The unenlightened self-interest of Donald Trump
When you visit the magisterial Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC you can read not just the words of the 16th US President himself, but also buy copies of all the great speeches made there. Perhaps the most famous being Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech made in 1963. Donald Trump’s oratory in Cleveland Ohio last night, accepting the nomination for US President from the Republican Party (the Party of Abraham Lincoln), will be in many books about speeches – but perhaps not in the same section as you might find Lincoln or King.
Trump’s speech was no less effective than a King speech but its purpose was to divide not to unite. For whenever Trump talking about coming together and making America strong it was, implicitly or explicitly, at the expense of others – Mexicans, Muslims, and – one would assume from his one-sided take on recent violence in the US – African Americans too. For the rest of the world the message was also clear: American interests to come first. But of course, every US President must put their country’s interests at the heart of their policy, but this was not the “enlightened self interest” of Alexis de Tocqueville but a different variety – perhaps more the self interest of Donald Trump himself.
Some today have already compared his effect on the audience to that of European dictators of the 1930s who also rose through democratic systems (no names necessary here). I would not go so far perhaps, but parallels with Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan only take us so far: Trump goes beyond into deeper more visceral territory. That many of his claims are not supported by any facts apparently matters little at all to many of his supporters. We saw some of this in the recent Brexit debate in the UK. During a CNN interview broadcast globally shortly before the speech, Trump’s own campaign manager dismissed the FBI’s figures on falling crime rates, not by providing better figures but by questioning the integrity of the FBI itself. It is a Presidential campaign that has now started to attack the foundations of the US state itself – the police are “good”, federal agents are “bad”.
Such was the hatred directed towards Hilary Clinton that it is almost certain that her security detail will have been reviewed this morning. As we saw in the UK with the murder of one of our own politicians recently, shouting “Britain First” as he plunged the knife, “America First” will have its own looney and violent fringe that now feel increasingly legitimised.
So when Trump says “Americanism not Globalism” it is not really clear what he means – which seems to suit him fine. But it suggests less free trade, less solidarity with other nations and that a Trump administration will be less bothered by upholding international law. Trump’s comments on NATO have already sent shock waves amongst the NATO periphery from Kiev to Helsinki about what might be in store. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that something small and symbolic might happen even next month if Russia is barred from the Rio Olympics.
Trump’s “Americanism” also reminds me of another speech, one made by a head of state in Geneva in 1936 as his country was being bombed and invaded by Mussolini. Haile Selassie begged the League of Nations to uphold international law and save his small country from aggression and invasion. It fell on deaf ears. The USA was not even there to hear it, having never joined the very organisation that Woodrow Wilson had helped create as it retreated away from internal affairs for nearly two decades (1920s and 1930s). So far, Trump has done much to embolden America’s enemies and very little to keep either America or the World safe. The USA has played a very important role in maintaining the balance of power in Europe and East Asia. Trump’s “Americanism” might throw this all away.