10 min read

How Trump’s isolationism is (and isn’t) unique

Donald Trump is far from the first U.S. leader to call for American interests to be put first. But his foreign policy lacks a key feature that previous isolationists shared.
How Trump’s isolationism is (and isn’t) unique
Robert Taft (left) and Dwight Eisenhower. Their 1952 primary contest locked in seven decades of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. (Columbus Dispatch)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Election Day is 259 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Some hinge moments in American history are loud and obvious; others are quiet and quickly forgotten.

One event in the latter category is the 1952 presidential election, hardly one of our better-remembered White House contests. But even if Dwight Eisenhower’s landslide win against Adlai Stevenson lacked much suspense, that year’s Republican primaries mark an important historical pivot point.

Heading into the ’52 cycle, Robert Taft — the Ohio senator and political scion known as “Mr. Republican” — was widely viewed as the GOP frontrunner. Eisenhower, the popular former general courted by both sides of the aisle, lingered as his only potential obstacle to the nomination.

Before the campaigning began in earnest, Taft and Eisenhower met in December 1950 at the Pentagon. Eisenhower, who was about to assume a new post as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces, was hesitant about running for president — and not even positive he was a Republican — but he wanted to be sure that the election wouldn’t threaten the post-World War II international order he had painstakingly helped build. Democrats were mostly on board, but on the Republican side, Taft — a noted isolationist — stood in the way.

Walking into the meeting, Eisenhower wrote out a statement announcing that he wouldn’t run for president — as long as Taft agreed to endorse full American participation in NATO, ensuring bipartisan consensus on the issue. Taft refused, and Eisenhower’s statement was “torn up and thrown away,” according to his biographer William Lee Miller. Eisenhower would have to safeguard internationalism the hard way.

Both men ran for president; in the handful of primaries that were held, Taft took a slight lead. But delegates at the Republican convention chose Eisenhower, who was nominated and then elected. If Taft had beat Eisenhower, it is possible that the Republican Party would have spent the Cold War era trumpeting Taft’s isolationism. But the reverse happened, and because of Eisenhower’s calculated run for the GOP nod, for the next 65 years, both parties embraced NATO and a shared internationalist outlook.

This story from 1952 is instructive because we have arrived at a similar hinge point. Russia is, once again, on the march. Vladimir Putin is consolidating power ahead of next month’s presidential election; his main domestic rival, Alexei Navalny, died last week in a Russian penal colony in the Arctic Circle. In Ukraine, the Russian army recently scored its biggest victory in months, capturing the strategic city of Avdiivka.

And, as Ukrainian soldiers refresh their phones for news of a potential American aid package, the 2024 election, like 1952, could send the U.S. in either an internationalist or isolationist direction. Donald Trump recently said that, when he was president, the leader of a NATO ally asked him whether the U.S. would defend that ally against a Russian invasion — as Article V of the NATO Treaty requires — even if the country did not increase its defense spending.

“No, I would not protect you,” Trump said he told the leader. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”

President Biden called this “un-American,” but it should be noted that, even if Trump represents a break with decades of bipartisan foreign policy, his opposition to mutual defense commitments is not unprecedented. The pages of American history are filled with isolationists, from Jefferson warning against “entangling alliances” to Lindbergh and Taft and the America First Committee during World War II.

Yesterday, we celebrated Presidents’ Day, the holiday formally known as George Washington’s Birthday. Accordingly, in a few days, the Senate will carry out one of my favorite congressional traditions: the chamber’s annual reading of Washington’s farewell address, a ritual dating back to 1862.

The farewell address, in which Washington announced that he would not seek a third presidential term, is one of the great pieces of American political writing. (It was never delivered orally.) It has also aged poorly, in that America has largely ignored Washington’s advice. When it is read at the Capitol next week, there will be much to make senators from both parties uncomfortable.

At its core, the farewell address is a warning against two trends Washington perceptively saw coming: the rise of domestic partisanship and the urge to ink alliances abroad. Reading it back today, it is hard to see it as anything other than a clarion call for isolationism.

“Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation,” Washington wrote, in language more flowery than a J.D. Vance floor speech on Ukraine but containing the same fundamental message. “Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”

It is not clear that Washington would have intended for his example to be followed today: he wrote that his advice against alliances was partially meant to give time for “our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions,” until the U.S. reached a “degree of strength and consistency” that it presumably has achieved today, 200+ years later.

But, still, his desired foreign policy isn’t hard to deduce: one that would “steer clear of permanent alliances” and avoid either “inveterate antipathies against particular Nations” or “passionate attachments for others.”

Reading Washington, our first isolationist, and Taft, his 20th century counterpart, can help us understand the ways in which Trump is and is not an aberration in our history.

Clearly, a presidential candidate calling for America to regard its interests first is nothing new. But at the core of Washington and Taft’s isolationism was a fierce patriotism — a love of the United States that made them worried about the U.S. risking its hard-won freedoms by venturing into foreign countries.

“We cannot assume a financial burden in our foreign policy so great that it threatens liberty at home,” Taft wrote in his 1951 book, “A Foreign Policy for Americans.” The longtime senator was a firm believer in American political institutions, calling for the U.S. to never abandon its status as “the arsenal of democracy and the bastion of liberty.”

Similarly, Washington wrote in his farewell address that he left the presidency confident that the new government was “dear” to its people and that “the love of liberty” was interwoven “with every ligament” of the American people’s hearts.

Conversely, Trump’s foreign policy seems to be born of a distaste for American political values and institutions; his lack of urgency in countering strongman countries, like Russia, appears to stem from a long-held belief that the U.S. is just as rotten as they are.

This was apparent in 2015, when Trump scoffed at Joe Scarborough pointing out that Putin murders journalists (“I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe”), and in 2017, when Trump gave a similar response to the same point by Bill O’Reilly (“You think our country’s so innocent?”), and this weekend, when Trump declined to condemn Putin for his presumed role in Navalny’s death.

Instead, Trump wrote on Truth Social, his main takeaway from the death of the Russian opposition leader was that it was reminiscent of events taking place here in America. “The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country,” the former president wrote. “It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction. Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are DESTROYING AMERICA. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION!”

To put a finer point on it, in another post, Trump wrote “Biden:Trump::Putin:Navalny,” comparing his own indictments to Navalny’s martyrdom. Conservative commentators quickly picked up the point, just as they have begun to parrot his argument that perhaps Putin is not so bad because America is not so good.

“Every leader kills people, including my leader,” Tucker Carlson said days before Navalny’s death, when he was pressed on why he didn’t question Putin’s political murders during their recent interview. “Every leader kills people, some kill more than others. Leadership requires killing people, sorry, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be a leader.”

Ultimately, any debate over an aid package for Ukraine is secondary to this broader disagreement. There can be arguments, in the Washingtonian and Taftist traditions, that American tax dollars would be better spent at home than abroad, but to not even condemn Putin for Navalny’s death — in fact, to use it as an opportunity to denigrate America — marks an extreme departure from the patriotic isolationism of previous U.S. politicians.

Even Taft, who was so staunchly isolationist that he declined Eisenhower’s offer — which could have made him president — in defense of his foreign policy principles, affirmed in his 1951 book that the U.S. should “align ourselves with the advocates of freedom everywhere,” which surely would have included standing with Navalny today, if not with aid than at least with words of sympathy.

In the same pages that he explained his opposition to NATO and to proposals of collective security, Taft also found it easy to condemn the Soviet Union and to accept that some “temporary contribution” from the U.S. might be needed to combat the threat of illiberalism it posed. Taft further called for America to “assume a moral leadership” in promoting “liberty and law and justice,” although, of course, he largely believed that promotion should be done non-militarily.

A similar moral streak runs through Washington’s farewell address, that other great isolationist document. “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” he wrote, urging his successors to “practice liberal intercourse with all nations.”

On the whole, Washington believed that meant remaining “detached and distant” from other countries, partially to avoid the “insidious wiles of foreign influence,” which he called “one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.” (Here, Putin’s travels into the U.S. culture wars, including in the recent Carlson interview, come to mind.)

But Washington also laid out when the U.S. might have to lay aside its neutrality, in those time “when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Our interest, guided by justice. Above all, Washington, and Taft, viewed the U.S. as a symbol of liberty, whose first responsibility on the world stage was to itself — but with secondary considerations of morality and justice also in the offing.

Trump is a historically unique figure in American foreign policy. But it should be kept in mind that he is not set apart because of his focus on American interests, which Washington also urged, or even by his dismissal of NATO, which Taft certainly shared.

Instead, Trump is set apart by his view of America as morally bankrupt, not as a moral beacon, by his shrugging at international injustices (regardless of whether the U.S. should put tax dollars towards correcting them), and by the casual relativism he so often employs when comparing foreign autocracies with American democratic institutions, which he does especially in regards to Russia.

And, of course, he is set apart by his emphasis — above any firmly-held isolationist principles — on his own interests, which is what leads him to cynically delight in Putin’s praise and to view Navalny’s tragic death purely through the lens of his own problems.

Again, Washington saw this coming, predicting that extreme partisanship would eventually lead one party or another to seek comfort in a self-serving, strongman leader. As we celebrate his birthday, and collectively re-read his warnings, I’ll give Washington the final word:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

“But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

More news to know.

Russia: Navalny’s widow vows to continue his fight against the Kremlin and punish Putin for his death / AP

Trump in court: Judge orders Trump to pay $355 million for lying about his wealth in staggering civil fraud ruling / AP

Abortion: Trump Privately Expresses Support for a 16-Week Abortion Ban / NYT

Middle East: U.S. vetoes UN resolution demanding immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza / Axios

2024: Joe Manchin announces he will not run for president / NBC

Biden Inc: Biden’s brother used his name to promote a hospital chain. Then it collapsed. / Politico

One year in hospice: Jimmy Carter’s Long Goodbye / NYT

Presidential rankings: In historians’ Presidents Day survey, Biden vs. Trump is not a close call / NPR

Santos: George Santos sues late-night host Jimmy Kimmel for tricking him into making videos to ridicule him / AP

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will travel to Los Angeles, where he will participate in a campaign fundraiser. Vice President Harris will travel to Pittsburgh, where she will announce $5.8 billion in new clean water investments.

Congress: The House and Senate are both on recess.

Campaign trail: Nikki Haley will deliver a speech on the “state of the race” at 12 p.m. ET. Donald Trump will participate in a Fox News town hall at 7 p.m. ET.

Before I go...

Here’s a fun Presidents’ Day fact: Abraham Lincoln pardoned Joe Biden’s great-great-grandfather, Moses Robinette, for his role in a knife fight with another Union Army employee.

Read the full story from the Washington Post (for free!)

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