The Paradox of Trump: Why Europeans Ought to Prefer Him to Hillary Clinton
By Dr. John C. Hulsman
Introduction: Why Trump is Bad for America
Particularly in this populist age, all seemingly incredible statements (such as my above title) must absolutely be backed up by the most rigorous of facts. So let me begin with three.
I will never vote for Donald Trump. In line with the the classic modern American demagogic tradition—from Huey Long to Douglas MacArthur, from Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace—the present Republican nominee often plays fast and lose with the truth. He either, as my grandmother would put it, outright lies, as when he said large crowds of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey when 9/11 happened, or he misrepresents, as if the President of Mexico could ever be prevailed upon to build a gigantic wall to keep his countrymen out of the United States.
These are not benign mistakes, as the world is already too full of laughable conspiracy theories passing as the truth (I know of otherwise sane Germans who have said to my face President Bush perpetrated 9/11). Despite what is fashionable in European cafés, post-modernism is just a souped-up form of nihilism, for there are objective truths in politics and life (China and India are rising, Europe is in decline) and they must be sought by all of us who descendants of Pericles and Aristotle.
Looking for truths in politics to make the world better is our job; more importantly it is our calling. Demagogues who purposely obscure the truth should be the enemies of all free thinking people, whatever their politics. For this reason alone, I could never vote for Donald Trump.
Secondly, it is highly unlikely that Donald Trump will win the election. Angry white men just don’t amount to a majority in American politics anymore, if they ever did. Trump has managed to alienate women (the largest voting bloc in the US), Blacks (the most loyal Democratic voting bloc) and Hispanics (the fastest growing voting bloc in the country). Ethics aside, it is possible to alienate two of these groups and win, but three seems to be a mathematical impossibility. Trump has the highest overall unfavourable ratings of anyone running for president in modern American political history.
May 2016 Gallup polling found a whopping 87% of all Hispanic voters have a negative view of the Republican nominee, while a substantial 70% of women shared that position. The end of June 2016 found Secretary Clinton a full five points ahead of Trump in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, and ahead (though by strikingly less than her national average) in all the major battleground states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Despite alienating vast swathes of the American electorate, Trump does a have a path to victory in the electoral college, albeit an unlikely one. If he turns out disaffected, high school educated white males in vast numbers (as he well might do), this section of the electorate–so discouraged by globalisation that many have not bothered to vote for many years—could propel him to narrow wins in the American rust belt and Midwest: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
If this happens (and Trump is within three or so points of Clinton in each of these states) the impossible would become possible, and Trump could just win. But in terms of odds this is highly unlikely; by at least a factor of two out of three, Mrs. Clinton is likely to win comfortably, if not overwhelmingly.
The third objective fact to put on the table is that Donald Trump is bad for America because he, like most demagogues, doesn’t care about the Constitution of the United States, which in the final analysis is all that binds my very heterogeneous country together. As Tom Hanks’s character makes plain in the first rate thriller, Bridge of Spies, the Constitution amounts to being the rule book, the glue that cements Americans to each other.
The French have had five Republics; America just one. That is a vital historical fact as this remarkable continuity, an unheard of historical record of political stability, is based almost entirely on the majority of every generation in the end adhering to the Constitution. Threatening it in any way, as Trump so obviously does in his disregard of due process and the rule of law, makes the man my personal enemy. Trump is challenging the Constitution, the civic religion of the United States, the crucial thing that makes it exceptional. For this reason alone, he must be stopped.
A simple thought experiment
So there is no doubt Donald Trump ignores objective facts (or makes them up), has little chance of winning the upcoming election, and is a danger to the Constitution and the country. I can never vote for him. Saying that, I stick by my provocative title. If I were a European, and had Europe’s primary foreign policy interests at heart, Trump is a far better bet than the seemingly euro-friendly Hillary Clinton.
I will go even further. Once Europe breathes its collective sigh of relief after Trump is defeated (which I will share), newly elected President Clinton will go on to preside over a seismic crisis in the transatlantic relationship, based on the huge and entirely overlooked disconnect between where the continent is heading, and where a Clinton White House would like it to go.
Take away the sturm und drang of the present election, and let’s conduct a simple thought experiment, looked at from the perspective of basic European foreign policy interests. Generic American presidential candidate A has openly denounced the neo-conservative movement, the most poisonous in recent American foreign policy history. After two decades of the neocons dominating the Republican Party, A has just about side-lined them, not wishing America to serve as the global policeman anymore.
A is also against most global free trade deals on offer, being a long-time and vociferous critic of both the US-Asia deal (TPP) and the US-European deal (TTIP). A has said plainly that Iraq was a foreign policy disaster and that George W. Bush lied about the pretext for the war. A vows to get tough with the Saudis, and wants to play a strikingly neutral role in any Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. A believes he can improve relations with Putin’s Russia, making that a major foreign policy priority. A sees Nato as largely obsolete, feeling it should now—particularly if a rapprochement with the Kremlin is possible—focus on migration issues and counter-terror, turning its gaze southwards rather than eastwards.
In their big foreign policy speech in April 2016, A pledges the America should only fight wars as a last resort, and that they will hold summits with great powers China and Russia as soon as they are elected to calm global tensions. As A put it, “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really true signs of strength.”
After reviewing this sampling of A’s views, if you close your eyes you have just described in detail a generic member of Europe’s foreign policy elite.
In contrast, candidate B supported the Iraq war, and spearheaded the disastrous Libyan intervention. B only belatedly is against the major global free trade deals, cynically turning on the US-Asia TPP package that B helped negotiate in the first place.
An interventionist to their core, B has called for closer American ties with Israel, greater western involvement in the Syrian quagmire (through construction of a no-fly zone), and greater western upping the ante in Ukraine, through both a programme of far more substantially arming the Ukrainians, as well as vowing to be tougher towards Vladimir Putin. Turning their back on President Obama’s closet realism, in all these present day cases B urges Europe to also do more and follow America in terms of implementing this classically Wilsonian, interventionist foreign policy.
As Dylan would put it, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’. A’s polices suit Europe ever so much better than do B’s. Of course, A is the hated Donald Trump and B is the well-respected Hillary Clinton (in Europe at least, in America she is the second least popular major American presidential candidate since modern polling began, with only Trump himself polling lower). This startling outcome gives anyone with eyes to see an idea of how far conventional European thinking over international relations has drifted away from the American foreign policy establishment over the past 20 years.
Secretary Clinton’s policies would fit comfortably into the brief period of unipolar American dominance in the 1990s, when her husband was president. However, in today’s multipolar world, these unipolar policy prescriptions will lead only to grief. The European elite is right to fear Trump. But in doing so, it is not seeing that the true foreign policy danger, and the coming transatlantic crisis, stems not from him but from Secretary Clinton’s coming futile efforts to jump-start American primacy (and American activism and interventionism) in an era where it is objectively on the wane.
The worrying fine print
Of course there are major aspects of Trump’s putative foreign policy that worry Europeans. Trump promises to get tough with China (promising to slap a huge 45% tariff on Chinese goods whatever the WTO says), which could unwittingly lead to trade war between the world’s two largest economies, at just the moment an economically becalmed Europe least needs it. Trump has vaguely mentioned he is no fan of the Iran deal; any effort to undo it, will be met by a clear European refusal to re-apply sanctions, and would precipitate both a transatlantic crisis, and increase tensions in a Middle East already on fire.
In terms of Europeans themselves, Trump is angry (as are both President Obama and myself for that matter) that in Nato far too many countries are free riders, taking advantage of the United States. He correctly points out that just four of the 28 Nato members meet their paltry two percent of GDP target for defence spending, all of which they have solemnly agreed to many times. Trump says he will cajole them into spending more. Having laboured in that vineyard for 15 years, I wish him luck.
The Republican nominee, to the horror of most Europeans, opposes most international accords and multilateral institutions that in any way might limit America’s freedom of action; if Trump isn’t going to let the American Constitution constrain him, he certainly isn’t going to let nebulous concepts like international law and the international community get in his way. This goes against everything that the modern European foreign policy elite (now that the British have left it) believe in.
But for all these many and real differences, Trump’s foreign policy is one that the European foreign policy elite can live with, for the basic fact that he asks almost nothing of them.
Donald Trump is offering America a protectionist, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, anti-interventionist, unilateralist foreign policy, usually the preserve of the minority Jacksonian nationalist wing of the Republican Party. What he is offering a Europe—beset by the existential euro, Brexit, and refugee crises—is a nap, a holiday from history or any broader concerns, during which it can attempt to deal with its crippling internal problems. For this structural reason alone, Trump amounts to paradoxically good news for a Europe desperately in need of some.
Conclusion: The transatlantic crisis to come
Let us conclude by conjuring up one final thought experiment, one likely to occur in early 2017. A newly elected Hillary Clinton meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time in her capacity as president. She speaks candidly to the Chancellor in a conversation that goes something like this.
“Angela, now that I have seen off the danger of American populism, a scourge which I know repulses you as well, know that in America you have a partner who shares your values. We are both Wilsonians, believing in international law, the international community, and the need to work through multilateral institutions whenever we can. We both value human rights, and solving transnational issues through the use of transnational political tools. And because our common view of the world and our common values have politically triumphed, having seen off the pernicious forces of populism, it is time for us to act together forcefully, and in concert, to do far more.”
“As such, I look forward to you and the rest of Europe meeting the Nato spending targets immediately, helping us arm the Ukrainians and standing up to President Putin, working with us in constructing a no-fly zone in Syria and doing far more there, and sending troops back to Libya to finish the job and properly nation-build the place.”
My guess is this the point where Mrs. Merkel giggles nervously, looks at her shoes….and nothing happens.
And then the crisis will be on. For it is one thing to blame transatlantic disagreements on the loathsome Donald Trump. However, in Hillary Clinton, Europeans would seem to have their dream president: competent, a known quantity, someone who knows and respects Europe. But in reality Hillary Clinton and her old-time garden variety Wilsonian views are the dagger pointed at the heart of what is left of the transatlantic alliance.
For in policy terms, the above thought experiment decisively illustrates that Europe will do almost nothing in terms of falling in line with Clinton’s practical foreign policy wishes. And if two like-minded, values-sharing leaders like Clinton and Merkel can achieve nothing in terms of crafting common policies, then isn’t the transatlantic relationship dead and buried, though clueless elites on both sides of the Atlantic might be just waking up to that fact?
A Trump presidency would put off this day of reckoning in that his less interventionist foreign policy would ask so much less of the Europeans that these practical structural transatlantic differences could be masked for a time, giving Europe a last chance to get its act together. But that is unlikely to happen.
Instead, the most likely political outcome—Clinton’s comfortable election—will almost certainly lead to a transatlantic foreign policy crisis in 2017, when it at last becomes plain to all that the Emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes, and that in foreign policy terms Europe and America have drifted decisively apart.
The paradox of the present election is that Donald Trump is undoubtedly the worst thing for America. But Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly the worst thing for the future of transatlantic relations.
Published in Limes (Italian monthly) September 2016