In November, for the first time since the United States presidential election of 1940, when incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt beat Republican challenger Wendell Willkie, all Americans are set to witness a face-off between an interventionist Democrat and an isolationist Republican.
These two types of politicians represent the essence of American nationalism and they took turns holding power from the birth of the republic until the US entered the Second World War.
So how can we interpret this resurgence of isolationism in 2016? How can we explain some Americans calling Donald Trump a modern-day Andrew Jackson? This comparison is certainly flattering, but it’s misleading: Jackson was first and foremost a great soldier. Trump, on the other hand, is a successful businessman.
It’s very trendy to be a populist in 2016. Protectionism is all right, too, even though it’s nonsense in economic terms. But to be an isolationist when you aspire to become president of the world’s most powerful country — one that still has unique international responsibilities — ultimately amounts to a non sequitur.
It is true that isolationism and interventionism are both expressions of nationalism. Nationalism has two sides. One consists in building walls (Trump), the other in building bridges (Hillary Clinton).
The candidate who could become the first female president of the US is profoundly “traditional” in her relationship to the world. More naturally interventionist than President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Hillary is in line with her husband and former president Bill Clinton’s approach, if not Ronald Reagan’s: A blend of humanist idealism and cold pragmatism.
What’s new, even revolutionary, in the 2016 election is that a character so profoundly anachronistic in terms of strategic thinking could become the GOP’s candidate, despite, or perhaps thanks, to his outrageous remarks.
The underlying reason for this evolution is connected to America’s relationship to globalisation. As the 20th century came to a close, we used to say that the US was the great beneficiary of a globalised world. And objectively speaking, this was true. But a significant number of American citizens no longer agree, even viewing themselves as victims of globalisation. In rallying behind Trump’s isolationist and protectionist stance, they aim to protect themselves from a process they can longer seem to control.
The US economy may be growing and its unemployment rate may be the stuff of dreams for most European countries, but one statistic undermines all that: More than 80 per cent of Americans haven’t recovered the standard of living they enjoyed before the financial and economic crisis of 2008.
These Americans don’t just blame current political leaders, linking economic frustration with racist prejudice along the way (“What else could we expect from a black president?”). They’re also pointing fingers at the rest of the world. It’s the Chinese, who are engaging in unfair competition, even though labour costs have increased significantly in recent years. Or it’s the Europeans, who do nothing or almost nothing to share the burden of collective security.
Of course, there are elements of truth in this diagnosis. There are shades of Reagan in Trump’s “America and Americans first” stances. But there’s a mixture of nationalism, navel-gazing, populism and, more importantly, underlying narcissism, in Trump.
Evolution of modern emotions
“Myself and my energy are the embodiment of my political project,” he seems to say, sounding to a French ear like Nicolas Sarkozy at times. This new emphasis reflects the evolution of modern emotions.
In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy encouraged Americans to ask what they could do for America. He was a “Berliner” alongside West Germans during the Cold War. He presented himself as a direct heir of the Founding Fathers, even though his Catholicism and Irish origins struck a discordant note in this lineage. He gave America a young, elegant, almost aristocratic face. Trump is the absolute antithesis of both Obama and JFK.
In purely rational terms, Trump’s view of the world may seem contradictory, if not incoherent. But as the world — from Britain in the shadow of Brexit, to the US in the shadow of Trump — faces the possible triumph of humanity’s most negative emotions, let’s not overlook the risks involved in seeing the world’s biggest military power dive head-first into profoundly irrational behaviour.
One hopes that American voters will ultimately offer the best protection against Trump. Indeed, he should have the vast majority of blacks, Latinos and women against him. Countless well-educated and prosperous voters profoundly reject his persona and positions.
But Americans can no longer dismiss Trump’s vision for America’s foreign policy with a wave of the hand. They have done it too often in the past and they are still paying the consequences. The era of intellectual, if not social, arrogance is over.
— New York Times News Service Worldcrunch — in partnership with Les Echos