For Trump, the epochal moment may have been the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when his success as a real estate mogul vaulted him to celebrity. This was a period “when the joke was that the Cold War was over, and Japan had won,” Peter Feaver, director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University, and a former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration, remarked.
In the early 1990s, America was struggling economically from the burdens of winning the Cold War, with soaring deficits and an economy on the verge of recession. By adopting a more mercantilist trade policy and benefitting from the U.S. security umbrella, Feaver said, Japan was surpassing U.S. auto industry, dominating the global electronics industry, and buying up New York City landmarks. The widely read book The Coming War with Japan, co-authored in 1991 by the U.S. strategist George Friedman, argued that with the end of the Cold War, the United States would no longer endure Japan’s economic encroachments, making a “hot war” between the two allies likely in the coming decades.
“That time period when Japan was eating our economic lunch was the searing geopolitical event that shaped Trump’s thinking,” Feaver said. “The lesson he seems to have taken from it is that the international arena is a very competitive place, and if we’re not alert and tough, our friends as well as our adversaries will take advantage of us.”
Of course, even if theories of Trump-as-pragmatist hold up, the hard-right nationalists that helped deliver him to power are anything but. In searching for a historical antecedent to the Trump phenomenon, political scientist and historian Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, harkened all the way back to the fiery nationalism and populism of Andrew Jackson. As Mead argued earlier this year in The American Interest, modern-day Jacksonians reflexively support Israel, demand an overwhelming response to terror attacks, agitate for tight immigration controls, resist diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, want the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to remain open, maintain a cynical stance towards the United Nations, doubt climate change science, and believe in torture’s effectiveness. That sounds an awful lot like an amalgam of Trump foreign policy pronouncements. “Donald Trump, for now, is serving as a kind of blank screen on which Jacksonians project their hopes,” Mead wrote. “Combining a suspicion of Wall Street, a hatred of the cultural left, a love of middle class entitlement programs, and a fear of free trade, Jacksonian America has problems with both Republican and Democratic agendas.”
Rock the World
In recasting the Republican agenda by merging hard-nosed mercantilism with Jacksonian ideals, Trump’s election has sent much of the world reeling. That was the subtext to President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this week: to assure rattled NATO allies that his successor remains committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance. It explains why German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Trump a pointed note of congratulations on his victory that made future cooperation contingent on his adherence to common values, such as democracy and human rights, heretofore taken for granted.