16 Oct PODCAST | Democracy Futures – Trump’s American Revolution
It is commonplace to read that Trump is a transactional leader without a foreign policy ideology. Where George W. Bush was often criticised as an ideological president who was motivated by neoconservative ideas particularly in the Middle East, Trump is generally described as an unpredictable opportunist. This talk will challenge this view and will argue that all administrations and presidents have ideologies. While some presidential ideologies are more coherent than others, scholars must identify the key ideological currents within all administrations, not just those that fit into pre-existing models. Trump’s ideology, like all American presidents, draws on nationalism. Following Michael Freeden I will argue that nationalism is a thin-centred and potentially dangerous ideology. Trump’s nationalism seems particularly dangerous as his vague but powerful ideas about putting “America first” and “winning” against other nations are being put into policy practice via the border wall, travel bans, and trade protectionism.
At the meso level, Trump is not a liberal, a conservative, or a realist. Trump’s politics more accurately reflect what I call celebrity populism. While it is tempting to simply see his celebrity populism as a lowest common denominator approach to politics I will outline how this approach strategically mixes legitimate concerns with conspiracies. I will argue that it is useful to understand populism as an ideology and therefore to see Trump’s foreign policy outlook as populist nationalist ideology in action. What is interesting about Trump’s nationalism is how it breaks from the tradition of American presidents almost liturgically promoting American exceptionalism. Instead Trump’s nationalism is based on a nativism that is more familiar to Europeans than Americans since the early 20th century. Although Trump is not an isolationist, his insular and militaristic beliefs can sensibly be called Jacksonian, to use language employed by Walter Russell Mead and Anatol Lieven. The challenge with Trump is that he is drawn to making statements that aim to distract or provoke rivals, including other nations. In this environment where language is used both loosely and to deliberately distract, it is challenging to sum up Trump’s foreign policy ideology. However, this does not mean that Trump lacks a foreign policy ideology, nor does it negate the need to analyse his foreign policy ideology Rather, the aggressive and disruptive nature of much of Trump’s rhetoric makes the task of coming to a better understanding of Trump’s ideology all the more important.
Brendon O’Connor is jointly appointed between the US Studies Centre and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney as an Associate Professor in American Politics. He was a Fulbright Fellow at Georgetown University in 2006, a Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC in 2008 and 2015, and life member of Clare Hall at University of Cambridge. Brendon is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.