Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

How MAGA Is Just an Extension of Hope and Change

Dick Cheney is right that Obama and Trump have similar foreign policies.
March 13, 2019
How MAGA Is Just an Extension of Hope and Change
(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

If there was anyone whom Democrats despised above all others in the Bush administration, it was Vice President Dick Cheney. His ties to Halliburton, the way he led the push for the Iraq war, his support for expanded presidential powers. But that was before Donald Trump.

Those same Democrats might be pleased to hear that Cheney is speaking out against Trump, until they find out why. At the annual AEI World Forum on Monday, Politico reports, Cheney used his interview with Vice President Mike Pence to blast Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

The former vice president, who has kept a low public profile in recent years, questioned whether Trump places enough value on the findings of the intelligence community, which he has repeatedly and publicly dismissed. He suggested that Trump foreign policy has at times looked more like President Barack Obama’s — which Cheney has repeatedly lambasted — than that of a Republican standard-bearer.

Cheney is right. Trump supporters tell themselves that the cacophony from the battle to “own the libs” distracts while Trump’s conservative policy advances save America.  But that outdoor voice hides a philosophy similar to what animated President Obama’s foreign policy. The GOP now owns a president that has a problem with American exceptionalism.   

Obama and Trump both preached retrenchment built upon cold realism.  In theory, there’s nothing wrong with retrenchment–narrowing the scope of the national interest and getting back to the basics.  There’s an ebb and flow to what voters want. Obama sold an overbearing America; Trump’s America is too generous.

But the history of America is literally the struggle of ideology (not a history of a people), and so getting back to basics, in the American context, means putting more focus on the exceptional fact that America is the embodiment of ideals.  

In contrast, such realism works only if America were simply a place on a map.  Granted, it may be a place of which the two otherwise different presidents are both really, really proud, but it’s just a place, nonetheless.

Both Obama and Trump  have compared themselves to Reagan. They could not have picked a worse example.  Among modern presidents, Reagan gave a masterclass in how American realism works.

Reagan knew American ideals were America’s greatest leverage, so he led with them.  Foreign revolutionaries may find the purple mountain majesties beautiful, but it’s the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness stuff that inspires them to become force multipliers.  And that’s what terrifies authoritarians.

Reagan’s America was a “beacon of light,” a revolution of ideals.  He weaponized American exceptionalism and wielded it like a righteous club.  Reaching Reagan’s negotiating table meant first answering questions on human rights. In contrast, a turn at Trump and Obama’s negotiating table means a game of Risk while suffering through lectures on realism from a bunch Ron Paul cosplayers passing the bong and shotgunning Natty Light.

When Bashar Assad bombed his own people in 2013, Obama ordered one targeted strike and then, in a speech announcing it, declared that ”America is not the world’s policeman.” When Saudis killed and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent U.S. resident, at the Turkish consulate, Trump defended Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In both cases, the message to critics was to “pipe down.”

Both seem to operate on the logical fallacy that speaking up for what makes America exceptional means bombing someone, so they remain silent, waiting for negotiations … not realizing that bombing children is the negotiation.  Who doubts that both Obama and Trump regard something as trivial as Kiev’s freedom as nothing but a nettlesome agenda item that could disrupt their next attempt to bro it out with Putin in some gilded Viennese dance hall?  

Even as Russia has meddled with our elections, our most fundamental institution, 44 and 45 have sidelined our most potent leverage.  A relatively cheap, easy and achievable response would play on Putin’s paranoid fears of “color revolutions” all across Russia’s frontier (and perhaps in Moscow’s suburbs) . Putin and cronies would correctly fear for their lives. Instead, they sleep soundly at night knowing that meddling with our democracy has earned them a turn at the negotiating table.  

At the end of the day, the quintessence for both men has been to show the righteousness of realism.  Translated: the process of finding a solution is more important than the results. No better example highlights this than the coda to Obama’s Iraq withdrawal, ISIS.  

Trump’s novel plan was to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. But, no slouch in the ISIS colonic department, Obama bombed ISIS 26,171 (mostly classified) times in 2016.  He perverted the classification system, using it to shield politically inconvenient facts from Americans so that he could continue claiming that sitting down with the Russians was going to solve the problem.  Trump’s recipe of realism called for militant hollering, but was followed by a predictable turn at the negotiating table. Of course, ISIS still lives, but that’s hardly the point.  The negotiations were an end unto themselves.  

Though it proves the rule, Venezuela is thankfully an exception. Trump appears genuinely to want Maduro gone and a noticeable change from the last decade.

Which cuts to the chase. National Security Republicans tell themselves that Obama was an old school lefty of the ilk who believed that the Dulles brothers destroyed the world; national security Democrats act like Trump is a Nazi—and that the transition from Hope and Change to MAGA has been tectonic.

The truth is that MAGA needed little transition, requiring nothing but offensively bad style, Brylcreem and the typical loud things that you would expect with a shift from limousine liberal to bridge and tunnel. Things seem to have gotten marginally dumber, but it’s a matter of degree. The unserious and un-American (yes, I said it) foreign policy over the past 10 years has left the country in a bad place.  

The boondoggle in Hanoi seems scripted to prove that Eliot Cohen’s character description for the Obama administration, “Little Metternichs,” applies to the Trump administration, too.

In announcing that he would first meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump waved off complaints that he was giving Kim what no American president has been willing to give to a North Korean leader: the legitimacy lent by sitting with the president of the United States. America’s revolutionary history paid for that legitimacy.

But Trump set that leverage aside, even giving Kim Jong-Un a pass on murdering an American in their most recent summit. It very much resembled Obama’s meeting with Castro. Both believed that by setting aside the nettlesome issue of human rights, they had achieved a masterstroke of realism.  

So easy was it for Trump to write off American exceptionalism and meet with one of the world’s worst dictators, one would be excused for thinking that he views American foreign policy as a means to attract attention. In that sense, too, Obama tilled the earth for MAGA, making laying the Art of the Deal on Kim as easy as hanging out with Castro at a baseball game.

Kristofer Harrison

Kristofer Harrison is senior managing director for a macroeconomic consultancy and is a Russia expert. Previously, he served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush administration.  Twitter: @ToferH.