Is Trump out of step with Americans on foreign policy?

Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee represents a frontal challenge to every building-block of Ronald Reagan’s conservative coalition—limited government, social conservatism, and democratic internationalism.

Trump’s departure from longstanding conservative tenets is especially pronounced in foreign policy, where he advocates an assertive unilateralism with an isolationist tinge.  Deaf to its historical resonance, he recently adopted the slogan “America First,” the motto of the isolationist movement that opposed America’s entrance into World War Two until the attack on Pearl Harbor. He may now be tempted to believe that the American people as a whole want to move in this direction. The facts suggest otherwise.

This morning, for example, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey on Americans’ attitudes concerning foreign policy and the country’s role in the world.  The survey revealed important areas of continuity, some dramatic changes, and deep divisions between and even within the political parties.

Let me begin with the continuities.  Americans believe, as they have for decades, that it is more important to focus on our domestic problems than on foreign policy.  Still, the poll’s findings show that the people are no more likely now than in the past to embrace unilateralism or isolationism.  By a margin of almost 2-to-1, they reject the proposition that we should go our own way in international matters without worrying what others think.  While they believe that the United States should remain the sole superpower, they do not want us to be the single world leader, preferring instead to share leadership with other countries.  And they continue to favor close relations with Europe and involvement with NATO and the United Nations. In a similar vein, they are more likely than they were just a few years ago to regard the United States as the world’s leading economic and military power—putting them more in the Hillary camp than in the Trump camp.  The concern sparked by China’s dramatic rise has noticeably eased.

But while Trump may be out of step with many Americans, in pushing an America First position, he is speaking for a substantial portion of his own party.  Sixty-two percent of Republicans say that we should let other countries deal with their own problems, while only 42 percent think that we should compromise to take our allies’ interests into account.  Republicans regard with disfavor every dimension of our efforts to assist developing nations, from direct aid to trade and investment.  Only 37 percent of Republicans think our global economic involvement is a good thing because it expands markets and boosts growth, compared to 55 percent who think it’s a bad thing because it eliminates jobs and squeezes wages.  By contrast, 49 percent of Democrats favor our current global economic engagement, compared to 44 percent who question it.

In short, we now have a Trump-led nationalist party facing off against an internationalist party that will be led into battle by a former secretary of state.  Internationalism represents the path of continuity, while isolationist-tinged unilateralism is a radical change. 

No doubt Americans want us to focus on our problems here at home.  As Pew’s findings show, they almost always do.  But Americans have longed believed that we can meet our domestic challenges without turning our back on our allies and alliances.  There is no evidence that they have suddenly changed their minds and are willing to take a chance on going it alone.  Sober internationalism is good policy, and it is likely to prove good politics as well.