There’s a fatal flaw in his campaign promise.
To all but Donald Trump’s most loyal followers, it’s now a truism that he can change his positions at any moment, as he did multiple times last week on abortion. Trump’s “guiding conviction is winning, and he’ll say pretty much whatever he thinks will get him there,” Elizabeth Williamson observed this week in The New York Times. In a recent piece for Slate, Franklin Foer argued that Trump’s misogyny is his single core belief, the one idea that has remained consistent as all of his other views have shifted with the political winds over the decades.
Trump, to be sure, is astonishingly inconsistent on many issues, and terrifyingly consistent in his misogyny. But Trump’s critics aren’t being quite fair when they accuse him of wavering on every other topic. He has also been entirely consistent on another key point: He has never been very impressed with America.
Trump first flirted with running for president in the late 1980s, as Ronald Reagan’s presidency was drawing to a close. It’s an era many Republicans consider the height of American power and greatness, but Trump, at the time, didn’t like what he saw. In a September 1987 open letter that he spent nearly $100,000 to publish in a number of major newspapers, Trump fixated on a single issue: the exploitation of America by countries that fail to pay for our military protection. “The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” Trump wrote. The letter wasn’t an aberration. The next month, Trump traveled to New Hampshire, where he stuck to the same theme, telling 500 Republicans at the Portsmouth Rotary Club that America is “being kicked around” by Japan and the Arab oil states.
The most remarkable thing about Trump’s 1980s view of America as a weak, loser nation is that it’s nearly identical to the views he has expressed in recent weeks during a series of rambling discussions of foreign policy: In a conversation with The New York Times, Trump argued that America takes “tremendous monetary hits on protecting countries” and that “we lose, everywhere.” In Trump’s mind, the root of America’s woes has always been the same: Other nations, particularly Japan and Saudi Arabia, don’t pay us enough for all we do for them. Indeed, while it’s sometimes argued that Trump has shrewdly crafted his appeal to a newly fragile American psyche, it might be more accurate to say that Trump has been waiting 30 years for Americans to catch up to his unwaveringly primitive, pessimistic view of America’s standing in the world.
As Trump has explained it—both in the 1980s and today—his focus on foreign spending is a byproduct of his concern about America’s deficit spending. “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan, and others who can afford it, pay,” Trump stated in his 1987 letter. But even Trump must understand today that eliminating all of the money America spends to station troops around the world would fail to make a dent in our deficit spending—only 16 percent of the federal budget is spent on defense, and only a fraction of that 16 percent is spent on peacekeeping troops. So, the mystery is why this relatively minor expense has remained so central to his thinking, even as so many of his other positions have changed time and again.
As Adam Davidson points out in The New York Times Magazine, it makes perfect sense that someone with Trump’s real estate experience would understand political agreements as zero-sum deals with winners and losers, rather than as mutually beneficial pacts. But Trump’s business background doesn’t quite explain his obsession with foreign spending. After all, there are plenty of American real-estate tycoons who aren’t losing sleep over the prospect of spending money to defend Japan.
The most likely explanation for Trump’s obsession with foreign spending may simply be that he has a deep visceral reaction to the very thought of a stronger party having to spend money on behalf of a weaker party. And if the issue drives him a little crazy, it’s perhaps because peacekeeping troops presents a fundamental paradox for Trump: He wants nothing more than for America to dominate the world, but dominating the world as a superpower is an expensive proposition. The more powerful America grows, the more it has to spend across the globe to maintain its influence, and thus, the weaker it becomes in Trump’s eyes.
This paradox explains why Trump will never find greatness in a truly powerful America, and why, when pressed by the Times to name a laudable era in U.S. history, he went back more than a century: “[I]f you really look at it, the turn of the century, that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust.” Trump added that the 1940s and ’50s were okay because “we were not pushed around” and “we were pretty much doing what we had to do.” Never mind that, as Max Boot writes in Commentary, the U.S. “went from defeat to defeat” against Communism in the late 1940s, or that America wasn’t nearly as powerful as it would become by the end of the twentieth century.
Trump’s only way out of this paradox is to insist that other countries pay America to dominate them. This is why it’s so important that Mexico pay for building the wall he wants along our entire southern border. Indeed, forcing Mexico to pay for the wall might be the real rationale for the wall itself. Trump’s foreign policy amounts to a vision of international extortion, America as a mafia thug squeezing protection payments out of our weaker allies. The problem, as the Times’ David E. Sanger recently pointed out to Trump, is that rather than pay America, a country might instead wish America the best and spend its money on weapons, including nuclear arsenals—hardly a recipe for sustained global influence.
Why Trump can’t grasp that America’s willingness to spend on global peacekeeping forces is not a reflection of its weakness, but a source of its power, is hard to say. But this much is clear: In Trump’s world, nothing is more upsetting than a powerful nation failing to fully dominate a weaker nation. And because American power, unlike the power of Trump the businessman, is mutually exclusive with squeezing every last dollar out of weaker parties, Trump might as well give up on his campaign promise. America will never be great again in his eyes.