The pres­i­dent is not, and has never been, an iso­la­tion­ist.

His­to­rian Stephen Wertheim says while crit­ics worry about lack of global en­gage­ment, the pres­i­dent’s true world­view is more fright­en­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @StephenWertheim Stephen Wertheim is a fel­low in his­tory at King’s Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, and is writ­ing a book on the birth of Amer­i­can world lead­er­ship in World War II.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Trump, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy is re­turn­ing, many com­men­ta­tors say, to the iso­la­tion­ism that pre­ceded World War II. This line of in­ter­pre­ta­tion (and of­ten at­tack) emerged dur­ing the elec­tion: While Hil­lary Clin­ton warned that her op­po­nent would “tear up our al­liances,” an ar­ray of ex­perts sup­plied such fears with a his­tor­i­cal pedi­gree. As Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions Pres­i­dent Richard Haass put it, Trump stood for a “new iso­la­tion­ism,” a re­vival of the 1930s dream of “turn­ing away from global en­gage­ment.”

The prob­lem is, Trump isn’t an iso­la­tion­ist. He is a mil­i­tarist, some­thing far worse. And call­ing Trump an iso­la­tion­ist isn’t an ef­fec­tive cri­tique.

The term “iso­la­tion­ism” was coined in the 1930s to car­i­ca­ture Amer­i­cans who wanted to stay strictly neu­tral in the loom­ing war. They scarcely sought to “dis­con­nect from the world,” as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp re­cently wrote. In fact, most fa­vored peace­ful forms of over­seas in­volve­ment, such as trade, and in­sisted on de­fend­ing the Amer­i­cas from for­eign in­ter­ven­tion — no small feat. What united them was their op­po­si­tion to en­ter­ing the Sec­ond World War af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of the First. Judg­ing the United States ca­pa­ble of re­pelling any out­side in­va­sion, they wanted to steer clear of armed en­tan­gle­ment in Europe and Asia. To breach this tra­di­tion would em­broil Amer­i­cans in “per­pet­ual war for per­pet­ual peace,” in the words of his­to­rian and par­tic­i­pant Charles Beard.

The first Amer­ica Firsters, then, were an­ti­war more than anti-Semitic or pro-fas­cist, strains that re­cent crit­ics of Trump overem­pha­size. True, the group’s spokesman, avi­a­tor Charles Lind­bergh, railed against “Jewish in­flu­ence” months be­fore Pearl Har­bor. But the anti-Semitic di­a­tribe crip­pled the move­ment rather than ad­vanc­ing it, and few Amer­ica Firsters fa­vored the Axis side. Rather, it was the an­ti­war ap­peal — the no­tion that in­volve­ment in Euro­pean con­flict was un­nec­es­sary for U.S. safety — that at­tracted mil­lions across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, in­clud­ing paci­fist-so­cial­ist Nor­man Thomas and fu­ture presidents Ger­ald Ford and John F. Kennedy.

Of course, Pearl Har­bor sealed their fate and launched the United States to global pre­em­i­nence. Ever since, for­eign pol­icy elites have de­ployed the “iso­la­tion­ist” tag to ex­pel anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ists from the bounds of le­git­i­mate de­bate.

It’s of­ten an un­fair la­bel, but it’s es­pe­cially non­sen­si­cal when it comes to the cur­rent com­man­der in chief: Trump is no iso­la­tion­ist, whether car­i­ca­tured or ac­tual. Rather than seek­ing to with­draw from the world, he vows to ex­ploit it. Far from lim­it­ing the area of war, he threat­ens ruth­less vi­o­lence against globe-span­ning ad­ver­saries and glo­ri­fies mar­tial vic­tory. In short, the pres­i­dent is a mil­i­tarist.

Schol­ars de­fine mil­i­tarism, broadly, as the ex­ces­sive use and ven­er­a­tion of force for po­lit­i­cal ends, or even for its own sake, ex­tend­ing at times to full mil­i­tary con­trol of the state. (Trump has ap­pointed two Marine gen­er­als, Jim Mattis and John F. Kelly, to his Cabi­net.) Mil­i­tarism, the pi­o­neer­ing his­to­rian Al­fred Vagts wrote in 1937, pro­motes val­ues “as­so­ci­ated with ar­mies and wars and yet tran­scend­ing true mil­i­tary pur­poses.” Mil­i­tarism can be a pol­icy and an ethos, cor­rupt­ing the pur­suit of ra­tio­nal goals.

Vagts, a for­mer Ger­man army of­fi­cer who fled the Nazis, wrote with his home coun­try in mind. Schol­ars con­tinue to lo­cate mil­i­tarism “over there” — in the Kaiser’s Ger­many, the Third Re­ich, im­pe­rial Ja­pan and per­haps the Soviet em­pire. Only oc­ca­sion­ally have they at­trib­uted mil­i­tarism to the United States. That charge has been more likely to come from ac­tivists. In 1967, for in­stance, Martin Luther King Jr. de­cried the “mil­i­tarism” of his gov­ern­ment, rank­ing it with the evils of racism and poverty. Still, most Amer­i­cans have seen their coun­try as a force for peace, even when it goes to war.

Trump calls this as­sump­tion into ques­tion. Start with his base­line view of a world plagued by clash­ing civ­i­liza­tions and in­escapable con­flict. Trump rose to power by pre­sent­ing a hor­ror show of en­e­mies, from Mex­ico to Iran to China to so-called rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism (and some­times Is­lam it­self). Not even the Euro­pean Union es­capes Trump’s zero-sum squint: He casts it as a Ger­man ve­hi­cle to “beat the United States on trade,” not an ef­fort to se­cure peace af­ter two world wars. Peace, in­deed, seems frag­ile and anoma­lous to Trump. “A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” he summed up in a tweet.

Pre­vi­ous presidents — Theodore Roo­sevelt, Richard Nixon — have scorned non-Western cul­tures and ac­cen­tu­ated di­ver­gent in­ter­ests among states. But Trump is unique in see­ing Amer­ica as a vic­tim na­tion, a net global loser that must now fight back. His sin­gle most con­sis­tent po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tion is that other coun­tries have ex­ploited the United States. In 1987, con­tem­plat­ing a pres­i­den­tial run, he took out a full-page news­pa­per ad ac­cus­ing Ja­pan, Saudi Ara­bia and other na­tions of “tak­ing ad­van­tage” of Amer­i­can largesse. Last year, when he charged that China was com­mit­ting “rape” and “theft” against the United States, the main novelty was that he’d up­dated his neme­sis.

Trump’s sense of abuse and hu­mil­i­a­tion is po­tent. “The world is laugh­ing at us,” he end­lessly re­peats. It’s a cry more com­mon to revo­lu­tion­ary states and move­ments than to the world’s sole su­per­power. Im­pe­rial Ja­pan and Nazi Ger­many did not con­quer ter­ri­tory for the thrill of it; their lead­ers acted out of per­ceived des­per­a­tion, be­liev­ing that they were los­ing a ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion for power and sta­tus.

Fac­ing a vi­cious world, Trump prom­ises to turn the ta­bles, not turn his back. He talks of grab­bing wealth from other coun­tries, most vividly in his mantra to “take the oil” in Iraq. “Maybe we’ll have an­other chance,” he said in a speech at the CIA. Trump may be pos­tur­ing, but the pos­ture is mil­i­taris­tic. To an­nounce a lust for oil, to chest-thump about tor­ture, to en­vis­age mil­i­tary pa­rades down Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue — these do not achieve strate­gic ob­jec­tives so much as ex­alt brute force. “I’m the most mil­i­taris­tic per­son there is,” Trump said in the pri­maries. Per­haps he was telling the truth.

Trump’s cul­tural mil­i­tarism bears watch­ing, even if it never trans­lates into for­eign pol­icy. Draw­ing a moral equiv­a­lence be­tween the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, Trump re­jects Amer­ica’s tra­di­tional iden­tity as an ex­cep­tional na­tion shin­ing the light of free­dom to the world. What iden­tity does he of­fer in­stead? While ig­nor­ing the Found­ing Fathers, he con­stantly in­vokes the “old days of Gen­eral MacArthur and Gen­eral Pat­ton,” the most ex­treme gen­er­als of the mid-20th cen­tury. In Trump’s imag­i­na­tion, the gen­er­als de­manded ab­so­lute vic­tory, en­sur­ing that “we never lost a war” be­fore Viet­nam. Trump’s mythol­o­giz­ing re­calls the ven­er­a­tion that im­pe­rial Ger­many be­stowed upon its army, which had forged the na­tion by de­feat­ing France in 1871. MacArthur and Pat­ton are Trump’s new founders.

And Trump may not be pos­tur­ing. He may pur­sue a pro­gram of in­ter­ven­tion the world over. Tac­tics could be­gin with blus­ter and tar­iffs. Where they would end is any­one’s guess, but Trump’s dis­avowal of na­tion-build­ing of­fers lit­tle com­fort. His pre­de­ces­sors said the same dur­ing their pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. Trump will avoid large-scale con­flict only if he sets lim­ited ob­jec­tives and acts pru­dently.

Thus far, he has sig­naled the op­po­site. “Our mil­i­tary dom­i­nance must be un­ques­tioned,” the White House de­clared on Day One, and Trump plans to build up Amer­ica’s al­ready supreme mil­i­tary. How will he use it? In his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, he pledged not only to take on “rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism” but to “erad­i­cate [it] from the face of the earth.” Last year Trump’s chief strate­gist, Stephen Ban­non, pro­fessed “no doubt” that “we’re go­ing to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years” — and that’s on top of the “global war against Is­lamic fas­cism” that he be­lieves to be in its open­ing stages.

The anti-Trump re­sis­tance may back­fire with­out an ad­e­quate un­der­stand­ing of how the pres­i­dent and his vot­ers see the world. When elec­tion com­men­ta­tors called Trump an iso­la­tion­ist, they af­firmed pre­cisely what made him pop­u­lar enough to reach the White House: that he re­jects the stale plat­i­tudes of elites. Worse, they placed him in an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion op­posed to over­seas con­flict. It was a win­ning brand for a war-weary pub­lic, and Trump cap­i­tal­ized. He con­demned the Iraq War at ev­ery turn and warned that his ri­vals would start “World War III.”

When crit­ics seem to as­sail Trump for be­ing too peace­ful, for ques­tion­ing mil­i­tary al­liances and hop­ing to co­op­er­ate with Rus­sia, they re­in­force his mes­sage. They ver­ify that he’s against not only the es­tab­lish­ment but costly wars to boot. With spokes­men like these, who needs Kellyanne Con­way? Bet­ter to call Trump the mil­i­tarist he shows ev­ery in­di­ca­tion of be­ing. That’s a brand he should fear: a peace can­di­date turned war­mon­ger, a pop­ulist out­sider serv­ing arms deal­ers and au­to­crats.


Pres­i­dent Trump’s praise for gen­er­als and prom­ises of “mil­i­tary dom­i­nance” re­flect mil­i­tarism — the ven­er­a­tion of ar­mies and the val­ues of war for po­lit­i­cal ends.

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