It was Peter Thiel, Donald Trump’s only Silicon Valley supporter before the election, who had the best, most insightful line on the property magnate turned politician. The media, said Mr Thiel, takes Donald Trump literally, not seriously. Instead, they should take him seriously, not literally.
That is spot on.
We should be taking Mr Trump’s stated view of the world beyond America’s borders seriously but not literally.
First, let’s establish what is his view.
Thomas Wright, an expert on US foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, has been doing just that for many months. He has looked through Mr Trump’s public statements about international affairs since the 1980s. And he has established that Mr Trump has a consistent view of the world. It has three components:
** opposition to US alliances
** opposition to free trade
** support for authoritarianism
Mr Wright adds that these ideas, if translated into policy, could mean the end of the liberal international order that the US helped design after World War II and has led since then.
That is why, says Mr Wright, 2016 was “the most important election anywhere in the world since the two German elections of 1932.” The reference is to the 1932 parliamentary elections that eventually led to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
As Mr Wright points out, from Harry Truman onwards, all American presidents agreed on the importance of a global role for the US and on the system of international alliances and institutional order.
Mr Trump’s view of the world is different. Seriously. And literally.
Trump’s America will be less inclined to making and keeping international alliances. Wright cites as example the letter Mr Trump wrote in a full-page ad in The New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Washington Post in 1987. He said the same things we heard on the campaign trail – that the US should not be taking care of Japan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. They should pay for their own security, he said. Mr Wright believes that President Trump (70) will still think as he did 29 years ago, that the US has no strategic interest in being in Asia militarily. That Nato’s original mission is obsolete and that the US should not waste money deploying in places it need not.
Second, Trump’s America will seek a mercantilist international economic system rather than to play by free trade rules agreed across many capitals.
Here’s the link between the first ideological pillar of Mr Trump’s foreign policy and the second. As Mr Wright reminds us, he was telling Oprah Winfrey in the late 1980s that the US should only defend Kuwait if Kuwait hands over 25 per cent of its oil profits. Mr Wright calls it “a much more imperial version of US hegemony.”
As for free trade, he doesn’t like it.
He wants trade deals but “fair” ones, which seems to mean that they should benefit America more than the other party.
A proto-capitalism – mercantile capitalism is the earliest phase in the development of capitalism as an economic and social system – will be the American order of the day.
Finally, of course, there is Mr Trump’s obvious fondness for strong leaders. As Mr Wright recalls, Mr Trump went to Russia in 1990 and returned disappointed by Mikhail Gorbachev, thinking he was weak. Asked if Gorbachev should have behaved like the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square, he said yes, that showed strength, and the important thing was to show that you were strong. Mr Trump hasn’t ever really talked about the importance of democracy or liberalism overseas.
What this means for the world is as follows: Over a decade, the rolling back of American deterrence and the refusal to check aggressive countries (such as Russia, which is led by a strong man) would create uncertainty and the possibility of more open conflict and direct wars. Mr Wright says “there would be a lot of revisionism — countries testing borders and trying to protect their own interests unilaterally. There would be an increase in security competition, and that may very well drag the United States back in at a later stage.”
Economically, multi-lateralism will suffer and vital elements such as keeping the sea lanes open may become testy matters. The World Trade Organisation would not survive America’s defection.
It was Charles Lindbergh, in the 1940s, who last espoused these sort of ideas in the American political sphere. That “movement” too was called America First. Philip Roth’s brilliant novel ‘The Plot Against America’ imagines what happens when an America First-spouting president is elected.
Now, we may get to find out for ourselves. Seriously. And Literally.