The Taming of President Trump

The government our Founders created has withstood Trump’s destructive antics.

According to much elite opinion in America and around the world, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president was the beginning of an existential crisis – the potential death of democracy and our republic as we know it.

But with Trump’s first 100 days as president now behind us, the doomsday predictions surrounding the Trump presidency, at least for now, seem largely unwarranted.

This is not to say that concerns over Trump – a narcissistic demagogue, with zero public policy experience – are not real. But the system of government our Founders created has shown tremendous resiliency in the face of Trump’s disruptive tendencies. Moreover, Trump himself (or at least his team) has shown more of a capacity for mature flexibility than some might have assumed prior to the election. Indeed, if the past is any prologue, the American system might even come out of the Trump era stronger than it went in.

Fascist America? Maybe Not.

Ever since Trump won the presidency, there has been a virtually endless stream of frantic warnings – across college campuses, across the media landscape, out of Hollywood – that Trump’s election portends “the coming fascism in America.”

Books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – a counterfactual history about a win by the isolationist-demagogue Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential election – are flying off bookshelves as Americans prepare for life in a totalitarian dystopia.

In a recent interview, Roth actually said that as terrifying as a Lindbergh presidency appeared to him when writing his book, it was “easier to comprehend” than Trump’s; because while Lindbergh had “Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities,” he was still a man of “character and substance,” whereas Trump is simply “humanly impoverished.”

Just about any substantive article or critical review of any type nowadays feels almost obliged to get overwrought about Trump. For example, an essay last month in the New York Review of Books, about a new work by the German historian Volker Ullrich titled Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, was almost entirely devoted to comparing – usually ominously – Hitler’s ascent with Trump’s, from childbirth to assuming power; one in 1933, one in 2017.

The Founders, however, were also deeply concerned about the possibility of tyranny. In fact, it’s worth remembering that our nation was born in revolt against a tyrannical monarch.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing in The Federalist Papers, both lamented the possibility of a day when “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs” might attain power “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” The constitutional framework that the Founders ultimately constructed – with its system of separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, states’ rights (federalism), and eventually a Bill of Rights – was expressly designed to prevent tyranny.

And, despite all of Trump’s bluster, offensive rhetoric, and in some cases scary maneuverings – this system has so far worked as intended to block, or at least slow, the catalogue of hardline policies Trump promised when he entered office.

Trump’s immigration ban from “terror prone” majority-Muslim countries, for example, has been blocked by the courts (Article III of the Constitution), while his plans to build a border wall with Mexico, and to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have crashed into opposition from Congress (Article I).

This is not to say that everything Trump has proposed will remain blocked, nor should they be – elections have consequences. But his agenda is nevertheless clearly going through the regular messy American democratic system – not simply superimposed on the citizenry by a tyrant in a new supposed age of fascism.

“Fortress America”? Maybe Not That Either.

Where Trump does have more latitude as chief executive is on foreign policy, but there again his actions so far have fallen short of the catastrophe that was predicted on his election.

During his campaign, Trump provided plenty of fodder for worry. He pledged to make Mexico pay for the border wall, and he threatened to label China a “currency manipulator” and slap high tariffs on Chinese goods. He also declared NATO to be “obsolete” and insisted that America’s longtime allies in East Asia like Japan and South Korea fend for themselves against China and a nuclear North Korea. And he proclaimed that he would never – ever – get the United States involved in humanitarian interventions. It was going to be – as he liked to repeat – “America First.”

But as with his domestic agenda, we’ve already seen in Trump’s foreign policy a marked and, in some cases, radical reversal of what we would have expected from his rhetoric on the campaign trail. NATO, says Trump, is now “no longer obsolete” and should be “strengthened,” and the United States is now engaged in a flurry of diplomatic and military maneuvering to defend its allies in the Western Pacific.

And in his starkest reversal, Trump ordered military strikes in Syria in April on purely humanitarian grounds, after the Syrian government used poison gas on its own people. Indeed, the Syria strike will likely become a defining foreign policy moment for the Trump presidency, and one that appears to be a far cry from “fortress America.”

First of all, the strike went against the conventional wisdom that Trump would be cozying up to strongmen like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – particularly given their efforts to defeat Trump’s number one enemy on the ground in Syria: ISIS.

Secondly, it went against the notion that Trump, like the Assads and Putins of the world, would simply be a lawless figure on world stage.

In fact – the Trump administration’s explanation for the Syria strike could have come from any U.S. administration since World War II: According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the “message” to foreign leaders was:

if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.

Even more stunning was what Tillerson said next: that the U.S. under Trump is committed to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

That actually goes well beyond humanitarian promises most presidents over the past seventy years would have made.

The point is not that Trump has suddenly morphed into Presidents Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter – projecting America’s liberal values around the globe. Or that he is suddenly necessarily stable and trustworthy.

The point is that making predictions about what presidential candidates will do in foreign policy once they enter office is a notoriously semi-masochistic exercise.

This has less to do with Trump, and more to do with the nature of the American system as a uniquely freewheeling democracy, which grants each president an opportunity to innovate and experiment in foreign policy as they see fit.

We have seen this consistently throughout history, in presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush – each of whose foreign policies veered radically from what was initially promised and expected.

And what these presidents (and others) all had in common, aside from inherent flexibility, was – above all – a compelling interest in safeguarding the American experiment (what some might call American exceptionalism) from the nasty forces of world politics.

Despite all of Trump’s bluster, offensive rhetoric, and in some cases scary maneuverings – this system has so far worked as intended to block, or at least slow, the catalogue of hardline policies Trump promised when he entered office.

The Once and Future Trump Foreign Policy

So if this is the complex and uniquely American context in which every president – including some with enormous amounts of policy experience and grand ideas – have had to devise and enact their foreign policies; where does that leave us with Trump?

As always with Trump, assessments and predictions must be leavened with a big grain of salt.

That said, we can make some educated guesses based on historic trends, the foreign policy team he has assembled, and the approach he has taken so far.

First, even though every president has the freedom to innovate in foreign policy, a common theme for incoming presidents is to pivot from the prior administration, particularly if it was of a different party (think Ronald Reagan after Jimmy Carter).

This is certainly true for Trump, who seems intent on operating very differently on the world stage than did Barack Obama – whose foreign policy was strictly based on his view that America’s greatest strength was its “humility and restraint.” Trump, by contrast, seeks to inject a greater role for American “hard power” in the world.

Second, the team Trump has put together to accomplish this is highly impressive – including James Mattis at Defense, Tillerson at State, H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, John Kelly at Homeland Security, and Nikki Haley at the United Nations. All are highly respected; all are whom we would call “adults.”

More importantly, Trump appears willing to both listen to and act on their ideas and advice.

McMaster, by all accounts, is playing a critical role here – unlike his highly politicized predecessor, Susan Rice, he is functioning more in the “honest broker” model of Brent Scowcroft, George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, who ran a fair, transparent, and inclusive process for bringing issues and advice to the president.

Thanks in large part to the work of his team, the emerging Trump doctrine could ultimately be a rational combination of Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” and Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength.”

Of course, simply adding hard power to the mix does not a national security strategy make. And hard power must always be handled with care. But the Trump administration seems to be using it in a clear and calculated way – mostly as a corrective for the Obama years, when hard power (with the exception of drone strikes against suspected terrorists) was taken almost completely out of the equation. Trump, whether he is aware of it or not, is following the sage advice of Frederick the Great, who pointed out that “diplomacy without arms, is like music without instruments.”

We have seen the “Roosevelt” side, for example, in the way Trump has generally appeared to control himself (and, amazingly, his Twitter feed) on national security issues, and let American military power speak more loudly than his own words.

For instance, with regard to Syria, the world found out about the strike last month pretty much when Syria did. The same was true with the use of the massive conventional bomb – known as the Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB) – on suspected ISIS underground bunkers in Afghanistan a week later.

It cannot be coincidental that Trump has not made any major statements – let alone formal addresses – about the Syria strike or the MOAB; or even the escalating crisis with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Instead, he seems to be prudently holding his cards close to his vest – and letting American hard power, along with his senior officials – do the talking. After the MOAB strike, it was Vice President Mike Pence, while visiting South Korea, who issued the official word on these military actions in language that very much channeled the tough talk of Reagan:

Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan…North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said of running for higher office in America that “you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

Trump has done neither. But between the safeguards built into America’s republican system, and by what seems to be Trump’s willingness to take very seriously the foreign policy responsibilities of the president of the United States, perhaps the future is not so bleak, and may even contain a few positive surprises.

Stuart Gottlieb

Stuart Gottlieb teaches American Foreign Policy and International Security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he is also a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the U.S. Senate (1999–2003).