At the 1984 Republican convention, United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick memorably lambasted Democrats for “blaming America first.” The Kirkpatrick speech was a seminal moment because the late, great COMMENTARY contributor encapsulated what was at that time the great difference between the two major political parties. The Democrats were, she said, the “blame America first crowd.” The Republicans led by President Ronald Reagan were of a different mindset. They saw America as a “shining city on a hill” that was “the last best hope of man on earth” with a duty to stand up for freedom and resist aggression against free peoples. But today’s Republicans have left that fight.
Yet if Kirkpatrick’s derision of the “San Francisco Democrats”—a reference to the site of the Democratic convention that nominated Walter Mondale—resonates down the years, what then will history think of the Cleveland Republicans that have chosen Donald Trump to be their leader?
As our Noah Rothman and Max Boot already noted, in his most recent New York Times interview, Trump doubled down on his qualified abandonment of NATO allies in the face of possible Russian aggression. But he also tossed aside the very notion that the U.S. was that “shining city” that was the symbol of freedom to the world. He specifically rejected the idea that the U.S. should stand up for human rights around the world, saying “I don’t think we have a right to lecture” dictatorships and tyrants.
This is more than just a function of Trump’s “America First” philosophy—an ominous echo of the pre-World War II isolationist movement. Trump clearly sees contemporary America as a deeply flawed place with its own human rights problems and civil strife. The shootings of police officers is, he thinks, reason enough for the United States to mind its own business when it comes to advocacy for civil liberties. His gloomy view of the nation impels him, he says, to a new career in national service to restore lost greatness. But the point to be gleaned from this is that it is the antithesis of Ronald Reagan’s faith in American values and its role in the world that was at the heart of his presidency.
His populist followers and the tame conservatives who have latched onto him because of partisan loyalties claim to despise President Obama. But the sad truth is that Trump’s vision of America is far more in tune with that of the man he wishes to replace in the White House than of Reagan or Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Trump’s supporters are gulled by his braggadocio into thinking he’s a breath of fresh air but, in fact, he is anything but. If Trump is not apologizing for what he sees as a flawed America, much like Obama, he lacks confidence in the strength and the transcendent importance of our values. Like Obama, he is also determined to withdraw from the world. He speaks of defeating ISIS but like Obama, he also makes it clear he has no intention of committing the resources to that fight.
Though Mike Pence correctly criticized Obama for apologizing to foes and abandoning allies in his speech last night, how else could one characterize Trump’s treatment of the Baltic republics and other NATO allies but as an even more craven version of the current administration’s policies?
The Republican Party led by Ronald Reagan was well aware of the challenges facing the nation, both at home and abroad. But it was not afraid to speak out for freedom and to resist the spirit of tyranny that gave hope to those same Baltic republics that Trump has so irresponsibly left out to dry as he calculates whether they have paid enough to justify America fulfilling its treaty obligations. In that way, Trump’s vision of America is a projection of his own reputation in business: a man always ready to drive a hard bargain but often unwilling to pay his bills leaving the little guys who depended on him to shift for themselves in the face of ill fortune.
Like those 1984 Democrats that he doubtlessly supported at the time, Trump believes America must look inward and abandon the nation’s responsibilities and to cease championing its values. That is not a policy most contemporary Republicans support and, indeed, it is contradicted by many of the speeches that were heard in Cleveland. But neither Pence, nor Newt Gingrich, nor Chris Christie will be running America’s foreign policy next year if their party wins in November. It will be Trump who will call the tune, and that will mean it is his ideas that will prevail in a Republican administration that would begin dismantling the foreign policy achievements that Reagan’s victory in the Cold War as well as those of his predecessors dating back to Harry Truman.
These are views that in any previous year would have been considered disqualifying for a Republican candidate, but this is the vision the party apparatchiks marching in lockstep—dutifully shouting down dissidents who speak of conscience—have embraced in Cleveland. They are applauding a man who is imbued with the same spirit of retreat that was at the heart of the San Francisco Democrats and shares with them a reluctance to stand up for freedom because he lacks faith in American exceptionalism. This is a Republican Party Ronald Reagan would not have recognized. But it is one that at the very least shares a foreign policy with Obama and his left-wing predecessors.