President Donald Trump has performed a service of sorts to our debate over how the United States views itself and its role in the world. He has reminded the democratic left and the democratic right – note the small “d” – that they share more common ground than they often realize about the importance of democracy, the gifts of modernity, and the value of pluralism.
Trump has done this by articulating, fitfully and inconsistently, a dark worldview rooted in nationalism, authoritarianism, discomfort with ethnic and religious differences, and a skepticism about the modern project.
His lack of constancy makes it difficult to judge exactly what he believes. We commonly describe his contradictions as the product of administration power struggles between Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the populist nationalists, and James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the representatives of a more conventional approach to foreign policy.
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On the days when Trump pledges allegiance to NATO and our allies, we see Defense Secretary Mattis and national security adviser McMaster winning. When he veers off this course, disses our allies and goes in for apocalyptic pronouncements about the state of the world, we declare senior White House aides Bannon and Miller triumphant.
Optimists about Trump insist that “the grown-ups,” as Mattis and McMaster are often (somewhat obnoxiously) described by the old foreign policy establishment, will eventually limit the damage Trump can cause us. Pessimists point to the occasions when Bannon and Miller prevail.
Trump’s European trip, including his meeting with Vladimir Putin, was a high-wire act precisely because of the president’s unpredictability and his allergy to briefing books. For Trump, everything is personal, which means he’s subject to being easily played. Foreign leaders know that flattering him is the way to his heart and that his deepest commitments appear to be to his business interests. This approach to Trump has worked rather well so far for the Chinese and the Saudis.
But to the extent that Trump does have a gut instinct about the world, it seems closer to Bannon’s. The president’s spontaneous outbursts, his Twitter revelations, and his reactions to individual foreign leaders point Bannon’s way.
Trump has spoken with far greater affection about Putin, Saudi princes and the right-wing nationalists now in power in Poland than of democratic pluralists such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. In fact, both Merkel and Macron sound more like post-World War II American presidents than Trump does.
Trump’s speech in Poland on Thursday might, in a very limited sense, can be seen as a compromise between the administration factions. The president committed himself to the Western alliance (a win for Mattis and McMaster) but was otherwise gloomy, backward-looking and Manichaean.
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” If we fail to defend what our “ancestors” passed down to us, Trump warned, “it will never, ever exist again.”
To which one might respond: Yikes!
On the whole, Trump’s words sounded remarkably similar to Bannon’s pronouncements in a speech to a traditionalist Catholic group in Rome in 2014. Bannon spoke of a “Judeo-Christian West” that finds itself “in a crisis” and confronts a “new barbarity” that “will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
This dire view should remind the democratic left and the democratic right that while they have disagreed on many things and many aspects of American foreign policy over the last two decades, they share some very deep allegiances. These include a largely positive assessment of what the Enlightenment and the modern world have achieved; a hopeful vision of what could lie before us; a commitment to democratic norms as the basis of our thinking about the kind of world we seek; and a belief that ethnic and religious pluralism are to be celebrated, not feared.
This, in turn, leads to a judgment that alliances with fellow democracies serve us better than pacts with autocratic regimes that cynically tout their devotion to “traditional values” as a cover for old-fashioned repression and expansionism.
Democrats have many reasons for opposing Trump. But it’s Republicans who have the power that comes from controlling Congress. Their willingness to stand up to a president of their own party could determine the future of democracy and pluralism. He is, alas, a man whose commitment to these values we have reason to doubt.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.