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The Foolhardy Quest to Define a “Trump Doctrine”

A pro-Trump intellectual's attempt to ascribe a method to the president's madness shows just how hopeless that is.

Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty

Michael Anton is nothing if not resolute. A former Bush speechwriter and private-equity executive, he has dedicated himself these past few years to a lonely and self-evidently futile goal: to convince America that President Donald Trump is a statesman with a coherent philosophy—or really anything other than an erratic, egomaniacal ethno-nationalist.

Anton first rocketed into public consciousness in 2017, when it was revealed that he had been behind the most famous essay of the 2016 election, comparing the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency to the hijacking of Flight 93 on September 11. Conservatives, the piece had suggested—even those put off by Trump’s obvious unsuitability—had a duty to storm the cockpit. By the time of his unmasking, Anton was already ensconced as a spokesman in Trump’s National Security Council, the task of making an unserious candidacy seem serious replaced by the task of making an unhinged presidency seem non-nuclear.

Armed with a few years of Western Civ and a Machiavelli crush acquired through his undergraduate and Master’s studies, he undertook the role of highbrow window-dresser, sprinkling pinches of erudition like the world’s most perfunctory fire retardant over the dumpster blaze of the early Trump White House. Since leaving the administration in April 2018, he’s returned to the written word, still determined to find rationality and gravitas in the president’s zigzags, though this time more like a hapless Beijing Marxist trying to match Xi Jinping pronouncements to Das Kapital through strategic use of a paper shredder.

His latest salvo in this quixotic mission comes in the form of a roughly 4,200-word essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine—a work of almost admirable audacity that somehow manages more clearly than any attempt yet to expose the farcical nature of Anton’s three-year project.

In Anton’s essay, adapted from a lecture given at Princeton University, he insists that not only is there a method to Trump’s foreign policy madness, but an entire Trump Doctrine, which he describes thus: “Let’s all put our own countries first, and be candid about it, and recognize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.… If there is a Trump Doctrine, that’s it.”

There are four “pillars” in this doctrine, as Anton sees it. First, “populism is a result of all ... enforced leveling and homogenization,” thanks to globalization. Second, liberal internationalism has outlived its usefulness. Neither of these should be particularly surprising coming from a right-winger—although they’re a bit of a stretch for a president whose own articulation of his foreign policy tends more toward statements like “These people must have consequences. Big consequences,” “Let’s fucking kill him,” and “I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea.”

Nevertheless, these pillars pale before the next: “The third pillar of the Trump Doctrine is consistency—not for its own sake but for the sake of U.S. national interest.”

If readers can scrape their jaws off the floor long enough to read further—Anton is, after all, ascribing “consistency” to a president who first threatened North Korea with utter annihilation before deciding to send an autographed Elton John CD instead—they’ll learn “consistency” means abandoning the practice whereby the U.S. defended its own sovereignty but pushed other nations to cede theirs to international institutions (including the European Union, which Anton describes as “anti-American” despite its being the U.S.’s top trading partner and its member states hosting roughly a third of all U.S. active-duty military members abroad). The U.S. doesn’t need to play peacemaker as it did in the 1940s, Anton argues. Instead of pushing post-war Germany and France “to reconcile,” now it will encourage the bellicose nationalism from Poland and Hungary. (He doesn’t mention the judiciary purges and corruption.)

The fourth and final pillar in the Trump Doctrine, Anton declares, is that “it is not in U.S. interests to homogenize the world.” What precisely that means is unclear until Anton appropriates part of a 1970 lecture by Nobel-winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “In recent times, it has been fashionable to talk of the leveling of countries, of the disappearance of different races in the melting pot of contemporary civilization. I do not agree with this opinion. … Nations are the wealth of mankind….”

It’s a remarkable passage for Anton to choose. Solzhenitsyn was criticizing the brutal repression of multiple ethnic and religious groups and the “suppression of information” in the Soviet Union. The Trump administration, far from being an ally to foreign dissenters and oppressed minorities, has famously cozied up to authoritarian regimes from Russia and Saudi Arabia to North Korea. It has shown itself spectacularly apathetic when writers of the sort Solzhenitsyn was speaking for are killed and dismembered. The “leveling of countries” Anton has in mind is not the starvation of Ukraine, but whatever cultural annihilation Missouri’s Trump fans think they might face with a few more Central Americans in town.

The Solzhenitsyn detour is one of many that derail Anton’s argument. Of the thousands of words he dedicates to outlining a doctrine in his liege-lord’s name, startlingly few are dedicated to showing that Trump has ever adhered to it. The textual basis for this alleged “Trump Doctrine” boils down to just three quotes from Trump: “There’s no place like home,” uttered in Vietnam at an APEC CEO Summit in 2017; “a great awakening of nations,” from Trump’s 2017 address to the U.N. National Assembly; and “Don’t be a chump,” from a 2013 tweet that appeared to quote actor Andy Romano, and which subsequently appeared on pro-Trump merchandise. A joint session of Congress, such as the one introducing the Truman Doctrine, this is not.

Instead, the majority of the piece is devoted not to showing that Trump follows a four-pillar policy of self-interest, but that such a policy is realistic and natural, mainly because a succession of selectively quoted thinkers starting with Aristotle say it is.

The general purpose seems to be to advance a subtextual argument for an anti-immigration policy, presenting it as a fight against globalization. Globalization, Anton declares, is “the imperialism of our time.” (Liberals may claim a difference due to imperialism’s use of force, but the European Union, Anton counters, forced people to “regulate the size and shape of [their] vegetables and dictate[d] [their] immigration and border policies.” One senses Anton is not overly concerned with actual examples of imperialism, like the Herero genocide.) Globalization is bad because imperialism is bad. Imperialism is bad because empire is bad. Empire is bad because Xenophon’s biography of Cyrus the Great shows that nation states that become multi-ethnic empires inevitably become unstable and surveillance-oriented.

Such is the fever-dream logic of the would-be Trump intellectuals. It’s the same manic slideshow one would expect from a Dinesh D’Souza movie—the latest of which asserted that Democrats are more like Nazis than Republicans are, since Democrats favor “redistribution” and Woodrow Wilson liked Mussolini, while Hitler and the GOP do not share a homophobia link (since Hitler let Nazi leader Ernst Röhm, who was gay, live until he executed him). In the final sequence of that film, D’Souza and a black gospel choir even appeared to exhort conservatives to go get themselves guillotined like anti-Nazi dissident Sophie Scholl for campus free speech.

These historical and literary mashups, it’s important to understand, aren’t about rallying the masses. What true believer needs Xenophon’s opinion on Persia to justify ripping children from their mothers’ arms? They’re an attempt to nudge a handful of persuadables toward self-doubt by dropping enough references to Plato to bear passing resemblance to a liberal arts Gen-Ed course, assuming the student was sufficiently stoned when he or she took it originally.

The greatest irony of Anton’s essay is that after this much time trying to give the current president’s vacillation, whimsy, and rage the look of coherence, he’s missed the only thread running through all of these policy shifts. The Trump Doctrine is not “America first.” It’s Trump first. It’s not America that profits through Trump’s use of the presidential office to broker real estate deals in India. It’s not America that benefits if foreign leaders and lobbyists pay millions of dollars to stay at Trump hotels for better access. The U.S. gained no points by shoving the prime minister of Montenegro. Overselling the progress made at the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June, which undercut bargaining power in subsequent conversations, mainly benefited Trump, who could claim a foreign policy win.

Trump treats foreign policy like a series of personal relationships—a power dater with a weakness for the bad boys, a teenager determined to chuck that irritatingly stable “Europe” suitor his parents might prefer in favor of an authoritarian stud who rides motorcycles. “He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him,” he said of Putin. “I get along with him great,” Trump said of Xi. “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters,” he proclaimed of Kim Jong-un last fall. “We fell in love.” There is no regime too distasteful, no governmental orientation so obviously contrary to U.S. interests, that he cannot overlook if a leader with sufficient swagger suggests that he is special. There is no U.S. interest so crucial—including the vague maintenance of stability in Syria, or the safety of California from missile attack—that cannot be jeopardized with a stray tweet if Trump feels himself belittled or ignored.

Prior presidential doctrines have been the creation not just of presidents but the administration around them. The Truman doctrine’s intellectual authors included Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, and those who helped draft the 1947 address in which the doctrine debuted. The George W. Bush doctrine owed much to the advisers around him during the war on terror. It’s understandable that Anton, having held prime spots in the Trump campaign and administration, would think he can help transform Trump policy into something similarly cohesive. But as the past few years have shown, Trump finds all his advisers ultimately disposable when their interests conflict with his. There’s no reason to think the president feels any differently about his country.