In two lengthy conversations with a pair of New York Times reporters (full transcript here) Donald Trump elaborated on his foreign policy, such as it is. Basically, what he proposes amounts to something like a protection racket.
Trump told the Times that, if elected, he would possibly stop the purchase of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries—maybe he wants to nationalize the oil industry, as well?—until they invest more heavily in the fight against ISIS, either by committing ground troops or until the United States is “reimbursed, substantially reimbursed.”
Mr. Trump’s views, as he explained them, fit nowhere into the recent history of the Republican Party: He is not in the internationalist camp of the elder President George Bush, nor does he favor George W. Bush’s call to make it the mission of the United States to spread democracy around the world. He agreed with a suggestion that his ideas might best be summed up as “America First.”
“Not isolationist, but I am America First,” he said. “I like the expression.” He said he was willing to reconsider traditional American alliances if partners were not willing to pay, in cash or troop commitments, for the presence of American forces around the world. “We will not be ripped off anymore,” he said.
He also said, in response to questions about how he would counterbalance Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, “I wouldn’t want them to know what my real thinking is.” One might wonder who else Trump doesn’t want knowing his real thinking—journalists, perhaps. Or the American electorate!
Two forces eerily contemporary have traditionally been thought to bring down ancient republics: the oligarch and the demagogue. What makes republics fragile are compacts of the very rich confiscating wealth in ways that makes injustice too palpable, and the demagogue who, usually rising as an opportunist among the oligarchs, can manipulate the incoherent discontent of the plebeians. Contemporary historians of the Roman Republic now engage in a lively argument, held between those who think that ancient Republican politics were actually mere squabbles among clans and dynasties, with at most opportunistic, occasional, and absent-minded attachments to ideologies, and those who think that the Roman arguments about who had the right to rule were real and that their politics in this sense were meaningful.
“Now that we are in possession of an honest-to-God demagogue of the classical model, old portents of doom seem pertinent,” he writes. Meanwhile, William Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College, suggested on Twitter yesterday that Trump’s foreign policy proposals resemble more closely the Athenian Empire than the Roman: “protective alliance transformed into protection racket.”
But Politico’s Thomas Wright suggested in January that one doesn’t have to look back to ancient history to find precedents for Trump’s proposals, but rather only to Senator Robert Taft—who ran, to no avail, for the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952—and Charles Lindberg:
The difference is that, unlike Trump, Taft was not outside the mainstream of his time. Many people believed America was safe and that it did not matter who ran Europe. Also, unlike Trump, Taft was boring and struggled to break through the noise in several nomination battles. The more bombastic and controversial figure was Lindbergh, the man who became a household name as the first person to fly across the Atlantic. Lindbergh led a national movement that was divisive, xenophobic and sympathetic to Nazi Germany.
The Republican primary of 2016 is shaping up to be the most important party primary since 1940. Lindbergh did not run, of course. But Taft was in with a strong chance. Only the fact that the field was badly divided created an unexpected opening for Wendell Willkie, an internationalist, to emerge as the nominee at the convention. Some of Roosevelt’s advisers were so relieved at Willkie’s nomination that they advised their boss he no longer had to run for an unprecedented—and controversial—third term.
“We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led,” Trump told the Times. “The big stupid bully, and we were systematically ripped off by everybody. From China to Japan to South Korea to the Middle East...protecting Saudi Arabia and not being properly reimbursed.”
“We will not be ripped off anymore, we’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody.”