What in the world is populist foreign policy?

Andrew Priest is senior lecturer in Modern US History at the Univers6555ity of Essex. He is co-editor, with Andrew Johnstone, of US Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy: Candidates, Campaigns, and Global Politics from FDR to Bill Clinton (University of Kentucky, forthcoming 2017), and he is currently writing a new book on US foreign policy and notions of empire in the post-Civil War period. Here, the day before Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th US president, Andrew sets him in the context of American populism through the centuries and offers some thoughts on Trump’s foreign policy in the making.

Edit: This is the first in a three-part series of posts around the presidential inauguration. The other two can be found here and here.


As hard as it is to believe, only on Friday will Donald Trump finally become president of the United States. During the ultra-marathon that is the modern presidential election, which has given way to a transition period that has felt almost as long, Trump has given us many hints but few details of what his presidency will actually bring. While strident in his views about America’s place in the world, he shows little interest in the details of foreign policy and disdain for diplomatic niceties. This will have important implications for Trump’s role as architect of American foreign policy for the next four years.

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American populists L-R: Andrew Jackson, Donald J. Trump, Thomas Jefferson, Ross Perot, and Huey “The Kingfish” Long.

Political commentators have scrambled to make sense of the bizarre spectacle – an outspoken, narcissistic political outsider becoming head of the most powerful country in the world – and they have made much of his unusual, and at times remarkable, political style. Certainly, many aspects of it are, as Trump himself would put it, unpresidented: his persistent and uncalibrated use of Twitter, his regular lambasting of totemic American figures and institutions (I write this after reading of his broadside against revered civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis on Martin Luther King weekend), and his egregious self-aggrandizement are all original and troubling aspects of a presidency that has not even begun. Nothing in the transition process suggests that he has been constrained by the prospect of political power.

Nonetheless, much of the commentary around this unlikely accession to the seat of power also acknowledges – as well it should – that the Trump phenomenon did not come from nowhere. He is part of a broader populist wave in the west that has seen widespread disaffection with, and a revolt against, the forces of globalization from both the left and right. And despite all the talk of a dearth of precedent, Trump is part of an established historical populist tradition in the United States that has periodically seen rebellions against the political centre ground from other figures who, rightly or wrongly, claim to speak for the masses. Arguably, the United States itself was formed in this tradition. True, the Founding Fathers were themselves elites, but it was a popular movement of people who felt disaffected and disenfranchised with British rule that brought about the political environment for independence.

Far from an aberration or a break with the past, this tradition of populist agitation has driven much of the political debate in the United States since then. Ironically, perhaps the first populist in the new republic was a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, who opposed big government and promoted an agrarian vision of the young nation in opposition to one based on urban elitism. One of his political successors, Andrew Jackson, did something similar, championing political and economic decentralization and territorial growth by encouraging white settlers to displace native tribes. We can also see the secession of the Southern states that caused the outbreak of the Civil War in the early 1860s as part of this populist tradition: a self-proclaimed popular uprising against a supposedly tyrannical central authority. In the 1890s, it even gave rise to a populist party (officially called the People’s Party) representing farmers and other rural residents confounded by the rapid pace of industrialization.

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In the twentieth century, various populists have had their own moments. Huey Long, the Louisiana “Kingfish,” rode a populist wave in his home state attempting to counter the effects of the Great Depression. Long was planning a presidential bid before he was assassinated in 1935. Segregationist Strom Thurmond from South Carolina did run for the presidency in 1948, winning over a million votes and four states – South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana – in the Electoral College. Yet these were regional candidates who appealed to particular constituencies in the South. It was not really until the end of the Cold War, however, that the United States saw a truly national populist candidate for the presidency in the twentieth century. In 1992, Ross Perot’s bid for this highest office saw him run on a platform eerily similar to Trump’s. Perot, a Texan billionaire who said he spoke for ordinary people, argued that American political leaders should spend more time thinking about US citizens and less about people abroad, complained that US allies did not pay their way, and excoriated the leaders who were at that time negotiating NAFTA. In one of his famous interventions in the campaign, he claimed that because of low wages and limited benefits in Mexico, there would be a “giant sucking sound” as American manufacturing jobs moved south. Almost 20 million Americans voted for him.

This kind of populism has often gained traction in spite of its sometimes questionable evidential base, its peddling of various myths about an idealized version of America, and its frequent promotion by elites who decry elitism. Sound familiar?

This raises one of the fundamental problems with populism, including Trump’s brand of it. While its prevalence at particular moments has some correlation with specific economic and political factors of the time, populist movements are, as my late former colleague Mike Foley put it,

driven by temperament rather than ideas. The motive is usually provided by those sectors of society who feel a strong identity with the nation’s history and ideals, but who believe that their society and their place in it, is being subverted and corrupted from within. [1]

Of course, it remains highly significant that voters across the United States and Europe are feeling less secure economically than they have done over previous decades. But research done at Harvard by Inglehart and Norris has also shown that economic factors alone are poor predictors of populism generally, and support for Trump in particular. Instead, they found that over the last few decades, people have started to respond to traditions and institutions that they feel are under attack. As Fareed Zakaria summarizes,

The older generation, particularly men, was traumatized by what it saw as an assault on the civilization and values it cherished and had grown up with. These people began to vote for parties and candidates that they believed would, above all, hold at bay these forces of cultural and social change.

The most obvious and immediate implications of Trump’s rhetoric are therefore domestic: race, immigration, crime – areas that Trump has exploited so effectively by connecting them explicitly to economic dislocation. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most Americans want the president to focus on these kinds of domestic issues.

That said, however, Trump’s populist rhetoric assuring people that he will “make America great again” is predicated on success in the world. For Trump, national triumph is a zero-sum game in which America’s adversaries must lose, and he has spent much of the presidential campaign berating the rivals of the United States – perhaps most notably Mexico and China – and promising that he will strike new deals prioritizing US national objectives.

Indeed, the very fact that Americans are less concerned generally with foreign issues than domestic ones might allow Trump to forge his own populist foreign policy. As he will find, the president’s domestic power – the power to do the things that Trump has promised to do – is severely circumscribed. Even as he settles down (if he does settle down) to work with a Republican Congress during the first two years of his presidency, he is almost certain to find that he will have to pick his battles carefully, and that the political capital he has accrued in fighting this most unusual of campaigns is soon spent. (He did, after all, receive almost 3 million fewer votes than his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.) While, as a historian, I have to say that the future is not really in my wheelhouse, if recent history is anything to go by, the apparent newfound harmony among Republicans concerning their desire to ditch Obamacare is soon likely to descend into squabbling about what – if anything – will replace it. There are already signs of this. As Obama’s presidency showed, uneasy coalitions of disaffected voters are often fickle and short-term.

As Obama has demonstrated, though, the power of the executive in foreign affairs remains relatively unchecked. Despite attempts by the Congress to place limits on what Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency” since the early 1970s, successive presidents have been enormously successful in circumventing them. This has, for example, allowed Obama essentially to continue Bush 2.0’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including the extensive use of armed drones and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Foreign policy also offers the president unique authority and prestige, both internationally and domestically – qualities that would no doubt appeal to the egocentric Trump. Foreign policy therefore could offer Trump an arena that will demonstrate – at least to himself, if no one else – his continued prowess in the art of the deal.

Of course, and I hope this will go without saying, I do not mean by this that he will be brilliant at diplomacy. It is striking that many of the international issues that he has spoken out about during the campaign have been cast in essentially negative terms. This includes his calls for protectionism for American industry, his desire to rip up climate change conventions, his castigating of NATO allies for not paying their way, and his decrying of various recent diplomatic agreements, most obviously the nuclear deal with Iran. Even his long-distance bromance with Vladimir Putin could be included in that list. As the work of Inglehart and Norris on economic factors shows, the specifics of these policy proposals are less significant than what they represent: bold leadership, with more than a passing suspicion of multilateral institutions and a strong streak of unilateralism – themes that chime with the populist movement.

Perhaps more troubling is the prospect of some foreign policy crisis befalling the United States over the course of the next few years. Even if Trump’s aims are primarily domestic, he would not be the first president to be largely uninterested in foreign affairs at the beginning of his term, only to have his presidency swamped by perhaps unforeseen external forces. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt came to save America from economic ruin and, in 1940, ran on a platform that promised to keep the US out of a foreign war. Lyndon Johnson went to great lengths to avoid mention of Vietnam in his 1964 campaign, and even George W. Bush wanted to focus on matters at home prior to 9/11. In very different ways, all of them were domestic policy presidents whose terms became dominated by overseas issues. Yet as Walter Russell Mead has pointed out – writing about the Tea Party prior to the rise of Trump – World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror all to a greater or lesser extent relied on utilizing populism to generate support, sometimes, as in the case of McCarthyism, unleashing forces presidents could not control.

There are, then, evident problems with this kind of populist approach. Aside from the potentially devastating consequences that could arise from one president’s decisions, foreign policy based on superficial feelings and the desire to keep a segment of the population contented leads all but inevitably to short-termism. Feelings change. As Lyndon Johnson found following his election, the benefits of committing troops to the Vietnam War may have resulted in the “rally round the flag” effect, but it soon gave way to resentment and opposition at home as the reality of fighting in Vietnam became clear. George W. Bush experienced something similar over Iraq.

Moreover, populism relies on generalities. Unlike previous candidates with no political experience, Trump now faces the prospect of implementing the changes he has promised. Here, he faces two critical challenges that will help to define his presidency. The first is obvious: he will struggle to reverse the global trends that he rails against. For all his nationalist bluster, he cannot turn back the tide of globalization. The second is less clear, but remains important. It is that his base is broad but shallow, and, as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently found, some of his own supporters believe the US should maintain its alliances and global leadership role, while they also disagree with other specific policy positions he has taken. Even some of his cabinet picks have already highlighted their differences with him.

Populist foreign policy could wind up a kind of Trumpian paradox. It is not a priority for his supporters, who are focused closer to home. It could prove useful for maintaining their support, at least in the short term, but it could also alienate that same base and lead to further trouble – even catastrophe – down the line. The Trump administration is already seeing signs of a reinvigorated progressive movement in the US, and his supporters may soon become disillusioned in the absence of at least a few striking successes. Trump has been overwhelmingly focused on the domestic throughout his extraordinary journey, but his foray into populist foreign policy – whether as grandiose as he has promised or rather more mundane – could be the liability that colours his legacy as president, even among those who are about to celebrate his inauguration.


[1] Michael Foley, American Political Ideas: Traditions and Uses (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1991), 140.

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4 thoughts on “What in the world is populist foreign policy?

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