Those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking short views, and indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked by what they read from day to day.
- Winston Churchill, "The Gathering Storm"
Listening to Donald Trump's "serious" speech on foreign policy yesterday, complete with a teleprompter, brought this quote of Churchill's to mind, especially the phrase "indulging their natural impulses."
Churchill's point is not that a statesman should be doctrinaire: One of the on-going challenges with his great ally, the United States, was that the American mind is given to large, logical planning, and is less nimble than the British approach. But, if one should not be doctrinaire, one must nonetheless have thought about issues long enough to have formed some sense of how the world works, some basic framework for understanding otherwise formless information, and usually statesmen are well advised to seek that understanding by the study of history. Indeed, the only U.S. president in the 20th century who did not have a college degree, Harry S. Truman, was capable of making large decisions precisely because he was a student of history.
Listening to Mr. Trump yesterday, it is clear he knows almost nothing about history and, just as important and frightening, neither did his foreign policy team which drafted the speech.
In the first few minutes of the speech, Trump said, "America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration. But to chart our path forward, we must first briefly look back. We have a lot to be proud of. In the 1940s we saved the world. The Greatest Generation beat back the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists."
Where to begin? As I have noted previously, he seems unaware of the nativist, anti-semtic and pro-Nazi sympathies of the first America Firsters: He has channeled Charles Lindbergh before. But, does he even grasp that the American First crowd did not want us to "save the world" in the 1940s by beating the Nazis or challenging the Japanese war in China? They wanted us to stay out of the wars.
In other sections of the speech, he channeled Wendell Wilkie. There is a heavy isolationist undercurrent, usually as a threat: "Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so," Trump said. Either our allies will pay more for NATO, or we will leave them to fend for themselves. America is not to be a shining city of a hill, as Reagan thought, but more like a neighborhood bully who is willing to take his toys and go home if he does not get his way.
Later on in the speech, he channeled Richard Nixon. Trump said, "And then there's ISIS. I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won't tell them where and I won't tell them how. We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable. But they're going to be gone. And soon." He may not wish to tell ISIS how he intends to strike them, but he needs to tell the American people and their representatives in Congress. Trump has said before that he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS, and that he can't share it with voters, just as Nixon had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Fool me once . . .
There were not a lot of specifics in the speech. He dangles the prospect of better trade relations and the dagger of worse trade relations, but paints the culprit as foreign countries, rather than multinational corporations. Trump, at every rally, asks the crowd: "Who will pay for the wall?" and they shout back "Mexico!" as if shouting will make it happen. He will bludgeon allies into paying more, and respecting us again, but then speaks of them like they are mere appendages of U.S. interests.
If there is one unifying principle to Trump's speech, indeed, to his entire campaign, it is himself and his personality. He does not need policy specifics because he is the guy who wrote the book on making deals, he is the guy who has built a huge business empire, he is the guy who can "fix" America. It seems unlikely that Trump reads much history, but if he does, it is the Great Man theory of history, which is always a fun read and not without its merit when done well. But, when the Great Man theory is not bolstered by the history of cultures and ideas and societies and all the other things that go into the great tale that have nothing to do with the Great Man, one's focus becomes fuzzy and one's knowledge inadequate.
If Donald Trump were attempting to appear more presidential, to demonstrate some gravitas, his speech failed and failed utterly. This does not tell us much about him that we did not already know, but it tells us something about his advisors. They may have drafted a speech with gravitas, and seen it turned into this. They may have given the candidate what he wanted on their first try. Either way, if they were satisfied that this text demonstrated gravitas, or even a minimal understanding of the world, we are in deep, deep trouble.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]