There is a dog-walking-on-hind-legs peculiarity to watching Donald Trump give a scripted speech.
His foreign policy address to The National Interest on Wednesday was, of course, not his first; despite prior insistence that no presidential candidate should be allowed a teleprompter, he did so at AIPAC as well. This is done presumably in an effort at message discipline — and in part, it worked. After all, Trump didn’t advocate for torture or the killing of terrorists’ families! What a low bar this cycle has set.
Even so, the weirdness of a “more measured” Trump persists because even when moderated, he is not. There was so much that was so quintessentially Trump about this address even if the man who delivered it was pretending not to be him. Among a cacophony of contradictions, embellishments, and outright lies, Trump presented a disastrously incoherent worldview built on a foundation of empty promises.
First, a look at the contradictions—beginning with the kind of pedantic nitpicking that Trump so loathes from eggheads like myself. There is a distasteful irony in Trump’s christening his foreign policy approach as “America First” and immediately moving to praise U.S. leadership during World War II, given that the movement of the same name advocated fiercely for isolationism in advance of the same conflict. This is not to say that foreign policy doctrine names are ever good (remember Rubio’s capitalized yet shallow American Strength?), but is simply one piece of evidence among an ever-growing pile that Trump has little regard for history or context.
Trump’s discussion of allies was the most whiplash-inducing topic in the speech by far. In the space of just a few paragraphs, he advanced two propositions: one, that our allies are freeloaders greedily taking advantage of our money and security guarantees, and two, that these allies don’t feel like they can depend on us. These points are mutually exclusive. It is remarkable to hear promises of how America will “be a great and reliable ally again” from a man who questions the utility of NATO and thinks Japan and South Korea should just build their own nuclear weapons. Trump promised his administration would work with our Muslim allies in the Middle East to fight ISIS, yet gave no indication of how this would be achieved while he simultaneously banned them from immigrating or even traveling to our nation.
Trump also argued that the United States should stand by its commitments on the world stage — before insisting that we abdicate the Iran nuclear deal. To be fair to Trump, he qualified his statement with the word “friends,” perhaps in his mind exempting Iran (though still in contrast to the NATO and Asia points above). But to be fair to reality, Trump made a mockery of the facts around the deal. Iran has not ignored its terms, per the international organization monitoring their nuclear supply chain. The lines of communication established by its negotiations did facilitate the return of our Sailors. And of course, it does prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon through limits and verification — far more than bloviating from a podium does.
In fact, the Iran diatribe well illustrates that while contradictions are part of Trump’s brand, so is being wrong and misleading. Trump rants that we’re “Asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming,” when actually, they’re the ones asking us. He continues to insist that he was always “proudly against” the Iraq War, which has been proven demonstrably false with actual interview audio. Even the little things don’t escape outright fabrication: Trump rails against the disrespect of “nobody” greeting President Obama on the tarmac in Havana, when in fact Cuba’s foreign minister and others did so and the White House knew in advance that Raul Castro would not.
There are near-endless Trump tropes to unpack throughout the speech. He warned against “importing extremism through senseless immigration policies,” implicitly insisting that the exhaustive verification process we have does not exist, perhaps because he himself does not understand or know about it. And he bemoaned “people laughing at us” around the world—a theme that, along with his opinion that the United States should exact tribute in response for our efforts at global stability, is a surprisingly consistent piece of Trump’s worldview.
But perhaps the most Trumpian thing of all the Trumpian things about the speech was the incredible lack of how. Trump made promises that contradicted each other, sure, but also sweeping statements—ensuring ISIS “will be gone” the most spectacular among them—that simply had no follow through. When Trump was not criticizing others, he was simply offering an ever-increasing list of empty guarantees all rooted in the conviction that he, through means unexplained, could deliver on them. The most concrete policy proposal was calling for two already regularly-held summits—everything else would resolve itself by the sheer force of Trump.
Because this, truly, is the key to Trump’s worldview: he is the beginning, the end, and everything in between. The narcissism that leads to harmless if laughable idiosyncrasies like a gold-adorned 757 becomes something far more serious when applied to leading a nation and the world. It reared its ugly head in Trump’s opportunistic tweet following the Brussels attacks—“I alone can solve” the problem of terrorism, he claimed—but this speech was an outgrowth of the same sentiment in that it presented a worldview built on platitudes, distortions, and above all else, ego.
That—nothing more, and nothing less—is the true Trump foreign policy doctrine: Trump First, Trump Alone, and Never Mind You How.
Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.
Photo: Still. The National Interest/ ABC