on international affairs, and historians will find in that period much on which to reflect and debate.
Four years ago, I wrote that the Trump presidency would provide a test for many IR theories. It was clear from Trump’s campaign and his personal style that both his policy preferences and his methods of operation were outside of the political mainstream, and indeed this was a major part of his appeal to voters, even if they did not necessarily approve or even know of the specific policies he was advocating. What made this period so valuable to IR scholars, even if they disapproved of Trump, was that it would provide insight into the classic arguments about how much freedom of action an American president has and how much he was constrained by domestic interests, politics, and the international system. On this topic I found Kenneth Waltz’s well known levels of analysis framework particularly useful. The classic statement of the president’s power in the realm of foreign affairs is Aaron Wildavsky’s “The Two Presidencies.”
Culture shock. I have long encouraged students to take a semester abroad not just to learn about another country but to experience culture shock. The shock, I explain, is useful. It forces us to realize that some assumptions that are so ingrained that we consider them facts of human existence are, in reality, culturally contingent and learned. Living abroad helps Americans understand what it means to be an American.
Much has happened since July 2017 when my previous contribution to this H-Diplo project appeared. The central purpose of that essay was to push back against those who were then castigating President Donald Trump for tearing down a norms-based liberal international order that successive U.S. administrations had ostensibly erected since World War II. I strenuously questioned the existence of any such order. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the Trump wrecking-ball may yet yield something useful.
Assessments of President Donald Trump in any future history of the U.S. intelligence Community (IC) will differ dramatically from those of any of his predecessors. While Trump made little use of the IC to inform or implement policy, he abused and ignored it incessantly. The closest precedent is Richard Nixon. Yet Nixon reserved his scorn largely for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and kept it private. Trump is an equal-opportunity abuser and rages publicly. The IC struggled mightily to recover from the Nixon years. The same can be said for the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy and the flawed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The damage done by Trump and his enablers may prove irreparable. He gauged the IC according to its service to his own, not the national, interests. Because intelligence professionals refused to politicize their estimates, Trump politicized their leadership. If there is a silver lining, it is the potential for a better and more accountable institution to emerge. Achieving that outcome won’t be easy, however, and it will take precious time.
As 2021 begins, the United States confronts two immediate threats. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 400,000 Americans, and is projected to kill more than 500,000 by the end of February 2021, even if states respond to growing infection rates by issuing social distancing mandates. This means that one year of the pandemic has already killed roughly the same number of Americans as were killed in all four years of World War II, and the pandemic death toll will of course continue to rise. It has also created a recession that has seen the unemployment rate reach its highest level since the Great Depression. Second, the legitimacy of the U.S. government and democratic institutions are in crisis. After months of false claims from former President Donald Trump and his allies, nearly one-third of Americans erroneously believe that President Joe Biden only won the 2020 election through voter fraud. And on 6 January 2021, an angry mob that had been so deceived stormed the Capitol Building and effectively took it over for several hours, in a direct assault on the U.S. Congress and democratic institutions that left five people dead and many more injured.
Leo Ribuffo should be writing this reflection on the four years since Donald Trump’s election. Diane Labrosse kindly asked me to contribute after reading my 2017 remarks celebrating Ribuffo’s pathbreaking 1983 The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Andrew Hartman put together the roundtable that took place just weeks before Ribuffo unexpectedly passed away and made sure the papers, including Ribuffo’s, were published. But Labrosse’s kind invitation to contribute to H-Diplo gave me a chance to revisit the Old Christian Right, Ribuffo’s 2017 essay on Donald Trump and the uses and abuses of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” and what I wrote less than a year into the Trump Administration.