Challenge for new chief-of-staff: Restraining Trump's impulse to disenfranchise Americans

In Hyphenated America, descriptors such as Conservative, LGBT, African and Catholic often serve as a competent bellwether of personal preferences. But if identity politics have been a fixture of domestic affairs — which impact most directly on people's daily lives — they've held far less sway over matters pertaining to U.S. global diplomacy. That seems no longer true.

Last month, at a campaign rally in Houston, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE denounced those who want "the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much." He then confessed proudly: "You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist."

Charges of presidential dogwhistling are already commonplace. It’s hard to believe that over a year has passed since the commander-in-chief convened a Trump Tower news conference to defend the "very fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville. More recent events suggest that tribalism is now being pressed into service as an instrument of foreign policy, transforming American constituents into the fodder of Trump's professed nationalism.


Judging from his rhetoric, Trump — a.k.a. Tariff Man — is probably better understood as a neo-mercantilist in the clothing of a nationalist. His governance style is quintessentially transactional. When asked to expound on his philosophy of nationalism, the co-author of The Art of the Deal told reporters that "we’re giving all of our wealth, all of our money, to other countries. And then they don’t treat us properly."

This zero-sum calculus has informed the Administration's approach to the October 2 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. CIA evidence links Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the assassination, but Trump — who has been fixated on getting the Kingdom to "pay for [its] military" — has prioritized a Saudi commitment to invest $450 billion in America over the pursuit of justice.

Khashoggi — a permanent resident who settled in Virginia, but not a U.S. citizen — is the convenient "them" in this scenario. Trump and, by extension, American nationals (i.e. "us"), on the other hand, must give precedence to U.S. interests, which are served by Saudi contributions to opposing shared foes. Not to mention the fact that "Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries" if the U.S. were to "foolishly cancel" $110 billion in defense contracts with Riyadh. Enter Trump's senior advisor Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Democrats set for Lone Star showdown Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan Arrests at southern border drop to 64K in August MORE who apparently is advising the crown prince on "how to weather the storm."

A whiff of divisiveness was also detectable in Trump's remarks at the White House Hanukkah reception two weeks ago. Addressing an overtly friendly audience of American Jews, the president unsurprisingly showcased his acts of friendship for the State of Israel, a hallmark of his tenure. But his penchant for improvisation got him into trouble once again.

Giving a shout-out to Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceFarm manager doubts story horse bit Pence: report Supreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration 'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat MORE, Trump acknowledged the vice president as a "tremendous supporter of yours." (Presumably, Trump was referring to the U.S. Jewish community.) Trump then marched head first into the dual loyalty sand trap. "They love your country. And they love this country," Trump applauded Pence and his wife Karen. All fine and well, except that "this country" is the "your country" of Jewish Americans — and implying that they pledge foremost allegiance to Israel feeds into the one of the worst Antisemitic canards.

Most people have strongly held views regarding the president's personal proclivities. I agree with him that foreign investment brings blessings to America and that it would be beneficial to somehow salvage relations with Saudi Arabia. Whether he is truly mournful of Khashoggi's fate or prejudiced against Jews is above my paygrade to determine conclusively. I do, however, fear that Trump's conduct is putting American democracy at risk.


Assessing the dangers of identity politics, Francis Fukayama warned last year in Foreign Affairs that "Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure."

This haunting prospect is advanced mightily in the United States when its president, of all people, is the person stoking the flames of social discord. The effect is the same no matter if he's doing it inadvertently or intentionally.

The task confronting incoming White House chief-of-staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyNOAA chief praises agency scientists after statement backing up Trump tweet The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Democrats ramp up calls to investigate NOAA MORE — disciplining a chronically undisciplined principal — will be daunting. His mission, should he choose to accept it, will be to inject a level of sensitivity that has been thus far absent from Trump's performance.

The very future of the unified republic may depend on the dangerous fumes of exclusionism being expunged from the Oval Office. America First shouldn't have to mean Americans Last.

Shalom Lipner (@ShalomLipner) is nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.