At points during the 2016 presidential campaign and in the onset of his tenure as President of the United States, Donald Trump emphasized an “America First” mentality. Never mind that the phrase “America First” is evocative of a movement circa World War II that resisted America’s involvement in the war and counted Nazi sympathizers among its ranks. Even if there were no historical subtext behind this newfound use, the abstract concept behind the phrase is bigoted enough to invite condemnation. This line of thinking, after all, helps explain a dangerously intensified attention to illegal immigration that has resulted in mass deportations and raids, often involving undocumented immigrants whose only crime has been immigrating illegally, as well as a thinly-veiled ban against Muslims entering the country—well, at least from those Muslim-heavy countries in which Trump doesn’t do business. Aside from keeping out or booting out those brown people many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to like too much, the America First mantra also is designed to guide the U.S. economically. We’re going to encourage consumers to buy American goods and for companies based in the United States to produce their goods here—you know, even if our President has relied on foreign labor and capital to satisfy his own manufacturing needs. We’re going to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. We’re going to dismantle those awful regulations that have been holding back our energy production and killing jobs—you know, even though renewable energy is a much better job creator than fossil fuels. And one more thing: we’re not going to get involved in more costly wars. This coming from a man who didn’t support the Iraq War—you know, even though he totally f**king did.
With this all considered, it was vaguely surprising that President Trump would authorize the launch of close to 60 Tomahawk missiles at a target in Syria. As a retaliation against the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the Syrian people, observers across America and even internationally supported the move, assuming this was the intent of the strikes. Shortly after that, Trump OK’d dropping the so-called “mother of all bombs” on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan, which certainly was an impressive show of military might on our country’s part, although the justification for this attack is less evident than with the aforementioned use of force against the Syrian government. Certainly, though, one group which was not too thrilled with these operations, which is fairly significant given its steadfast support of Trump heretofore, is the alt-right. As Matt Kwong reports for CBC News, Donald Trump’s behest of military intervention in the Middle East goes against the alt-right belief in isolationism, and as such, numerous prominent far-righters consider these acts a betrayal of sorts. Alex Jones, Kevin MacDonald, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer—all have made their disappointment in #45 explicit. The essence of their discontentment lies in their rejection of neo-conservative hawkishness, of which the missile strikes and MOAB deployment are clearly evocative, as well as their disenfranchisement with the newly-reduced role of Stephen Bannon in the Trump administration in favor of the likes of Jared Kushner, whom they regard derisively as a “globalist.” Of course, for those not enmeshed with the alt-right movement, the hurt feelings of a group synonymous with unabashed racism and xenophobia inspires little pity. Still, the idea that Pres. Trump’s support could be eroding from a part of his base that has been among his most entrenched and enthusiastic followers is some measure of encouragement for those who count themselves among “the Resistance.”
To what extent the alt-right’s outrage at Trump’s policy about-face compares to, say, that levied against the all-female remake of Ghostbusters is hard to say, not being a member. If their reaction is one of shock, however, it seemingly is a response that they and a select other few would possess, for while at times Trump has expressed sentiments of non-intervention in foreign entanglements, on other occasions, he has espoused the characteristic views of a strongman. McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic, asserts that it was only a matter of time before Donald Trump went full hawk based on his worldview. Coppins explains his reasoning, while addressing the feelings of betrayal from Trump’s buddies on the far-right, accordingly:
President Trump’s decision this week to launch airstrikes against the Syrian regime has come as a bitter disappointment to those who cast their votes last November for “America First”-style isolationism. But the betrayal shouldn’t come as a surprise. While this episode may have been the one to finally debunk the pundit-pleasing myth of “Donald the Dove,” the truth is that Trump’s mutation into a missile-lobbing interventionist was, most likely, always inevitable.
That’s because, as with everything else, Trump’s approach to matters of war and peace appears to be more attitudinal than philosophical—motivated by instinct, manifested in tough talk, and rooted in a worldview that holds up the cultivation of fear as the most effective way to win respect and obedience.
Though Trump lacks the level of knowledge and grasp of history necessary to form an all-encompassing foreign policy doctrine, he has consistently articulated a belief that America’s enemies around the world can be terrified into submission—if the commander-in-chief is willing to send a strong message. Even if Trump had opted to stay out of the Syrian conflict, that belief of his—paired with a general aversion to the compromises of diplomacy—likely would have led him to abandon whatever isolationist tendencies he harbored sooner or later.
If Coppins’ assessment of the President is accurate, he (Trump) might respond much as Michael Scott of the U.S. version of The Office did when asked about whether he, as a leader, would rather be feared or loved: both—he wants people to be afraid of how much they love him. Indeed, it appears that most of Donald Trump’s interactions exist somewhere between looking to inspire admiration or seeking to instill a sense of terror in the other. Thus, as regards dealings with North Korea or Syria, the non-specific vow that the United States will act if need be—that Kim Jong-un and his regime has “gotta behave” and that “something should happen” regarding Bashar al-Assad’s control over his country—Trump seems to be relying on his unpredictability and his proven willingness to use military weaponry in a game of chicken with the despots of the world, one bully to another. In other words, he is trying to get these leaders to realize that he is every bit as crazy as they are, and that his finger is on the button. The thought scares me, and in theory, I wouldn’t even be on the receiving end.
Again, though, if one has been paying attention to Donald Trump’s comments on foreign policy within the last year, this is consistent with what he has been saying, as McKay Coppins underscores in his piece. He claimed he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” He has waffled disturbingly on whether or not he would go after the families of terrorists to send a message to other would-be jihadists. He vividly described the mass execution of Muslims by General John Pershing and bullets dipped in pig’s blood—which was totally false, mind you, but it got the point across. He has even refused to take nuclear weapons off the table. In light of these things and more, we should not be flabbergasted by the salvo in Syria or the attack in Afghanistan.
What’s more, if we look at our presidential history, the trend toward hawkishness dictates that based on the odds, Trump was likely to make the jump from isolationist to interventionist regardless of his fickle nature. Julia Azari, associate professor of political science at Marquette University, recently penned an essay about the established path from isolationist to hawk among American presidents, detailing the history of policy shifts to reflect more flexing of military muscle. It’s not as if Azari is short on modern examples either. Barack Obama preached the virtues of not getting involved in “dumb” wars, only to expand the use of drone strikes and to preside over lengthy occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. George W. Bush obviously got us to Iraq in the first place, despite campaigning on the notion that we would be seeing less involvement in the development of other nations if he were President. LBJ promised not to escalate the conflict in Vietnam—and then did. Woodrow Wilson stood for neutrality—that is, until World War I rolled around.
One might interject by saying that circumstances often changed over the course of these presidents’ tenures—in my lifetime, 9/11 certainly stands out above the rest—such that objections to necessarily lumping certain iterations of POTUS into this category are not unfounded. Regardless of arguing the merits of individual presidents’ engagement in armed conflict, there are points to be made regarding both the role of politics in these decisions and where bipartisan enthusiasm for throwing America’s weight around, metaphorically speaking, lies. Some additional and perhaps critical observations made by Julia Azari:
- Disagreements over isolationism vs. interventionism have caused rifts even within political parties: Azari cites the examples of William Jennings Bryan’s resignation as Secretary of State of the Wilson administration and the debate over foreign intervention as a critical divide between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert Taft in the running for the 1952 Republican Party nomination, but even as recently as the 2016 presidential cycle, the contrast between Hillary Clinton, a Democrat even more hawkish than her Republican nominees, and Bernie Sanders, critical of his primary opponent for being too fond of regime change, was a salient one. Thus, even with Democrats tending to be more “dovish” and Republicans more “hawkish,” there are layers to attitudes toward interventionism within both parties.
- That said, politics still matters: Especially when considering the role of a congressional majority to dictate or thwart the direction of the executive’s authority as Commander-in-Chief. Both sides are guilty, so to speak, in this regard. Prof. Azari points to prominent Dems criticizing Dubya for plunging us into war in Iraq and then getting awfully quiet about our involvement there once Obama ascended to the Oval Office. Today, numerous members of the GOP in Congress are gung-ho about intervening in Syria and perhaps even ousting Assad by force, but back in 2013, they voted against retaliation when the Syrian government reportedly used chemical attacks similar to the ones alleged in recent weeks on its own people. Given this, while there are subdivisions within the Democratic and Republican Parties, frequently enough, the identifying party in the White House can arguably matter more than the substance of the policy being contemplated.
- And yet, Congress tends not to be much of a roadblock concerning military intervention: Pres. Trump made headlines when he requested a $54 billion increase for the defense budget, but this figure was an inflated one, calculated based on the cap referenced in Pres. Obama’s proposed defense budget for his final year in office, a number his administration moved to exceed anyway. As is often the case with Trump, this is meant to influence perception as much as it is to author distinctive foreign policy. Though Congress alone has the power to declare war, over the years, POTUS has been given an increasingly large amount of leeway over authorization of military operations—both with and without congressional consent. As Julia Azari muses, it is easier for presidents to execute foreign policy and utilize said defense budget than to pass reforms related to domestic policy. Hence why we can drop a $16 million bomb on ISIS, but we can’t guarantee health care for millions of Americans. Le sigh.
Over the short term, President Donald Trump may have received the support of political figures on both sides of the political aisle, especially as it regards Syria, and he, um, has yet to piss off enough world leaders or the kinds of bat-shit crazy totalitarians necessary for World War III—and I stress, yet. Over the long haul, however, there’s everything to suggest his strategy or lack thereof regarding the Middle East and North Korea may damage his political prospects and his already-sinking approval rating. Going back to McKay Coppins’ essay, the author opines that Trump, for all his bluster, lacks the qualities that have made past presidents perhaps better-suited for protracted conflict abroad. Per Coppins:
Beyond fighting terrorism, Trump has often said the U.S. needs to be more “unpredictable” on the world stage. While running for president, he pointedly refused to take the potential use of nuclear weapons off the table, even in places like Europe. That probably wasn’t because he had big plans to bomb Estonia; it was because he wanted to place as few constraints on himself as possible, believing that the more nervous he made the world as commander-in-chief, the less likely it was that adversaries would mess with America. Some have identified this approach as a return to the “Madman Theory,” Richard Nixon’s belief that if his enemies thought he was unbalanced, he would have a stronger negotiating position against China on the Vietnam War.
But, of course, Trump does not have Nixon’s discipline or depth of knowledge, nor does he have George W. Bush’s level of conviction, or Barack Obama’s cerebral patience—all qualities that could have come in handy for a president who hoped to defy the vast Washington establishment in pursuit of a radical departure from foreign policy orthodoxy. Instead, Trump entered the Oval Office with a bone-deep belief in vengeance, a tendency toward impulsiveness, and a history of saber-rattling rhetoric.
To recall, Coppins’ main thrust of his article concerns what he sees as Trump’s “inevitable” hawkish pivot in line with #45’s identified personality traits, but if we are thinking long-term, and to invoke the disillusionment of Milo et al., “the Donald” has already begun along a slippery slope toward eroding his enthusiastic base. Now let’s factor in the impact prolonged operations in foreign lands can have on the perception of a president’s handling of policy—particularly as it may turn negative. Julia Azari ends her discussion of trends in presidential deviations from isolationist promises with the following:
While presidents enjoy a great deal of leeway in the short term, however, the long term is another story. Sustaining a prolonged military engagement requires support in Congress and, ultimately, the electorate. If Trump’s actions turn into longer-term involvement in Syria, the country will need to pay for these interventions, and Congress ultimately holds the purse strings. Lingering military involvement can drag down a president’s esteem with the public, as Johnson found out with Vietnam and Bush found out with Iraq. Democrats, already eyeing the 2018 midterm elections, could try to go back to some of the anti-war appeals of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.
Trump also leads a generally hawkish party, but his own campaign promises rested on the idea that he wasn’t a typical Republican. The evidence is mixed as to whether his core supporters in the Republican coalition are likely to support foreign interventions. FiveThirtyEight’s Dan Hopkins noted last spring that Trump supporters were less likely to support staying in Iraq than Rubio or Cruz voters but were more hawkish overall. A YouGov poll found that Republicans in general, but especially Trump voters, were more likely than others to cite terrorism as a top concern. Linking military action to the prevention of terrorism might persuade those voters to support longer-term involvement. Recent history suggests, however, that voters sour on military action the longer it continues. If Trump pursues this course in Syria, it will likely open up opportunities for other candidates to enter the 2020 field with promises to end the fighting.
To make a long story about the long term short, war is costly. It requires a considerable investment of money, time, and human beings, the first two of which people feel they never have enough, and the last of which any loss is regrettable. Besides the politicians on the left who would use an ill-conceived military campaign as fodder for their own political campaigns, many everyday Americans are apprehensive to downright resistant to invading another country, even if for primarily humanitarian reasons. What’s more, seeing as Señor Pussygrabber isn’t exactly known for being a humanitarian, and seeing as his refusal to divest of his assets or even show his tax returns puts his every motivation into question, it is not unreasonable to think he—and, by proxy, we—have other reasons for involvement in Asia. I believe you know where I’m going with this, and that’s deep into the ground.
Before Trump even took the reins of the country, he already had oil on the brain. As Michael T. Klare writes for Foreign Policy magazine, on the campaign trail and in the nationally televised Commander-in-Chief forum with Matt Lauer—remember that dumpster fire?—Donald Trump expressed the view that while we occupied Iraq, we should have “taken the oil.” Just like that. He has also spoken about seizing oil in Libya. As Klare outlines, however, while this idea has been bandied about at different points in American history, most recently by the George W. Bush administration, the notion that “taking the oil” in Iraq specifically would be an easy prospect is a fallacy. He writes:
It is abundantly clear, then, that there never was a time when the United States could have “taken the oil.” Even at the peak of American power, in the spring and summer of 2003, such a move would have led to disaster; to think it could have been accomplished at a later date, as Trump asserts, is sheer madness. Consider his greatest folly: the claim that Bush, in his last months in office, or President Barack Obama, in his first, should have left a residual force in Iraq to guard the oil fields (presumably under U.S. control) as America’s main combat units began their withdrawal. This would have ignited rebellion from every faction of Iraqi society, requiring not only a halt in the troop withdrawal but also a second “surge” of American forces on an even grander scale than the first. Whether or not the Islamic State would have arisen under these circumstances is difficult to determine, but there is no doubt we would have seen the emergence of many other insurgent groups, equally deadly.
So, President Trump’s aptitude for war is a poor one, his involving the U.S. in a bloody conflict stands to further drive down his approval rating and threaten the GOP’s position elsewhere in government circles, and his potential reasons for invading foreign countries are perilously ill-advised. Beyond the silver lining for those of us who have stopped supporting Trump or never supported him in the first place that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization he sucks, though, this obvious does little to inspire confidence or enthusiasm. Moreover, all this military might makes you wonder—or at least should make you wonder—just how much of it is intended to put “America First” and how much is purely designed to serve Trump and his ego first. What great boon did we experience from the President’s authorization of a raid in Yemen that got Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and several civilians killed? What tremendous benefit did we receive from bombing a mosque in Syria last month, an attack which killed at least 38 people, involved a failure of the forces involved to take necessary precautions, and reportedly included the targeting of civilians with Hellfire missiles as they fled the mosque? Unless we’re striving to lead the world in civilian casualties. A dubious honor that would be, to be sure.
Sadly, while Donald Trump is American jingoism and a hard-on for things that go boom in the worst and most absurd extreme, irrespective of party and even outside of the spheres of influence of Congress and the White House, our national fetish for defense spending and for serving as the world’s self-appointed protector makes it such that while Trump should and must not go unchecked for the military interventions he signs off on, the stronghold that the military-industrial complex has on our government and on our economy also needs to be addressed at the same time. When there are lucrative contracts to be awarded to manufacturers and when Brian f**king Williams of all people can live on air describe the firing of Tomahawk missiles with a perverse sense of splendor, it is no wonder that we as a nation are perpetually embroiled in war. “America First?” Not when the war hawks are at the top of the food chain.