Donald Trump put some flesh on the bones of his “America first” foreign policy on Wednesday, but he did little to persuade skeptics that he has really thought though how to engage with the rest of the world as president.
Trump, a property mogul and former television personality who is leading in the Republican Party’s presidential contest, called for policy that “replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy and chaos with peace.”
Little of what he said next lived up to that promise.
Trump likes to claim that “idiots” in both parties have let America down. Its foreign policy of the last twenty years has been a “complete and total disaster,” he said on Wednesday.
“I’m the only one,” he added, “who knows how to fix it.”
Yet Trump, who has no experience in government, did not hint at a single concrete solution in his speech.
He said that was partly deliberate. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he argued, in fighting fanatical Islamist groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State — which he predictably vowed to crush.
But his lack of coherence can not be explained away so easily.
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, recounts in The Washington Post how Trump demanded that allies pay more for their own security one moment and argued they would nevertheless trust him more as president the next.
He blasts policies that tried to promote democracy in the Middle East but then pledged to be “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments.” He said the nation needed to become more “unpredictable” and then promised to offer “a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.”
Drezner concludes, “The speech reads like someone stitched together pieces of fabric without bothering to see if anything clashed.”
No wonder allies are alarmed. Even President Barack Obama, the man Trump hopes to succeed, now regularly needs to reassure counterparts overseas that America will not deliver them to a madman next year.
“The single most important question I’m asked these days from other world leaders is, ‘What’s going on with your elections?'” he told interviewer Charlie Rose last week.
The one recurring theme in Trump’s babbling about the rest of the world is humiliation. “Our rivals no longer respect us,” he said on Wednesday. This is a familiar lament on the far right.
It doesn’t need to be refuted here. What is telling in this context is Trump’s expectation that American power begets respect no matter how it is deployed.
This does not suggest a confidence in American strength; it rather reveals an insecurity that motives Trump personally as well.
A self-declared billionaire many times over, he still finds time to bicker with journalists who say one critical word of him. The frontrunner in the Republican nominating contest by far, who has been greatly helped by delegate-allocation rules that benefit the highest vote-getter in every state, he nevertheless accuses the party of not treating him fairly because it’s not handing him the nomination on a silver platter.
There is a pattern to Trump’s behavior. What drives him as a person, argues Frank Bruni in The New York Times, is a constant need for validation.
He’s addicted to attention, demanding regular fixes and going to ever greater lengths — in terms of reckless statements and provocative acts — to get them.
Bruni implores his readers to imagine what this would mean for a Trump presidency.
His agenda wouldn’t be conservative, moderate, liberal or for that matter coherent. It would be self-affirming and self-aggrandizing: whatever it takes to remain the focus of everyone’s gaze, the syllable tumbling from everyone’s lips. Trump, Trump, Trump.
Perhaps that’s how we should think of Wednesday’s speech. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t make sense. What matters is that it got everybody talking about Donald Trump again. Including us.