Trump Against the World

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

~Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”  George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, once wrote.  In the context of Europe’s history in the first half of the 20th century, Santayana’s warning has a special meaning.  It’s evokes searing memories of war and genocide.

Santayana was born in Spain at a time of civil war in America.  He lived long enough to see the world consumed in the flames of two world wars and his own native land torn apart in the Spanish Civil War.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States tried to stay out.  When U.S. finally intervened in World War I, a reluctant President Wilson declared the purpose was “to make the world safe for democracy”.  Of course, it did no such thing:  World War I was the crucible of Soviet Communism and set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power and World War II.

Far from following through on the Wilson’s implied commitment, the United States turned it’s back on the League of Nations and withdrew into its prewar isolationist shell.

A decade later, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff passed in 1930 signaled America’s withdrawal into an even deeper economic isolation.   U.S. imports from Europe plummeted from $1334 million to $390 million between 1929 and 1932 , while U.S. exports to Europe fell to less than a third.  Overall, world trade declined by 66% between 1929 and 1934.  Unemployment  doubled in the six months between June and November 1930.   Thousands of farmers defaulted on loans, loan defaults led to bank crashes, and the Great Depression was on.

Ironically, it was the grim sequel to “the war to end all wars” that supercharged the U.S. economy and lifted America to an exalted position as undisputed leader of the Free World.

In the aftermath of World War II, isolationism gave way to internationalism and a foreign policy calling for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”[1]  The United States had learned its lesson:  Never again would America sit on the sidelines as the world descended into the abyss.  The made-in-America North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 was a first for the United States, the end of a tradition  dating back to 1796 and George Washington’s famous warning against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address.

Playing the leading role in the international system has been a strong commitment neither major political party in the  has questioned for more than seven decades.  The idea that “politics stops at the waters’ edge” meant parties accepted  self-imposed limits in matters of foreign policy and national security – it was called bipartisanship.  That principle was largely abandoned by a Republican Congress bent on beating down the Democrat in the White House during Barack Obama’s second term.

Then came the election that shook the world.  The rise of  Donald Trump as the face and voice of America has thrown our constructive engagement with the rest of the world into more serious question than at any time in last three quarters of a century. 

The Ice Age Cometh

There are disturbing signs that the United States is teetering on the edge of a new isolationist Ice Age.  Here’s a partial list of Mr. Trump’s recent declarations and actions:

a) A newly elected president publicly calling into question whether NATO – the major Western alliance since 1949 – is still relevant or necessary.

b) Promising to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

c) Threatening to kill the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) treaty.

d) Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

e) A major restructuring of the National Security Council (NSC) that marginalizes key players and is all but certain to undercut professional expertise, discourage doubt, and preclude dissent in the Situation Room of the White House when the fate of the country and the world hinges on making the right decision in a crisis.

These and other signs are reminiscent of attitudes with deep roots in American history, geography, and the national psyche – so deep that even a world war did not fundamentally change the way we related to – or did  business with – the rest of the world between 1920 and 1940.

The White House Amateur Hour

When Mr.  Trump was informed that North Korea had just conducted a missile test, he was at dinner at his Mar-a-Largo resort in Palm Spring, Florida.  It turned into the foreign-policy amateur hour, an opportunity for the President of the United States to reprise his role as a  reality TV star.

Mr. Trump and his aides conferred on the sport.  The Commander in Chief talked on a (presumably) secure phone in full view of other diners!

Forget privacy – the issue at such times is security.  National security, to be more precise.  Which requires, at a minimum, secure communications.  Responding to just such a situation is why there is a Situation Room in the White House.

News of a major reshuffling of the National Security Council (NSC) had set off plenty alarm bells in the days before the incident in Florida.  Diplomats, the intelligence community, journalists, and foreign-policy analysts, were busy trying to parse the meaning and implications of Mr. Trump’s picks for key national security posts.

After less than a month on the job, Michael Flynn, the President’s National Security Advisor, suddenly “resigned”.  Flynn, a retired army general, was no amateur, but he acted like one.  The general in charge of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command described the situation in the Trump  White House in two words – “unbelievable turmoil”.

The Presidential Memorandum –  called NSPM-2 – elevates Stephen Bannon, the President’s chief strategist and political advisor, to full membership on the NSC.  At the same time, it downgrades the director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  None of this makes any sense to professionals either on the military or civilian side of the government.  It only makes sense if you don’t understand that national security is too important to left to amateurs or an  imposter with a personal agenda and a gift for self-promotion.

 Doomsday Clock – Time to Set the Alarm?

Xenophobia is the generic form of Islamophobia.  Mr. Trump has lost no time in using his bully pulpit to exploit lingering public fear of terrorist attacks and post-911 prejudice against Muslims – a clear indication of how the new President intends to govern.

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, xenophobia is often the first resort of a would-be dictator. History is replete with examples of dictators who use hatred of foreigners to fan the flames of nationalism, patriotism, and militarism.

Given a natural suspicion of strangers we literally don’t understand,  xenophobia is the path of least resistance for a leader bent on consolidating absolute power.  There’s nothing like a well-timed and -executed war scare to justify declaring a state of emergency, strict press censorship, warrantless wiretaps, mass arrests, and preventive detention.

Much as dictatorships can be destabilized by popular discontent – pressure building from below – open societies are vulnerable to subversion from above.  They require constant vigilance against the misuse of national security to silence the press, demonize dissent, and manipulate public opinion.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly denounced the mainstream media, often calling negative polls and reporting “fake news”.   Many believed he would moderate his war on the press after the November 8 election, but it continued unabated.  To have a sitting president intent upon discrediting the press is arguably as dangerous as one who seeks to marginalize judges and courts of law.

Consider Mr. Trump’s widely reported naiveté on the subject nuclear weapons.  That’s the sort of thing the American public needs to know about it’s new Commander-in-Chief.  If there’s ever been time for complacency, it’s clearly not now.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.  Two decades later it happened again with the less-well-known “Able Archer War Scare” when the Soviet Union believed Ronald Reagan had his finger on the nuclear red button. [2]  There is no legal or treaty proscription against the pre-emptive or preventive use of nuclear weapons – the “no-first-use” doctrine – but the argument for prudence in word and deed in the Nuclear Age is compelling.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warns that it’s now 2 ½ minutes to “midnight”  — the closest the Doomsday Clock has been to Armageddon since 1953,  the year the Soviet Union first conducted successful hydrogen bomb test, thus setting the stage of the nuclear arms race that ensued.  In 2016, these scientists say, “the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.” [3]  Physicist Lawrence Krauss and retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley blame “a single person” for taking America and the world dangerous close to the edge of the nuclear abyss:

 “Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.”[4] 

Back to the Future: Protection vs. Protectionism 

The  lifeblood of the global economy is international trade and the free flow of labor and capital.   That wasn’t always true.

In the 19th century when Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion provided abundant land and vast natural resources made the ever-proliferating United States self-sufficient, while two great oceans insulated the Western Hemisphere from the rest of the world and created a natural, impregnable barrier against any unwanted foreign interventions.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in 2007:

Should the United States seek so-called energy independence in an elusive effort to insulate this country from the impact of world events on the economy, or should Americans pursue the path of international engagement, seeking ways to better compete within the global market for energy? Like the Council’s founders, I believe we must choose the course of greater international engagement… [5]

Nice words, but if Tillerson meant what he said in 10 years ago, he has his work cut out for him.

When called a meeting with the chief executives of  Detroit’s three big automakers, Toyota, Honda, and other foreign automakers were not invited even foreign-owned European and Asian companies account for roughly 40 percent of the vehicles assembled in this country.   Ford Motor Co. cancelled plans to build a $1.6 billion factory south of the border after a Trump broadside attacking GM, Ford, and Toyota for investing in Mexico.

President Trump has not been content to bully Detroit’s automakers and Mexico or the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.  He has also made no secret of his belief that trade with China has caused massive unemployment in the United States.  In his fact-free world, China is a “currency manipulator” responsible for the closure of some 50,000 factories and the loss of tens of millions of jobs. [6]

A few not-alternative-facts will suffice to make the point the Trump White House appears to be missing.  The popular Dodge Ram 1500 is only 59.5% made in America.  The Honda Accord, on the other hand, is 81% American, partly because some of the Ram 1500s are made not in Detroit at all, but in Saltillo, Mexico. [7]  Where cars are assembled is only the tip of the global supply-chain iceberg: components often come from dozens of countries on several continents and just-in-time delivery is crucial to production schedules and profits.

Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old anti-immigration firebrand who is now a senior White House advisor, called Ted Cruz  “a radical Wall Street globalist who will rip the beating heart of manufacturing out of the United States of America,” at a rally in the spring of 2016. “Ted Cruz sided with Goldman Sachs and the globalists over the issue of trade…” Miller railed.  “We cannot let that happen.”[8]

Globalism is not negotiable.  All the alternative facts in the world won’t make it go away, but a protectionist America could greatly disrupt the global economy if not destroy it.

It took two world wars for America’s leaders to face up to the fact that isolationism was no longer a viable option.  Today,  foolish talk of “America first” as the guiding principle for U.S.  foreign policy – the theme of Mr. Trump’s Inaugural address – risks the unraveling of U.S. diplomatic ties with the rest of the world.  A world that well remembers the consequences of U.S. isolationism.  The question is:  Do we?


[1] “X”, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,”  Foreign Affairs, July 1947, pp. 575-576.  (“X” was a career diplomat and Russia expert named George Kennan.)


[3]  Peter Holley,, “The Doomsday Clock Just Advanced ‘thanks to trump’…” Washington Post, January 26, 2017

[4] Lawrence M. Krauss and David Titley, “Thanks to Trump, the Nuclear Clock Advances Toward Midnight,  New York Times, January 26, 2017.



[7] Jamie Robertson, “Why carmakers have the most to fear from protectionism,” BBC, February 8, 2017. [8]

Thomas Magstadt is the author of five books, including a college textbook (Understanding Politics, 12th edition) and a book on American foreign policy (An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy).  Magstadt was a  Fulbright scholar (Czech Republic); former CIA foreign intelligence analyst; and taught national security and comparative politics courses at the U.S. Air War College.