His truth is marching on

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Extreme patriotism is on the rise. Donald Trump and his ‘America First’-message signal more than just a return to isolationism.

Anyone listening to the new US President’s inaugural address was struck, first of all, by its rather dismal outlook. The Washington Post drew up a fascinating list of words that had never previously turned up in an inaugural speech, including ‘carnage’, ‘disrepair’, ‘rusted’, ‘stealing’, ‘tombstones’ and ‘trapped’.

America’s decline, Trump emphasised, must be stopped. And he was quick to point out who was responsible: the political elite in Washington. Instead of taking care of America, they sit by idly while factories close, jobs are lost and infrastructure falls into disrepair, military resources are depleted and law and order dissolve. Their disregard for decent, hard-working Americans goes so far that they even ignore the task of securing the country’s borders.

Donald Trump is going to change all this. Simultaneously the prophet of decline and renewal, he aims to let the USA off the leash. Offshored jobs and industries will have to be brought back home, the armed forces supercharged, and the borders sealed. Foreigners will have to treat the US with awe and respect again. In the new America, only true patriots need come forward. But, of course, only the President can say who fits the bill. ‘Buy American, hire American’. No need for ‘the other’ to be taken into account.

The new man in the White House will put the economy first. Foreign policy will be a zero-sum game, focused on boosting business. Every project must have a pay-off. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a trade deal or a military intervention, the costs and benefits for the USA will be weighed carefully. The world of the new President is one of stark contrasts: it’s all about ‘us and them’, ‘winning or losing’. In these terms, restoring America to greatness will come at the others’ expense. International politics and global order ring in at a distant second.

Thus, ‘America first’ ought not to be misunderstood as isolationism. The empire still stands; it’s just that it is more narrowly defined and its instruments are cruder – both at home and abroad. Just like in business, Donald Trump wants to dominate his opponents at all levels. Rules may be broken and even wars waged, on the sole condition that they pay. Consistent with this stance he once said, ‘In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country’. If he criticises his predecessors on foreign policy, he does so not because he wants less involvement, but rather more selfishness and self-interest. In the case of Libya, Trump declared, ‘I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff. I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.’

Donald Trump belongs to neither of the camps that have nurtured the intellectual basis of American foreign policy for decades. Nor is he a neoconservative or a liberal internationalist. He follows rather in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, US President from 1829-37. The Jacksonian tradition is anti-elitist and egalitarian, but also exclusive in its understanding of the people domestically. Looking abroad, it shows no concern for spreading democracy and freedom, but beware of the unparalleled militancy when it comes to enforcing its own interests.

This is what President Trump emphasised numerous times in his address. From now on, ‘only’ America counts. The days in which other nations produce American products, ‘steal’ American companies and ‘destroy’ American jobs are over. The law of the jungle applies and charity begins at home. The United States will not be ‘stopped’ by anyone. As the old saying goes, the ends justify the means. So, if need be, escalation is allowed. Whether for Germany, Europe or China, the message is singularly clear: ‘Don’t mess with the US!’

About the author: Tobias Fella is a Research Associate at the Dahrendorf Forum and a PhD candidate in Political Science at Humboldt University Berlin. His doctoral research focusses on the idea of decline in US foreign policy thinking.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.