Earlier this week, at Washington’s posh Metropolitan Club, I attended a serious roundtable discussion about Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Serious, you say? Can Donald Trump’s foreign policy be analyzed in such a manner?
How can you stay serious when in the midst of the upheaval over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mr. Trump launches into a tirade about Stormy Daniels, calling the adult-film actress “Horseface” on Twitter. A defamation suit from Ms. Daniels against him had been thrown out. He was vowing to go after her and her “third-rate” attorney, Michael Avenatti. She fired back “Game on, Tiny,” a likely reference to his sexual apparatus which she unflatteringly sizes up in her memoir, Full Disclosure.
Americans knew they weren’t getting Sophocles when they put Mr. Trump in the White House. But this level of dross?
Some speculated that with the Stormy outburst the Vulgarian-in-Chief was trying to divert attention from the Khashoggi crisis. He hasn’t looked good in it, as he is seemingly trying to protect his Saudi friends. While evidence points to involvement of the Saudis at the highest level – one doubts the Saudi agent outfitted with a bone saw was sent to the consulate in Istanbul to cut down eucalyptus trees – Mr. Trump prevaricates. He was at least more candid than other leaders, admitting that he had to be careful in his treatment of the Saudi Crown Prince because it could cost the United States many billions in arms sales.
At the Metropolitan Club roundtable, which was organized by a group called the Committee for the Republic, participants were trying to figure out what was at the core of Mr. Trump’s omni-directional foreign policy and where it was headed.
David Hendrickson, author of Republic in Peril, argued that he was more imperialist than isolationist. In his book he writes that Mr. Trump sees alliances “as arrangements between a superpower protector and deadbeat dependents who should pay up or shove off.” In extracting rents from allies, he says Mr. Trump is trying to create “an empire of tribute.” He’s a president who decries not so much the lives lost in Middle East wars as the trillions of dollars America has squandered in them.
The profit mentality can be seen in his approach to climate change. I was seated beside Jim Speyer, who worked for the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus, back in the early 1970s when the agency was created by Richard Nixon. Subsequent presidents, Mr. Speyer noted, at least took environmental issues seriously. But for Mr. Trump all that counts is near-term economic health. Climate-change programs get in the way of it. They need to be nixed. A carbon tax is the way to go, Mr. Speyer said, pointing to Canada as being on the right track.
Trade policy came up. It aligns nicely with the empire-of-tribute theme. It was noted how this administration’s approach, far more so than with other presidents, is governed by Mr. Trump’s simplistic notion of trade imbalances. If they’re in the negative it means America is getting taken in, ripped off.
In the meantime, the administration must take care of its wealthy, even if the giant tax breaks that are going to them as well as the huge budget dollars for a rearming of an already overarmed military are creating such a deficit that, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this week, social programs will have to be cut back.
While so much of Mr. Trump’s policymaking is helter-skelter, scattershot, spur of the moment, it’s not so difficult to discern a constant in what he is doing, not just on foreign policy but with everything. Money is the morality. The drive for riches underpins this man’s entire life, his grotesque vanity, Mar-a-Lago, his gold-embossed Trump towers. It’s what’s behind the scandals, his alleged Russian ties, his Saudi softness, his refusal to release his tax records. It drives his thinking to the extent that the word kleptocracy has entered into the debate to describe how his presidency seeks to enrich himself and friends and family.
It is now driving his political strategy. At this stage of their presidencies, George W. Bush and Barack Obama had raised less than US$5-million in campaign donations. Donald Trump has already brought in US$106-million for his 2020 campaign. The tribute is pouring in.