For decades, most Republican leaders have taken the opposite views, supporting a robust American role abroad, expansive immigration, and free trade. In recent decades, that internationalist Republican consensus was most ardently advanced by Reagan and George W. Bush, each of whom backed legalization for undocumented immigrants, expanded trade, and a vibrant American role in leading other nations toward greater freedom.
Widespread disillusionment over Bush’s efforts to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq at the point of an American gun cracked that consensus inside the GOP after he left office.
The first volleys came from libertarians such as Paul, who called for abandoning Bush’s recipe of aggressive international military intervention and heightened domestic surveillance. But Republican receptivity to the libertarian argument against an overreaching national security state has eroded amid growing concern over ISIS and terrorism. That receding tide is one reason Paul’s presidential campaign has sputtered.
But the libertarian retreat hasn’t restored the dominance of the internationalist consensus, especially in the idealistic, democracy-crusading form that the second President Bush embraced. Instead, Trump, joined on most issues by Cruz, has revived a strain of conservative “defensive nationalism” that traces back through Patrick Buchanan’s 1990s presidential campaigns to the heartland isolationists of the 1930s (whose rallying cry Cruz channeled on Tuesday when he said he represented an “America First foreign policy”).
Across the terrain of international engagement, immigration, and trade, Trump presents an agenda that is muscular and belligerent but ultimately defensive. Trump’s worldview rests on the belief that America needs walls, both literal and metaphorical, to protect it from a duplicitous and dangerous world. That defiant but dark perspective unifies his call to build a giant barrier across the Mexican border, temporarily ban Muslim visitors, impose “a pause” on legal immigration, and reject free trade deals. It also infused the powerful indictment he delivered at the debate of the Middle East interventions by Bush and Obama.
“In my opinion, we've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could've spent that $4 trillion … to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems … we would've been a lot better off,” Trump declared. “The people that have been killed … and for what? It's not like we had victory.”
As Carly Fiorina quickly observed, Trump there sounded like a Democrat. But his security vision decisively departs from the Democrats’ in supporting an unrestrained bombing campaign against ISIS, intrusive surveillance at home (including at mosques), and, of course, in portraying both undocumented Mexicans and American Muslims as potential security threats.