Donald Trump has zero faith in the power of American ideas

Donald Trump has zero faith in the power of American ideas
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Let’s hope special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE gets to the bottom soon of Donald Trump’s strange dalliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The plot thickened last week as the GOP-led Senate narrowly rejected a Democratic bid to prevent the administration from lifting sanctions on Russian oligarch and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska, who also did business with Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortUkrainian who meddled against Trump in 2016 is now under Russia-corruption cloud Feds ask judge to postpone ex-Trump campaign aide's sentencing Giuliani cancels trip to Ukraine to press Biden investigation MORE, Trump’s disgraced former campaign manager.


Once again, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE appears to be bending over backward to curry favor with Putin. His infinite tolerance of Russia’s interference in U.S. politics and its well-documented online “malign influence” campaign stands in weird contrast to his churlish behavior toward America’s actual friends.

Trump routinely denigrates America’s oldest and strongest allies in Europe as trade cheaters and security freeloaders. A small but telling example has recently come to light: The State Department last year quietly downgraded the diplomatic status of the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.

No longer will the EU’s high representative in Washington have ambassadorial status. It was a petty and gratuitous insult, compounded by the fact that State apparently didn’t bother to inform the EU of its decision.

Congress wasn't consulted on the decision either. House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats last week sent Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Overnight Defense: Iran tensions swirl as officials prepare to brief Congress | Trump threatens war would be 'end of Iran' | Graham tells Trump to 'stand firm' | Budget talks begin MOREletter objecting both to “the substance of this decision and the undiplomatic way in which it was carried out.”

“Exactly how does this decision to downgrade our diplomatic relationship with the EU strengthen the United States?,” the lawmakers asked. It’s an excellent question. The answer lies in the neo-nationalist ideology that Trump is trying to impose on the United States.

As a self-described "nationalist,” Trump disdains the EU as a playground for deracinated “globalist” elites. He’s also a big booster of Brexit, which has tied British politics in knots for two years, as well as the right-wing nationalist movements that have spread across the continent in protest against immigration, trade and further European integration. 

In a bristling speech in Brussels last month, Pompeo ripped into the EU as a mob of bureaucrats who rob nations of their sovereignty and pursue multilateralism “as an end to itself.” He and Trump seem oblivious to the fact it was precisely the kind of ethno-cultural nationalism they espouse that twice plunged Europe into ruinous wars in the last century. 

Although Trump has no compunction about lecturing the EU’s 28 democracies about how they should manage their affairs, he is scrupulously non-judgmental when it comes to how autocrats run their countries.

It’s none of his business if they invade neighboring countries, murder and dismember journalists in their embassies, allegedly plot to assassinate exiled opponents, rig elections and crack down on civil society and internal dissent.

When pressed to speak out against Putin’s brutal depredations, Trump took refuge in false equivalence: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country is innocent?” 

In the essentially amoral world of Donald Trump, the fact that our European allies organize their societies around the same basic liberal precepts and democratically accountable institutions as we do counts for nothing. These things belong to the intangible realm of ideas and beliefs; Trump is all about money and power.  

The idea of sharing either is anathema to him. Yet by alienating our allies and sucking up to despots, he’s not just betraying America’s core values, he’s discounting a crucial dimension of U.S. power. 

If there is a method in the president’s foreign policy madness, it’s encapsulated in the old isolationist slogan he’s resurrected: “America First.” But even that’s misleading, since Trump’s “gut” inclines him more toward bellicose unilateralism than isolation. Like the strongmen he so admires, he prefers his country to be strong and feared rather than admired and trusted. 

Trump views membership in security alliances based on shared values and organizations for global problem-solving as bad for the United States because they constrain our freedom of action while consuming our resources.  

Today’s world may be more interconnected than ever, but Trump imagines that America is safer going it alone. So he’s pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement, slapped tariffs on our European trading partners and is even threatening to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A rigorous new study of the sources of U.S. strength in the 21st century highlights the folly of Trump’s half-baked “realism.” Written by former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and high-ranking former military officers and Pentagon officials, the report describes America’s foundational commitment to liberal and democratic values and capacity for moral growth as “the nucleus of America’s strength.”

They are what enable America to build enduring partnerships with other free and dynamic societies — partnerships that rivals like Russia and China are incapable of sustaining over time, the authors state. They acknowledge America’s many moral failings and strategic mistakes, but add: 

“Alongside these failures there remains the indubitable fact that over centuries, many people and nations around the world have responded to American ideas. From our origins as a nation we have believed and asserted that our ideals transcend time and place. When we blur them, as we often do by compromise or confusion, we diminish our power. When we honor them — not merely proclaim them — we act from a core of unrivaled strength.”

It’s strange to say this about any U.S. president, but Donald Trump has zero faith in the power of American ideas, and consequently no grasp on what it is that actually makes America great. 

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.