How Donald Trump Hacked the Politics of Foreign Policy

Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy proposals, like forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall or withdrawing from NATO, have drawn unprecedented condemnations as incoherent, contradictory and unrealistic.

Yet for all the boos they elicit from experts, they draw frequent cheers at his rallies.

Scholars of American politics say this is because Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is using international issues as a medium to connect with voters’ gut-level fears and desires

.. Studies show that most voters rank foreign issues low on their list of concerns, but they do listen and use those issues as a window through which they judge candidates’ values and ideology.

.. Mr. Trump has exploited this dynamic, offering ideas that experts consider unworkable, but that tap into some voters’ desire for a strong-handed leader.

.. “People tend to choose the candidate they like first,” and then take on that candidate’s views as their own, she added. “This is the way people make sense of a complicated world.”

.. Because foreign policy requires difficult trade-offs, conventional candidates are limited in how emotionally appealing they can make their plans while keeping them workable. They also need to appease the hard-nosed policy experts or party officials those candidates rely on to get elected — and, eventually, to govern. But Mr. Trump was under no such constraints.

The result: Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is not a foreign policy at all, but rather a vessel for reaching voters on a purely ideological level.

.. Mr. Trump’s message: “NATO requires cooperation. Cooperation is something you do if you’re weak. If you’re strong, people go along with you.”

.. Mr. Trump’s worldview demands and offers “a sort of Fortress America, or perhaps a gigantic gated community, separated from transnational dangers of all kinds by a series of walls.”

.. Mr. Trump alarmed those outside his rapidly growing base with proposals to kill the families of terrorists and with praise for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, as well as for China’s 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

But for supporters, these and other statements suggested Mr. Trump could be trusted to impose order on the chaos they see in a rapidly changing world.

.. when Mr. Trump promises to force Mexico to pay for a giant border wall or warns that Iranian boats will be “shot out of the water” if their sailors “make gestures” at American sailors, he is communicating that he understands that his supporters feel fearful and humiliated, and that he will punish those responsible.

.. Mr. Trump has tapped into what scholars call conservation values.

People who hold those values prioritize security, conformity and tradition. They also tend to fear physical threats and people they see as outsiders, whether that means foreigners or those of different races or religions. And they often express those values as a particular set of “hawkish” foreign policy views.

.. That hawkishness is very different from that of neoconservatives like President George W. Bush or interventionist Democrats like Mrs. Clinton. It is characterized by a desire to

  • shut out the world,
  • ruthlessly promote American interests,
  • reject cooperation and
  • meet threats with overwhelming force.

.. Voters who hold conservation values are drawn to such policies not out of a sudden interest in global affairs, but as a way to express their fear of change and desire for order at home, the researchers found. They desire a strong leader who will protect “us” against an ever-more-menacing “them.”

.. Mr. Trump, by redirecting voters’ anxiety about demographic, cultural and economic changes toward foreign policy, gives his supporters a clearer set of villains

.. Supporters do not primarily hear a policy agenda, but a promise: that Mr. Trump understands their fears and will protect them.