Toeing the Line

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (Credit: Getty/Esquire).

Donald Trump is running amok in the United States. In every major area of domestic policy, his current legislation or policy proposals would drastically change the existing structures of American society.

On the economy, he has already slashed regulations and seeks to dramatically cut taxes. His healthcare bill has repeatedly failed, but the changes it would bring are immense. On immigration, he has, of course, The Wall, and he spoke today about pushing for a merit-based system.

Many of these policies are well outside the conventional range of options that have been debated during the 21st century. Even The Wall is more extreme than many Republicans beliefs, and Republicans have been taking an extremist position on immigration for over a decade.

And beyond the actual policy implications of his legislative agenda, Trump has been wreaking havoc on the norms and institutions that are set up to allow the smooth functioning of American democracy. He has attacked judges and the press relentlessly. He has shown a blatant disregard for process and consultation inside the White House and on Capitol Hill. He is a unique and dangerous president.

That’s all on the domestic front. Overseas, oddly enough, Trump has proven to be much more conventional. We sometimes feel the urge to bring our outrage and incredulity past the waters edge, but in the interest of accuracy in analysis, we should keep Trump’s foreign policy in perspective. The two are linked, but not in every case and every way.

In the vast majority of cases, Trump has eventually come to act in the way any generic Republican president would, albeit begrudgingly. After some delay, he has embraced the United States’ commitment to NATO. He has been tough on Assad and on ISIS, as well as Iran (a default Republican position). He has upped military spending and he is taking a tough line on North Korea.

Like many Republicans wish, he is cutting foreign aid and focusing on the military rather than on diplomacy. Furthermore, he has demonstrated his skepticism for the UN and for international treaties like the Paris Climate Accords.

On trade, he has attacked what he sees as unfair deals, cancelling the TPP and forcing a renegotiation of NAFTA. Though these are not traditional Republican policies (the GOP has historically been pro-free trade) they are well within the range of conventional policy positions in the States. Finally, he has attacked China for its own trade policies and for its failure to rein in the DPRK.

In the past week, he has joined the long list of American presidents who have employed a heavy hand in the Western hemisphere, personally sanctioning Nicolás Maduro after the Venezuelan president won his apparently rigged election focused on constitutional change.

He has done all this, often with great reluctance, and a great deal of vacillation. I don’t want to make it seem like Trump actually has some sort of overall strategy, or even the knowledge or competence to make one, but in each individual case he has acted largely predictably, given enough time. Trump’s foreign policy is scattered and chaotic, but, for the most part, fairly conventional.

This fact is easily and rightly attributable to the key people involved and, likely, Trump’s own ignorance and lack of interest in foreign affairs. Trump has his pet issues (China, trade), but for the most part foreign policy has been strongly influenced by a few key men around Trump.

Jared Kushner, of course, is the foreign policy czar, controlling the Middle East, China and Mexico files (along with a handful of domestic concerns). Meanwhile, the foreign policy secretaries are also generally seen as Trump’s most competent subordinates. Tillerson has been quiet (and apparently very unhappy), but rock solid in his traditional take on American foreign policy. Secretary Mattis is as conventional as it gets, if a bit hawkish. Vice-President Pence, finally, has taken an active role in foreign policy and has set the same standard tone.

Yes, I’m normalizing Trump. But in the foreign policy sphere he’s just really not that different from any other Republican. He’s bumbling and incompetent. He’s petulant and mercurial. He’s prone to burst of outrage or long periods of disinterest. But when it comes down to it, he has been a conventional foreign policy president in these past six months.

But wait, there’s more.

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(Credit: Collins Flags)

How could we forget about Russia? With the relative normality of the rest of Trump’s foreign policy, Russia sticks out like a sore thumb.

It used to be Democrats who were accused of being Russophiles, enamoured with its communist past or with the interesting history and culture. Republicans, meanwhile, were the tough realists who remembered the “evil empire” and were concerned by Russian policies in the Middle East, Europe and the Arctic.

Russia is the exception that proves the rule. With the rest of Trump’s foreign policy more or less toeing the party line, it’s actually absurd how he manages to continually buck the trend with Russia.

He refuses to say a bad word about Putin. When asked, he is as likely to criticize America as the Russia dictator. He is unconcerned with Russia’s systematic persecution of journalists and opposition leaders, let alone its support for Iran or Assad.

Trump’s attempts at friendliness are so contradictory with the rest of his foreign policy that even if there were currently no investigation of collusion involving his campaign, it would still be suspicious. Add to that his seeming distrust for the assessment of his own intelligence community concerning Russian interference in the election, and you have a disturbing, almost unexplainable pro-Russian attitude.

There are, of course, a variety of explanations. The most fun is the allegations in the now-infamous “dossier,” that details a variety of claims from financial ties to old-school kompromat (the fabled pee tape). More conservatively, explanations focus on a series of loans that Trump likely received, as well as other business ventures in the country. Some go so far as to argue that Trump simply admires (and desires to be) a strongman in the same cast as Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Whatever the connection is, it’s big enough for Trump to hold fast against attempts from within his administration and his party to change his default stance towards Russia. These efforts have met with occasional success, but Trump continues to create setbacks, such as his secretive one-on-one meeting with Putin last month. Today, even in the face of a united Congress passing legislation sanctioning Russia, Trump made clear in his signing statement that he disagreed with the bill.

I can only assume that at some point we will learn some of the truth about the president’s ties to Russia, and why his sympathy for that country stretches through, and well before, the campaign. But for now, it remains a remarkable, exceptional foreign policy issue that spoils any credit Trump might otherwise gain from a conventional (if erratic) foreign policy.

Where in other areas Trump has eventually come around to the Republican way of things, here he has ignored the party line completely. He’s stepped over it, and into Putin’s waiting arms.

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