President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.
The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.
None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.
This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.
Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.
The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.
The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.
In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.
Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.
Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.
Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.
Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.
The most surprising thing about President Trump’s decision to overrule his top advisers and withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan isn’t that it was improvised and disruptive. Sudden shifts are part of Mr. Trump’s method, and disconcerting senior officials is one of his favorite management tools.
The surprise is that for the first time, Mr. Trump made a foreign-policy decision that divides the coalition that brought him into the White House and risks his control of the GOP. Mr. Trump has frequently challenged and infuriated his political opponents, but his Syria decision risks alienating allies he can ill afford to lose.Mr. Trump’s greatest political asset has been his feel for the priorities of his populist base. The importance of this skill is sometimes underrated, but his ability to unite and energize his voters gave him control of the Republican Party and the White House. If he loses his bond with the base, he will quickly find himself isolated in a Washington that loathes him.
Nowhere has Mr. Trump’s sense of populist America been more important than in foreign policy. As a candidate in 2015-16, he showed that he understood something his establishment rivals in both parties did not: that the post-Cold War consensus no longer commanded the American people’s support.
.. During the Cold War, a large majority of Americans united around the policies that built the international liberal order after World War II. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, a gap opened between those who saw an opportunity to expand America’s world-building activities and those who saw an opportunity for the U.S. to reduce its commitments overseas. The foreign-policy establishment across both parties supported an ambitious global agenda, but increasingly alienated populists preferred to pull back.
Of all the errors made today by liberals—I use the term broadly—our most fundamental has been our underestimation of Trumpism as a philosophical movement.
We have no trouble loathing Donald Trump the man. His temperament and political impulses are self-evidently those of an authoritarian, straight from the pages of Adorno or Hayek. Likewise, our criticism of his administration’s misguided policies has been ever at the ready.
.. Trumpism is well on the road to becoming a systematic program of ideas that will carefully refine its views through praxis and—allied with anti-liberal movements elsewhere in the world, especially in Russia—articulate a new, fundamental challenge to liberal thought for the twenty-first century.
.. History as
- heritage and nostalgia—#MAGA. History as
- reverence and fidelity—Straussianism and constitutional originalism. History as a
- philosophy of action—embodied in the novels of Trump’s intellectual precursor, Newt Gingrich. History as
- racial melancholy—Charlottesville. History as a resource of trans-historical Germanic mythology—the masculinist branches of the alt-right. History as
- conspiracy—Infowars, #fakenews, and the “rigged” political system. History as
- providence and decay—the implicit revival of Jacksonian-era romantic nationalism, with its narrative scaffolding of dwindling popular sovereignty.
.. Stephen Bannon’s philosophy of generational change, about which I’ve written elsewhere,
- a toxic blend of Toynbee and Jung—history as
- a cycle of apocalypse and renewal.
.. climate change denial grows logically from the core metaphysical commitments of contemporary populist nationalism in its confrontation with trans-Atlantic, cosmopolitan, individualist liberalism.
.. one might thus regard it as the distinctive form of anti-liberal historical thinking of our era.
.. it’s helpful to turn to the work of a thinker whose writings, it’s been suggested (and here), underwrite the movement’s “intellectual source code”: the German constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).
.. On Schmitt’s view, liberal states are weak and vulnerable, subject to corrosion from within—through capture by private interest groups—and conquest from abroad.
.. a political community arises when its members coalesce around some aspect of their common existence. On this basis, they distinguish between their “friends” and “enemies,” the latter of whom they are ultimately prepared to fight and kill to defend their way of life.
.. A political community, that is, is created through an animating sense of common identity and existential threat
.. Schmitt believes that this pugilistic view of politics rings true as a conceptual matter, but he also regards drawing the friend-enemy distinction as a quasi-theological duty and part of what it means to be fully human.
.. Without the friend-enemy distinction, he argues, political life would vanish, and without it something essential to humanity would vanish
.. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia
.. Enemies are regularly portrayed as ugly, for instance—a practice at which Trump personally excels.
.. But the object of a community’s political dissociation is made on the basis of criteria independent from judgments about good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or profit and loss.
.. the liberal effort to circumscribe national sovereignty within universalist legal and moral criteria increases the possibility of total war.
.. Trump acts in full accord with Schmitt in this respect by praising Vladimir Putin and embracing autocratic Russia as a potential friend while snubbing liberal nations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
.. at the heart of Trump’s campaign was the promise to territorialize the friend-enemy distinction, namely to build a “great wall” along the border between the United States and Mexico
.. That spirit is one not simply of xenophobia or ethnocentrism, but also, and perhaps most of all, of shared laughter and good humor—a spirit, it’s essential for liberals to acknowledge, of warm community.
.. As Stephen Miller bracingly put the matter, in a statement nearly incomprehensible on liberal terms, “We’re going to build that wall, and we’re going to build it out of love.”
.. on Schmitt’s view, those nations that are strong enough to impose their own internal political homogeneity ought to ally with each other against nations and groups that undermine the territorialization of the friend-enemy distinction.
By this logic, it’s not Russia so much as violent Islamic extremism and cosmopolitan trans-Atlanticism that represent America’s true enemies—and, in fact, Russia can be an important ally against both.
.. Much like extreme conservative positions on gun control, climate change denial is based above all in anti-liberal metaphysical and identity commitments.
.. Although scientists have a forty-year track record of accurately predicting rising global temperatures, climate change deniers insist that such findings are the product of self-serving business elites and cunning foreign economic competitors who stand to gain if America reduces carbon emissions.
This sociological critique of scientific knowledge is a position not of evidentiary skepticism but rather of radical epistemological relativism. Deniers essentially challenge the Enlightenment position that the past is subject to objective understanding and that the world is amenable to rational human control.
This lends the popular culture of climate change denial a palpable spirit of historical fatalism.
.. climate change denial is animated by a vision of the future that, at bottom, is that of neo-tribalism.
.. It is destabilizing the territorial boundaries of the world through rising sea levels, altering the very land from which, in Schmitt’s view, the nomos of a people originally grows
.. it is undermining the spatial boundaries that Schmitt deems essential to sovereignty by putting the export of negative externalities at the center of global concern
.. Deniers interpret climate history in a way that obscures the existence of a global political community
.. In doing so, they not only embrace what I’ve called “the rule of the clan” at the level of the modern state, they also reject sotto voce the liberal ideals of universalism and individualism.
.. Trumpism draws together for our own time the core ideals of politics and the state that Carl Schmitt placed at the center of his philosophical vision. These include
- an animating community spirit that combines pugilism with love,
- an existential embrace of the friend-enemy distinction,
- a conception of state sovereignty as inviolable,
- the need to territorialize and homogenize the political community, and the rejection of the liberalist international order
—all in the service of a unified, common people.