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.

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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.

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Four years ago, I wrote that the Trump presidency would provide a test for many IR theories.[1]  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.[2] The classic statement of the president’s power in the realm of foreign affairs is Aaron Wildavsky’s “The Two Presidencies.”[3]

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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.

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Much has happened since July 2017 when my previous contribution to this H-Diplo project appeared.[1]  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.

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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.

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George Floyd protests in Washington DC. H St. Lafayette Square.

George Floyd protests in Washington DC. H St. Lafayette Square. 30 May 2021, 21:32. By Rosa Pineda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90812203

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.[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]  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.

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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.[1]

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It is interesting to look back on the predictions made by contributors on the eve of the Trump administration.  They run the gamut from seeing him as a radical departure from previous presidents in his policies to someone radically different in style but not markedly different from his predecessors in his policies.  Most assume that he will to a considerable degree constrained and restrained.  Looking back on 2016 it is evident that I was both wrong and right.  I was wrong in thinking it unlikely that Trump would get elected but quite right in my expectation that he would deviate in the most dramatic ways from his predecessor in style and substance.

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Introduction from the Editors

General Editors: Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner

Donald Trump’s election forced international relations scholars to reassess our views of international politics.  In the quarter-century between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Trump, scholars took some big things for granted.  They assumed there was a durable bipartisan commitment to a large forward U.S. military presence, and that any U.S. leader—Democrat or Republican—would remain committed to the liberal international order.  Debates about democracy, trade, and institutions would go on, but no U.S. president would challenge the foundations of the post-World War II global order.  Politicians who tried to do so seemed destined for the fringes of American political life.

And then came Trump.  The new president did not accept these deeply embedded assumptions about international politics; he mocked them.  Trump criticized institutional cooperation, which sacrificed flexibility for predictability, and called for a transactional approach to foreign policy.  He blasted democratic alliances, which he saw as vehicles for smaller countries to exploit the United States, and heaped praised on authoritarian regimes. Perhaps most importantly, he took aim at the U.S. organizations that are responsible for implementing U.S. grand strategy, especially the intelligence community and the State Department.  Trump played on declining U.S. public faith in government.  Indeed, he encouraged Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their own institutions.

Critics worried that Trump’s campaign rhetoric foreshadowed a bleak future for international politics.  Undermining the liberal international order meant a return of the vicious great power rivalries of the early twentieth century, which had led to global depression and two world wars.  Hollowing out U.S. institutions would leave the country unprepared to compete in a multipolar world.  This was the worst of all worlds: a weaker United States in a more dangerous world.  A flood of commentary followed in the deeply unsettling months after the election.

In 2017, the H-Diplo/ISSF editors sought to broaden the discussion, commissioning a series of essays on the effects of the election on the liberal international order.  Our goal was to put Trump’s election in context by soliciting essays from a range of political scientists and historians.  We asked them to reflect on the state of international relations and America’s role in the world.  At a basic level, we wanted to know if theories scholars argued about after the Cold War were still relevant in the age of Trump.  A selection of those essays were published in Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2018).

H-Diplo/ISSF is now launching a second series of analyses that will focus on the effects of the Trump presidency on the United States’ standing in the world.  Did Trump weaken the liberal international order, or did he simply expose problems that were always lying beneath the surface?  Did he ruin the U.S. reputation by treating politics as a zero-sum game, or did he simply confirm foreign suspicions that the American-led order was always a façade for American power?  Will the Trump presidency have lasting consequences for international politics, or will we remember it as a bizarre and temporary detour?

We will also explore the prospects for the new Biden administration.  What do diplomatic history and international relations theory tell us about the future of the U.S. in the world?  What tools and insights can the H-Diplo/ISSF community provide to make sense of this evolving situation?  What assumptions about a range of topics – including alliances, multilateralism, nuclear policy, regional dynamics, international law, civil-military affairs, escalation, human rights, and globalization – demand attention in the aftermath of the 2020 election?  We do not seek instant analyses of the 2020 election; instead, we seek to put the Trump presidency in historical and theoretical context and to chart out the possibilities of the Biden administration.

The series will feature a range of essays.  Our original contributors have been invited to assess their contributions to the first series and to reflect on their first impressions of Trump, with the benefit of hindsight.  We have also commissioned new essays to address the effects of the Trump presidency, from a range of different perspectives, and in light of the events of the Trump years, including the rise of global movements for women’s rights, racial justice, and environmental protection, and a global pandemic that put international cooperation under tremendous strain and revealed the domestic structural damage that was done during Trump’s term.  Whether the international order can bear the pressure remains an open question.

—Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner