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As much continuity as change: The result of Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s shared vision for a retreat from the global stage is instability (©Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


The paroxysms of hysteria surrounding each of Donald Trump’s presidential acts obscure a more important observation. Although neither man would appreciate the comparison, the paradox of Trump is that the key to understanding both his anti-establishment grass-roots appeal and his worldview lies with Barack Obama. The more troubling aspects of Trump’s foreign policy are the points of continuity with Obama and their shared disdain for 70 years of Pax Americana.

This is not to understate the differences between the two men, but, at a fundamental level, Trump is pursuing the next step in Obama’s retrenchment of American exceptionalism. Obama’s ambivalence about the uniqueness of America’s place in the world had dire foreign policy consequences. Despite this, Obama realised that he had to fashion his foreign policy within the rhetorical confines of American exceptionalism, even if his convictions fell far short. Trump has taken Obama’s ambivalence and turned it to outright opposition. In that sense Trump is first and foremost a problem, not only for the Republican party, but also for Atlanticists — who include both the present author and the Editor of Standpoint.

Despite Trump’s obvious positioning as the “anti-Obama”, without Obama there could be no Trump. “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” The same narcissistic bombast that we expect from Trump was actually Obama’s self-assessment in 2008, as he burnished his anti-establishment, populist credentials. It is easy to forget that both Obama’s and Trump’s successes were based on their position as political outliers, pitching themselves against Washington consensus politics in the form of their own parties and in the form of Hillary Clinton. “The conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don’t make practical sense,” Obama proclaimed in 2007, adding: “I’m not running for president to conform to Washington’s conventional thinking — I’m running to challenge it.”

“We shall be as a city upon a hill,” proclaimed John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop expressed what has come to be known as American exceptionalism, the belief that America is a different type of state. Other democracies tend to be defined by ethnicity, nationality, or religion; the United States embodies a set of principles about human liberty and exists in part to champion these values. Although it has been used to support a wide range of different foreign policy stances, belief in exceptionalism has animated American politics since the foundation of the republic. That sense of uniqueness has been enshrined as the pursuit, not just of self-interest but of democracy and liberty around the world. While the idea of American exceptionalism was always viewed as universally transformative, it was only in the 20th century that Americans changed how they saw their role, moving from passive beacon of inspiration towards a globalist foreign policy.

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