The Problem With Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...
English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March, an open letter from 121 Republican “national security leaders” characterized GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision as “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” swinging “from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.”

While it’s always wise to take proclamations from the people who brought us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with a grain of salt, in this case they were right — and Trump himself proved it with his speech before the Center for National Interest on April 27.

“America First,” says Trump,  “will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

Some non-interventionists, especially those of a libertarian bent, cheer the use of that phrase, thinking back to the movement to keep the US out of World War II and even to Thomas Jefferson’s proclaimed policy of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

But neither of those remotely resemble Trump’s position, to the extent that he has a coherent position at all. Only two sentences after dropping the America First name, he lauds US interventionism in World War II and 45 years of  Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Later in the speech Trump condemns open trade lanes with other nations, complaining about a “manufacturing trade deficit” and  China’s “economic assault on America’s jobs and wealth” and proposing the most damaging version of international trade war since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act helped crash the US economy and usher in the Great Depression. So much for commerce and honest friendship.

And what about peace? Trump calls for US allies to increase their military spending while claiming that America’s own military — still by far the most expensive and powerful in the history of the world and the single largest line item in the federal budget — has been “weakened” and must be rebuilt.  This is not a proposal that NATO stand up while the US stands down — he calls for an escalation, not a drawdown, of military force.

Trump supports continued US intervention in the Middle East, including an obligatory tip of the hat to America’s “special relationship” with Israel, but he doesn’t support “nation-building.” In English that means he isn’t giving up on having the US armed forces run around the world killing people and breaking things; he’s only against trying to put the victim nations back together again afterward.

“Wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle” indeed. But it’s a heck of a personal branding escapade. Trump is just a run of the mill — if visibly unstable and irrational —  hawk trying to pass himself as the peace candidate. And it’s working, at least among people who believe me when I tell them the word “gullible” is written on the ceiling.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Delaney Coffer

    Balls of Christ! Really? WW2?

    • Really? WW2 what?

    • Socrates Wilde

      Are you unfamiliar with FDR’s secret maneuvering of the US into the conflict on the side of the British by provoking the Germans and Japanese into an attack? The Japanese took the bait. FDR knew of the attack in advance. . . .

      • I’m familiar with the fact that FDR wanted the US in the war and did everything he could to make our entry into the war inevitable.

        I’m also agreeable to the notion that he had a good idea that a Japanese attack was imminent somewhere, but I doubt that he knew precisely when or for sure that it would be Pearl Harbor.

        But I’m not sure what any of that has to do with Trump’s speech.

        • Socrates Wilde

          I know you are, but I was responding to “Delaney Coffer.” I presume he thinks it was “the good war.”

  • jneilschulman

    Tom, the path of least resistance to the GOP nomination and White House would have been for Trump to give a foreign policy speech to the Neocon think tank he addressed that would have been aligned entirely with the Clinton/Cruz/Kasich Neocon foreign policy. So why did Trump make himself sound at least as non-interventionist as Rand Paul, if not closer to Ron Paul? Even Austin Petersen acknowledged this and concluded Trump sounding this libertarian must be a lie.

    But why would Trump sound like a paleoconservative on foreign policy at all if there wasn’t something there which makes him better to libertarians and anti-War activists on foreign policy than any major party candidate still running but the socialist Bernie Sanders — anathema to the pro-free-market libertarian who might like the Pat Buchanan/Trump idea of tariffs as an improvement over the graduated income tax?

    Electoral statism is comparative evil. Trump making any sort of “America First” speech advocating any sort of rollbacks on imperialism makes him better than Cruz, Kasich, or Clinton on foreign policy, about equal to Sanders on foreign policy, but better than Sanders on domestic economics.

    • Neil,

      Did you bother to read or listen to either Trump’s speech or the piece that you’re commenting on? Trump didn’t even make himself sound as non-interventionist as Dr. Strangelove.

      • jneilschulman

        Tom, yes. I listened to the entire speech on YouTube then read the transcript. So shitcan the attitude and answer my motherfucking question, anarchist.

        • I can’t answer your question, because your question is formatted as “why did Trump do the opposite of what Trump did?”

          He didn’t sound as non-interventionist as a Paul, because he didn’t sound non-interventionist at all.

          He didn’t call for a rollback of imperialism. In fact, he called for the empire’s far-flung provinces to increase military spending — not so that the imperial capital could draw down its own military spending, he wants to increase that too, but so that the empire could do more empire stuff.

          The sole area in which he’s less interventionist than anyone is that he’s not interested in picking up the pieces after he destroys something. Which is fine, but let’s not make a sow’s ear into a silk purse here. He’s arguably the most dangerously interventionist candidate of the remaining major party aspirants. And he says so, right there in his speech, over and over and over.

          I understand the desire to jump on a bandwagon, right after pasting a “libertarian” sticker on its rear bumper, but your tendency to fall under such spells doesn’t obligate me to humor you and pretend that it’s not batshit insane to do so in this case.

          And by the way, paleoconservatives are not libertarians; they’re a splinter group, an authoritarian fork of libertarianism.

          • jneilschulman

            Trump calls NATO an outdated alliance that the US should either abandon or make the other members pay for. He explicitly denounces globalism — the centerpiece of both liberal foreign policy on the left and Neocon foreign policy on the right. He calls international trade deals that filter all trade through international bureaucracies what they are — the opposite of free trade. You are cherry-picking those parts of his speech which are standard Neocon rhetoric appeasing GOP voters and ignoring all the departures that are more traditionally conservative going back to Taft.

            I’m an anarchist who won’t be voting in this election but I know Konkin would have noticed what was good in this speech.

          • “Trump calls NATO an outdated alliance that the US should either abandon or make the other members pay for.”

            And he clearly favors the latter.

            Yes, he has a good ear for throwing in a few lines that make non-interventionist hearts go pitty-pat. So did George W. Bush in 2000 (“humbler foreign policy”). The difference is that even though Bush abandoned those talking points in action, he didn’t openly counterpoint them in his advance rhetoric with their exact opposites so that he could play both sides of the fence, like Trump does.

            I strongly suspect that Trump will be the next president, so I guess we’ll get to see who’s right on his actual views, intentions and likely actions. My prediction isn’t as apocalyptic as the predictions of some (“it’s gonna be Nazi Germany all over again, nuclear war, dogs and cats living together …”). My prediction is merely that by the end of his first term more US soldiers will have died in combat than died in Bush and Obama’s combined four terms.

          • jneilschulman

            I don’t know what a Trump presidency would be. I do know what a Clinton, Cruz, or Kasich presidency would be: George Herbert Walker Bush’s 8th term. Bernie Sanders’ socialist domestic policies couid actually be a smaller government than the imperialist socialist foreign policies of every U.S. president since Bush 41. But I have no faith Sanders would do anything with foreign policy different than Obama or Clinton.

            Trump is a wild card.

            Get set for poker.

          • I certainly agree that he is a wild card, and that we should brace ourselves for some wild stuff.

            I don’t agree that he actually offers non-interventionists anything of value. Even when he throws a bone our way, which is a 50/50 proposition at best when he talks foreign policy, there’s no particular reason to believe anything he says.

            Cruz is a narcissist, Clinton is a solipsist, Sanders is a left-technocrat, and Trump is the ultimate combination of all three traits. He’s the ideal marker for the next generation of presidents. Bush and Obama completed the transformation of the US into a banana republic. Here comes El Caudillo.

          • jneilschulman

            Well, I’ll give you this. We gave Trump a copy of the Alongside Night Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack after he spoke at FreedomFest 2015 — and Trump hasn’t endorsed it.

            But I repeat my primary point: even 50 percent is 50 percent more than Clinton, Cruz, or Kasich — and Trump only increases the necessity of blocking him by the existing powers that be by that half a loaf. There is zero political advantage to him for doing it.

          • I wonder if Trump has EVER endorsed a movie?

            I’ve enjoyed jousting with you here, but let me make a suggestion: Take the piece YOU wrote on Trump the other day, re-draft it to newspaper op-ed standards, and get your viewpoint out to the public at large.

            The site is really small beans and an archive. This article has already appeared in six mainstream newspapers or non-libertarian political publications. Get out there and counterpoint me at THOSE places (and include Alongside Night in your bio line!).

          • There is a political advantage Donald Trump gains politically by sprinkling non-interventionist catnip here and there. He gains the support of US House member Jimmy Duncan and libertarian academic Walter Block.
            Those of a pro-peace and non-intervention inclination are divided.


          • My general approach to politicians is to treat their apparently good ideas/policy proposals skeptically, while taking them at their word on their bad ideas/policy proposals.

            Trump’s speech is a little bit of good stuff, which I’m skeptical of, and a whole bunch of bad stuff, which I take as his real positions.

          • The good does sound pretty good…

            Trump, in a statement, said he was glad to have the support of “one of the most fiscally conservative” representatives.

            “If more members voted like Rep. Duncan, we wouldn’t be wasting trillions of taxpayer dollars in foreign countries,” he said.

            Read more:

          • jneilschulman

            Again, I see no significant electoral strategic advantage for his pull back suggestions on American imperialist policy going back decades.

          • Neither would I, if he was suggesting any such thing.

          • jneilschulman

            Thomas, the problem here is that doctrinaire libertarians like us are not the measure of sounding “good” in mainstream electoral politics. It took one of us — Ron Paul — to stake out these foreign policy positions. But Trump doing so is unpredicted if the only measure was electoral strategy. He’s staking out a foreign policy with the expectation that he’s the next president. But given his penchant for being unpredictable and impossible to pin down, why is he making his road to the presidency harder by giving ammo to the Never Trump establishment — globalist liberals and globalist Neocons?

          • jneilschulman

            Pissing off the mainstream establishment for a House member and a libertarian economist is a bad deal. Trump does not make deals that bad. I stand by my opinion that he is not doing this for electoral advantage.

          • Being perceived as anti-establishment with a voter base that is angry at the establishment is an electoral advantage. Without his foreign policy catnip he would be seen as far closer to just another candidate.