In my last article I speculated about how much Donald Trump's more restrained, by Republican standards, foreign policy contributed to his overall appeal as a different kind of Republican to the GOP base and swing-voters, and how much Trump's success might permanently alter the Republican foreign policy landscape. There I was primarily addressing the average Trump voter. Among a group of conservative "smarts" and Trump early adopters, however, I believe foreign policy played a key role in their enthusiasm for Trump.
As I noted in the last article, Trump's stances on immigration and trade appealed to large portions of the GOP base that had long been at odds with the more business friendly Republican Establishment on these issues, but by and large the base seemed to be in accord with the party leadership on an interventionist foreign policy. However, there has long been a group of dissident conservatives who have seen the three issues of immigration restriction, rejection of free trade ideology and foreign policy restraint as intimately related and a trio that should naturally flow together. You could conceptualize them as the consistently nationalist positions in opposition to the globalist positions of relatively open borders, free trade and foreign policy interventionism. You could call these conservatives paleoconservatives, nationalists, populists or something else, but they represent an identifiable cluster that has not really had a Republican Presidential primary candidate speak to their concerns since Pat Buchanan. Rep. Ron Paul spoke to their concerns to some extent, but his philosophical libertarianism limited his ability to appeal to them entirely.
Many dissident conservatives recognized in the Trump phenomenon a mass vehicle to advance their three core issues. Trump was solid on immigration and trade and about half way there on foreign policy. Trump is not a Ron Paul style non-interventionist, but for people who were familiar with his history, the direction he took on foreign policy was not a surprise and was in line with the whole Trumpian world view if you make an effort to understand it.
With regard to Trump's history on foreign policy, in 1987, when he was considering seeking the Republican nomination in 1988, Trump paid for a full page ad in the New York Times and a few other prominent newspapers, criticizing American foreign policy. This is the ad that Hillary Clinton referenced in one of the debates as evidence that Trump was shaky on foreign policy and our international commitments. The gist of the ad was that America was carrying a disproportionate share of the burden for defending our allies and maintaining global stability, and that our allies, especially our relatively rich allies like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, etc., were basically freeloading off the U.S and should pay more of their fair share. This was and is undeniably true, and keep in mind that this was in 1987 before the Soviet Union collapsed and was therefore likely a riskier position to take at the time when most Republicans were still worried about the alleged Red menace. It could also be read as an implicit criticism of Reagan's foreign policy which was also a risky move for a potential candidate in '88.
This is not doctrinaire non-interventionism. Trump was not calling for the U.S. to give up its commitments to our allies and maintaining global stability. He just believed America was getting used and needed to negotiate a better deal. This is entirely consistent with Trump's long held views on trade, and a reason why many considered Trump's different direction on foreign policy as likely sincere and not something he stumbled into by accident. He frames both trade and foreign policy in terms of the U.S. getting taken advantage of by other countries that are more self-interested. Our negotiators have made "bad deals" and we need to make "better deals." Trump's foreign policy pronouncements during the campaign were sometimes at odds with each other, but when viewed as a whole and with his history in mind seem to represent a recognizable and coherent foreign policy.
One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump's statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he's elected president" In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II" Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.
To internationalists like the author, this is a bad thing. To Trump's nationalist supporters, it was the reason for their enthusiasm.
With this background in mind, it is easy to understand why my social media feed exploded with concern when the reports surfaced that Amb. John Bolton is under consideration for Secretary of State. Bolton is a vocal interventionist who is widely disliked in non-interventionists and realist circles. Unlike Trump, he supported the invasion of Iraq, supported our intervention in Libya and Syria and is antagonistic toward Russia and Vladimir Putin. In addition to being potentially disastrous policy wise which would hopefully be mitigated by other voices in the Administration, Bolton's appointment would send a very muddled message to this core group of Trump supporters who supported him in part and in some cases in large part because they saw him as less bellicose on foreign policy. In board terms Bolton supports continuing America's prominent activist role on the international stage which conflicts with the general direction of Trumpism toward a more American interests focused role.
It is also hard to understand what the upside of a Bolton nomination for Secretary of State would be? Who would such a nomination be intended to reassure or make happy? The foreign policy hawks who were skeptical of Trump? The neoconservatives behind NeverTrump? Weapons manufacturers? Why would you want to reassure these folks anyway? This is an element that needs to be soundly repudiated.
Thankfully, more recent reports have suggested that Bolton is no longer under consideration for Secretary of State, and it is always possible that the intent of the original Bolton speculation was malicious and intended to upset Trump supporters. Hopefully we have dodged the Bolton bullet and the Trump team will learn from the highly negative reaction to the possibility of a Bolton nomination. It is important that Trump's appointments reflect the underlying Trumpian agenda and don't contribute to the mistaken but widely held view that Trump's policies are makeshift and incoherent. His core supporters are counting on it.