For a foreign policy speech that was supposed to make Republican candidate Donald Trump look presidential, it took an awful lot of digging through a basketful of bumper-sticker slogans to get to a substantive point. And when you did find it, it wasn’t very pretty.
It’s a narrow world, Trumpville. The sole reference to an actual course of action—you know, what foreign policy is supposed to be made of—was in Trump’s commitment to “strengthening and promoting Western civilization” as opposed to “trying to spread ‘universal values’ that not everyone shares.” In Trumpville, that means everyone shares the commitment to keeping America First, to treating allies as international ATMs, to walking away from negotiations (over what, we don’t know) if the US doesn’t get everything it wants, to protecting only “the Christians” (with no recognition that the vast majority of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) victims are Muslim), to ending immigration as we know it because it is “allowing in extremists.”
Much has been said by now about Trump’s clear lack of knowledge—not to speak of experience—in foreign affairs, diplomacy, or even military matters. He shows no evidence of familiarity with the geography, politics, economies, or peoples of the rest of the world. We don’t know whether his simplistic “America First,” is actually supposed to remind us of the right-wing movement of the same name that wanted to placate Hitler and Nazi expansionism. But his version of American exceptionalism does shape the one dangerous aspect of foreign policy he has actually articulated: the anti-immigrant policies that lie at the intersection of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. His only specific plan is to change the immigration rules—because in Trumpville, Mexicans are all rapists, asylum seekers are all extremists, Muslims are all terrorists. All must be kept out.
Trump’s America First approach does reflect a preference for some level of isolationism. He distanced himself from other candidates, saying that “war and aggression will not be my first instinct.” It remains uncertain whether his main target was Ted Cruz and his nuclear threat to “carpet bomb” IS in the Middle East to see if “the sand glows,” or Hillary Clinton’s embrace of escalating wars in Libya, Syria, and beyond. Maybe he meant both of them.