(May 5, 2016 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
The last time I wrote about Donald Trump in this column was back in December 2015, when the Republican presidential primary race was in full swing. Then, I voiced concern about what the Middle East policy of a Trump administration might look like, pointing out that his failure to address Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, along with his deference to Russian autocrat President Vladimir Putin, was perilously similar to the approach of President Barack Obama—whom the New York billionaire reviles.
Six months later, and in the face of endless high-minded, wonkish critiques like mine, Trump has overwhelmed his GOP competitors. The prospect of a Trump victory in the November general election is suddenly very real, and only a fool would claim otherwise.
Still, recognition of Trump’s extraordinary achievement hasn’t altered my worries about how he would shape American foreign policy. Before I explain why, I think it’s worth making some general observations about Trump’s approach to politics, so as to put all this in context.
First off, one has to distinguish between Trump’s sensibilities and Trump’s abilities. He is not a stupid man—far from it—and he flourishes when his rivals underestimate him. But he clearly distrusts intellectuals, cares little for history, and disdains the kinds of political speeches that are peppered with literary and philosophical references. For all his bombast about making America great again, the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution, and the endurance of the American republic across nearly three centuries, all are conspicuous by their absence from his podium addresses. All we are told is that “it’s gonna be fabulous.” We just don’t know quite how.
Yet when it comes to the operational aspects of his campaign, Trump has proven himself a master communicator in terms of the timing of his messages. In every tussle and every confrontation, he has proved that whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign believes that facing off against Trump is a political gift, then that is a potentially fatal strategic error, as all the eliminated Republican contenders—16 of them—can affirm.
Trump’s insertion of TV reality show values into the presidential contest is jarring and crude, but it has worked for him so far. Season 1 of “Trump” just ended with his assumption of the GOP nomination. Season 2—his contest with Clinton—is just beginning. If we get to a Season 3, it’s because Trump is in the White House. Season 4? That means a further presidential term. We have to hope that Trump has enough respect for the two-term presidential limit for there not to be a Season 5.
I make that last point because, in studying Trump’s style and discussing his campaign with friends and political contacts, I’ve noted a couple of observations that are regularly made. Firstly, that it is pretty much impossible to find a proto-Trump among the 44 individuals who have already served as president of the world’s greatest democracy. That therefore leads, secondly, to comparisons with foreign leaders, none of them remotely encouraging. I’ve seen or heard Trump invoked alongside Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan tyrant, Juan Peron, the former Argentine dictator, and Jean Marie Le Pen, the former leader of France’s National Front party and the most prominent of Europe’s postwar neo-fascists. Indeed, the respected political analyst Daniel Pipes, who is a conservative, has made a persuasive case that Trump is deserving of the neo-fascist label.
Trump has done little to allay these anxieties. Even though some of his advisers want him to be more “presidential,” which in his case simply means not tossing out bizarre conspiracy theories and puerile insults, he is not at this point prepared to transform his rhetoric. Nor is he willing to disavow the ravings of his supporters on social media, many of whom have descended into open anti-Semitism in attacking the their guru’s critics.
One of them was Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist who recently penned an unflattering portrayal of Trump’s wife Melania for GQmagazine. Ioffe quickly found herself the target of threats in the form of Nazi imagery and anonymous phone calls consisting of recorded Hitler speeches. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump about the baiting of Ioffe by his supporters, his response was, “I don’t know about that. I don’t know anything about that…You’ll have to talk to them about it…I don’t have a message to the fans.”
This is exactly the Trump whom many of us have come to know and dislike and even fear. This is also the Trump whom many of us believe will enter the White House if he wins in November, which is why we search desperately for signs that suggest the outcome will not be as dreadful as we anticipate.
In a purely abstract sense, it is conceivable that Trump could be more of an international statesman than seems possible at present; as in sport, in politics nothing should ever be discounted. Nevertheless, there is precious little evidence for the moment to back up such an assertion.
Trump’s speech following his victory over Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) in the Indiana primary was further confirmation that in his view, the rest of the world has kept American leaders from attending to American problems. As Trump presents it, we can either build world class airports at home, or waste the cash on ungrateful foreigners abroad.
When it comes to relations with America’s allies, it is deeply troubling that the only foreign leader of whom he speaks with consistent respect is Putin. Trump is still smarting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of his unconstitutional proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Ditto for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called Trump’s demand “stupid and wrong.”
For his part, Trump has described German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a “catastrophic leader” because of her refugee policy. No other European or Western leader seems to even be on his radar—perhaps because politicians like Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” who would have been more than a match for Trump, are increasingly rare in the liberal democracies these days.
Entering office with a record of contemptuous remarks about the leaders of our traditional allies is hardly a solid foundation on which to build the relationships that a neophyte like Trump will need—and need them he will—in order to conduct foreign policy. His fetish for authoritarian leaders encourages the concern that it won’t stop at just Putin, but will lead to flirtations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (led perhaps by Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star and friend-of-Kim who is also a stalwart Trump supporter) and the Islamist mullahs running Iran. Like Trump himself, these people aren’t stupid, and they would love nothing more than to humiliate the U.S. by flattering its new president in order to deceive him later on.
While I believe, therefore, that we need to prepare ourselves for a Trump presidency, I cannot find even a grain of comfort when it comes to projecting what his foreign policy will involve. One of his advisers recently told The Algemeiner’s Ruthie Blum, with regards to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, “I can’t think of a better guy who can sit at the table and try to bring everybody together.” This mantra from the Trump camp, and its underlying hubris, will be sorely tested should he be inaugurated in January.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).