In an address Monday in Youngstown, Ohio, Donald Trump called on the United States to “develop a new screening test” for prospective immigrants, such that only “those who share our values and respect our people” are admitted; stated that he would “keep open Guantanamo Bay”; and reiterated that the United States “should have kept the oil in Iraq” after intervening in 2003. In light of such judgments, it is not surprising that many observers across the world regard his foreign policy proposals with perplexity. This is partly because they would likely diminish America’s influence within the postwar order while making it more prone to strategic brinkmanship. But it’s also because, despite those consequences, they still command significant traction among the American public.
Last month, I added my voice to those who share these concerns, publishing an open letter concluding that Trump’s foreign policy “would weaken America’s alliances and erode its power.” Of the nearly 270 individuals who have signed, most are scholars. For that reason, one of the replies I received to my letter has been gnawing at me: “Everyone knows that the so-called foreign policy and academic establishments oppose Trump. For some, that’s in fact part of his appeal.”
Understanding why Trump supporters are attracted to his positions is an important first step to countering that appeal.
In an essay for the New Yorker last month, George Saunders explains that his principal constituency comprises Americans who are “stricken by a sense that things are not as they should be and that, finally, someone sees it their way.”
Between 1973 and 2015, while Americans’ productivity increased by 107%, their real compensation only grew by 48%; between 2009 and 2015, meanwhile, the top one percent of American families captured 52% of total real income growth. The global financial crisis of 2008-09 has prompted many Americans to question the wisdom of those who steward the country’s economic policy; meanwhile, the sobering strategic results of a decade and a half of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have compelled many to doubt the judgment of those who execute its foreign policy.
According to a survey conducted this April by the Pew Research Center, 57% of Americans want the United States to “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems the best they can”; 49% contend that U.S. involvement in the world economy is “a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs”; and 70% argue it “is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy.”
In any election year, members of the foreign-policy establishment invariably, and properly, spend much time advising the next president on navigating the strategic landscape he or she will inherit. With ISIS’s recent spate of attacks, Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, and rising tensions between China and its neighbors, to name but a few strategic developments of interest, such counsel obviously remains essential.
In the run-up to November, however, they must also make a concerted effort to answer two questions: how does U.S. engagement abroad benefit Americans materially on a daily basis, and how would Trump’s proposals harm them? Rosa Brooks made the point forcefully for Foreign Policy in April: “if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate—and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés.”
Specifically, Trump’s establishment critics must go beyond discussing amongst themselves the strategic benefits the United States derives from deepening military partnerships, signing trade agreements and defending the commons; they must, in addition, provide the American public with concrete examples of those gains.
When Trump proposes the imposition of a tariff of up to 45% on Chinese goods, for example, they should not respond with abstract discussions of protectionist spirals and trade wars. They should note, instead, that U.S. imports from China—worth $483 billion last year—provide countless Americans with a range of low-cost, high-quality goods that they use to take care of themselves and their families. Who would want to pay more for those?
When he contends that he will empower Americans who have gotten a raw deal from globalization, they should point to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Moody’s Analytics, which concludes that “[t]he upshot of Mr. Trump’s economic policy positions under almost any scenario is that the U.S. economy will be more isolated and diminished.” Who would want to see slower U.S. growth?
When he contends that the United States does too much in the world, they should note that the U.S. Navy’s defense of the world’s maritime commons ensures a reliable flow of cheap energy to U.S. shores. Who would want to pay more for gas?
Members of the establishment also need to engage in a more candid conversation with the American public about U.S. engagement in the world. Larry Summers warns that Americans are no longer willing “to be intimidated by experts into supporting cosmopolitan outcomes” (nor should they be). Elites should depict U.S. involvement abroad not as an unalloyed good that reasonable individuals should not question, but as a prudent choice in the aggregate that will inevitably involve painful consequences for certain segments of society. Policymakers need to implement stronger domestic measures to buffer Americans who are displaced by that involvement, while demonstrating, tangibly, how much worse off they would fare under the quasi-autarky that Trump appears to be proposing.
Mocking his supporters and minimizing their grievances will not strengthen public support for U.S. participation in world order. After all, the Wall Street Journal noted recently, “[d]isillusionment with globalization” played a central role in fueling Trump’s candidacy, enabling him to channel “potent anti-free trade sentiment.” The establishment must instead demonstrate, with clear, vivid examples, why the candidate who purports to speak for them would actually undermine their material welfare. And it must continue that conversation beyond this election cycle: even if Trump does not prevail in November, after all, the frustrations that have fueled his candidacy will endure.