Seemingly almost every day now, the Trump Administration takes another step that risks global disorder or undermines American credibility. Tariffs are imposed and new ones threatened. Politically-favored companies and industries are bailed out or exempted from responsibility for violating the law. Children of undocumented immigrants are separated from parents and siblings in contravention of human rights norms. Longstanding allies are treated as hostile rivals while hostile actors such as North Korea are gifted substantive American concessions.
The world’s free countries in Europe, North America, and Asia find the present U.S. trajectory increasingly disturbing. French President Emmanuel Macron called for “a new strong multilateralism that defends pluralism and democracy in the face of ill winds” during his visit to Washington in April. That appeal had no impact on Trump Administration thinking. As is covered in Richard Doud’s article, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is now attempting to rally European support for standing up to the Trump Administration’s conduct. The Foreign Minister explained, “We Europeans have to act as a conscious counterweight when the U.S. crosses red lines.” Those “red lines” are the fundamental values and interests that give the free world its basic character and bring prosperity to its peoples.
Today, the Trump-led United States is exhibiting characteristics more akin to a revolutionary actor that aims to shatter the existing world order (international relations, foreign trade, and the protection of human rights) than the guardian of the liberal world order that the United States did so much to construct following World War II. As a result, the United States is being pushed by President Trump toward a position that is unfamiliar in American history. The nation is steadily becoming not a positive actor on the world stage, but a destabilizing one.
Far from the naive euphoria that proclaimed an “end of history” at the conclusion of the Cold War, sober statesmen understand that history never ends. There is no final triumph of liberalism over illiberalism or freedom over tyranny. The need for vigilance never ceases. Because human nature is relatively unchanging, bad actors, populist demagogues, and other unsavory elements stand ready to denigrate, demean, divide, and, finally, conquer.
Europe has suffered human, economic, and social catastrophes from such actors in World Wars I and II. Europe’s contemporary leaders recognize the rising danger presented by the populist Trump Administration. They are also experiencing firsthand the pressures of a Continent that is being squeezed on one end by intolerant populist elements from within and a revanchist and increasingly assertive Russia to the East.
In this context, the German Foreign Minister’s prescription is correct. Europe’s nations and the world’s other free countries need to come together to balance the Trump Administration’s excesses. They need to assume the role of the protectors of the Enlightenment values that form the soul of free nations everywhere. They must stand up to the populist elements that seek to discredit democratic governance, free institutions, and tolerant values. After all, once faith in such governance, institutions, and values collapses, opposition to illiberalism crumbles with it.
The world’s free countries can succeed. The Trump Administration faces two significant barriers that currently inhibit its ability to overturn the existing world order and topple the basic nature of American government.
The first barrier is of the Trump Administration’s own creation. President Trump’s protectionism precludes a U.S.-China condominium that could effectively overwhelm the world’s commitment to Enlightenment values. In fact, even as the the Trump-led United States retreats from liberalized trade, China is has begun to position itself as a defender of liberalized trade.
The second barrier is the thinking of the American people. A majority of the nation’s people reject the Trump Administration’s populist agenda. The most recent example is illustrated in the American public’s broad opposition to the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, a policy that the Administration is cynically conducting in the name of “rule of law” (even in the name of the Bible), all the while it is simultaneously undermining the rule of law by attacking the FBI, discrediting the Department of Justice, and asserting that the President can immunize himself from legal accountability through self-pardons.
Therefore, the Trump Administration’s designs can still be thwarted. Time is the necessary element.
The first step is containment of the Trump Administration’s excesses. Containment can limit its harm and sap the morale of its populist base. Toward that end, the basic advice contained in George Kennan’s “X Article,” published in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs, can be reframed to fit today’s circumstances. Just as was the case with the Soviet Union, the remedy entails allowing the imperfections of an inherently flawed element to accumulate to the extent that that element weakens and then finally gives way. That seminal article could be adapted to read as follows:
It will be clearly seen that President Trump’s pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Trump Administration policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence…
President Trump, taking advantage of the contributions of modern technologies and the art of demagoguery, has increasingly built obedience within the confines of his power. Increasingly few Republicans challenge his authority; and even those who do are unable to make that challenge valid against the dictates of a corrupted and fanatically loyal base…
The free world still has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Trump Administration policy must operate, to force upon Trump’s Washington a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe since his taking office on January 20, 2017, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in the gradual mellowing of the Trump Administration’s power. For no populist movement can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.
Step 2 is the decline and fall of the Trump Administration. That evolution can unfold organically. The American people remain fundamentally good. They can use the nation’s political system to restrain President Trump’s policy making capacity at the ballot box during the November 2018 mid-term elections. Afterward, barring an unexpected change in the Administration’s basic character, they can cast it out of office in November 2020.
The Alt-Right core of Trump’s base–a toxic mix of xenophobes, isolationists, protectionists, and white nationalists–is loud but small. It does not even begin to speak for America. Its message is divisive and backward. It offers nothing of redeeming value to contemporary American society, much less its future. It offers only angry rhetoric, misguided grievance, and escapist blame-shifting. Its propagandists disseminate disinformation, deception, and conspiracy theories to mask the truth that it is intellectually bankrupt. Against the full weight of the American people, it is powerless.
The American Republic has encountered greater perils than Trump’s populism and the Alt-Right movement behind it. The American people will see to it that the nation will overcome this latest challenge to its character and values. Before then, a prudent policy of strategic containment can prove beneficial in limiting the harm Trump Administration policies would otherwise inflict domestically and internationally.