These are tough times for historians. I’m referring not just to the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wilson Center, but to the more profound psychological sense that I have experienced, as President Donald Trump has overtaken the news cycle, of freefall. I am grappling for a toehold.
Donald Trump’s presidency will be an ideal case study for a question that is as old as the discipline of international relations: do individuals matter? Structural realism has long held that variation among individual policymakers has little impact on the behavior of states compared to structural features of the international system, such as the distribution of power. Almost all other research programs, including classical and neoclassical realism and constructivism, by contrast, hold that policymakers’ beliefs exert a significant and independent influence. Trump’s election is almost tailor-made as a test case for these longstanding academic disputes between partisans of Kenneth Waltz’s first and third “images.”
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.
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.
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.
I am only guessing, since no one has said as much to me, but I suspect that I was asked to participate in this policy roundtable because of my remarks about Donald Trump to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, which appeared in the 26 September 2016 issue: “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.” Yes, there it is, I am an academic who, like sixty-three million Americans, supported Trump for President. Indeed, as both a Republican and a political realist, I am not only untroubled by his election, I look forward to the next four years with great expectations. “This is,” as Daniel Drezner put it, “realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.”
Can IR theory help us understand what is about to happen? Can it help get us through the Age of Trump? Or, will Trump destroy IR theory in the same way that he eviscerated most accepted theories of electoral politics? In a cage match between Trump and Theory, the smart bet might be on Trump, but perhaps this says more about the fragility of IR theory than it does about Trump.
Is this how the Pax Americana ends? Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, countless commentators have answered in the affirmative. Four years after dismissing American decline as a myth, Robert Kagan now says he glimpses the “end of the 70-year-old U.S. world order.” In the New York Times Magazine, Ian Buruma delivered an elegy for the Anglo-American partnership that won World War II and led the world ever since, until Brexit-Trump voters opted to “pull down the pillars” of the whole project and retreat to isolation. The liberal commentariat is sounding the alarm, warning that making America great again will actually make America small in the world.
“When a commonwealth, after warding off many great dangers, has arrived at a high pitch of prosperity and power, it is evident that, from long continuance of great wealth, the manner of life of its citizens will become more extravagant; further, rivalry for office and in other spheres of activity will become more and more fierce. And as these conditions continue, the desire for office and the shame of loss, as well as the ostentation and extravagance of living, will prove the beginning of deterioration of the state. For this change the people will be credited, when they become convinced that they are being cheated by the elite out of avarice, and are puffed up with flattery by others of the elite who act out of love of office.”
California and Canada have some things in common, extending far beyond the trivial fact that each political entity sports in its name the same two first letters. They are, for starters, similarly sized demographic entities, Canada’s 35 million or so people nearly matching California’s 39 million. They are each considered, with reason, to be multicultural, meaning basically that within their boundaries live a multitude of folk of differing ethnicities, not infrequently speaking languages other than English. They both have been regarded, again with reason, as ‘outliers’ from mainstream tendencies, social as well as political: California is often heralded, by friends and foes alike, as the harbinger of trends yet to unfold elsewhere in America; Canada is taken, in this age of populism marching triumphantly through one political system after another in the Western world, to be one of the remaining unambiguous bastions of ‘liberal democracy.’ Finally, Canada tends, in American elections, to ‘vote’ very much the way California does. Indeed, had Canadians possessed the right to cast a ballot in the most recent presidential election, their preference for Hillary Clinton would have been registered at least as strongly as was Californians’ own preference for the Democratic candidate.