Quit calling Donald Trump an isolationist. He’s worse than that.

Roundup
tags: militarism, isolationism, Trump



Stephen Wertheim is a Fellow in History at King’s College, University of Cambridge, and is writing a book on the birth of American world leadership in World War II.

Under President Trump, American foreign policy is returning, many commentators say, to the isolationism that preceded World War II. This line of interpretation (and often attack) emerged during the election: While Hillary Clinton warned that her opponent would “tear up our alliances,” an array of experts supplied such fears with a historical pedigree. As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass put it, Trump stood for a “new isolationism,” a revival of the 1930s dream of “turning away from global engagement.”

The problem is, Trump isn’t an isolationist. He is a militarist, something far worse. And calling Trump an isolationist isn’t an effective critique.

The term “isolationism” was coined in the 1930s to caricature Americans who wanted to stay strictly neutral in the looming war. They scarcely sought to “disconnect from the world,” as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp recently wrote. In fact, most favored peaceful forms of overseas involvement, such as trade, and insisted on defending the Americas from foreign intervention — no small feat. What united them was their opposition to entering the Second World War after the devastation of the First. Judging the United States capable of repelling any outside invasion, they wanted to steer clear of armed entanglement in Europe and Asia. To breach this tradition would embroil Americans in “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” in the words of historian and participant Charles Beard.

The first America Firsters, then, were antiwar more than anti-Semitic or pro-fascist, strains that recent critics of Trump overemphasize. True, the group’s spokesman, aviator Charles Lindbergh, railed against “Jewish influence” months before Pearl Harbor. But the anti-Semitic diatribe crippled the movement rather than advanced it, and few America Firsters favored the Axis. Rather, it was the antiwar appeal — the notion that involvement in European conflict was unnecessary for U.S. safety — that attracted millions across the political spectrum, including pacifist-socialist Norman Thomas and future presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy.

Of course, Pearl Harbor sealed their fate and launched the United States to global preeminence. Ever since, foreign policy elites have deployed the “isolationist” tag to expel anti-interventionists from the bounds of legitimate debate.

It’s often an unfair label, but it’s especially nonsensical when it comes to the current commander in chief: Trump is no isolationist, whether caricatured or actual. Rather than seeking to withdraw from the world, he vows to exploit it. Far from limiting the area of war, he threatens ruthless violence against globe-spanning adversaries and glorifies martial victory. In short, the president is a militarist. ...




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