Was I too hard on Donald Trump’s big foreign-policy speech? Or maybe too soft?
I came up in journalism in the days, where all the scribblers except a few columnists were expected to be “objective,” or — more honestly — to conceal their bias enough that they could defend themselves as unbiased. I could (but, I hasten to assure you, will not) go on at length about the strengths and weaknesses of that old-time religion, which has all-but collapsed. I was sick of it well before I escaped its bounds.
Still, it left in me a healthy long-term desire to treat respectfully facts and arguments with which I disagreed, but not to let that project prevent me from trying to describe a version of the truth as best I could discern it, to bring up contrary facts and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument.
The buffoonish, obnoxious, grantee Mr. Trump long ago forfeited my respect (not that he cares, of course). He lies, he bullies, he brags, he threatens, he disrespects facts and logic. And yet he rises ever higher in the polls and ever closer in his quest for the presidency. To feign respect for him would be a lie, and I pretty much won’t do it. But I will continue to care about the differences between his lies and his truths, his crackpot ideas and those that might be worth discussing respectfully.
So then comes this speech, which was calmer, more serious and expressed a more rational version of how Trumpism would translate across the foreign and military responsibilities of the president. I’m not saying rational; I’m saying more rational than his normal debate and rally shtick. It brought out that old impulse to be something more open to contrary facts and arguments than an ideological attack dog.
I wrote what I wrote — no love song, but certainly an acknowledgment that he was working on his “presidential.” I called it “coherent,” which is a big step in the right direction for Trump, who seldom completes a grammatical sentence in his usual routine. And I rated his effort to set out policies to address the problems “hit and miss.” Faint praise, to be sure, but, after all, if we hold most political speech up to the highest standards of honesty and coherence, it falls short.
The morning after, I read a lot of vituperative attacks on the presentation. This one, by MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin, headlined “Donald Trump’s Big Foreign Policy Speech Was a Mess,” as you might infer from the headline, is an across-the-board attack. Sarlin’s main argument was that Trump’s ideas were full of inherent contradictions. As in:
At one point early in his remarks, Trump threatened to outright abandon the nation’s bedrock alliances in Europe and Asia over a funding dispute.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” Trump said. “We have no choice.”
He then pivoted, almost in the next breath, to complaining that President Obama had not reassured U.S. allies strongly enough that America would not abandon them.
“Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us,” Trump said. “We’ve had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies.”
I don’t mean to make too big a deal Sarlin’s criticisms, or those of any critics of Trump. And I have no interest in holding up the speech as a logically airtight roadmap to peace and security. The inherent contradictions between some of Trump’s principles would be excellent fodder for follow-up questions as to how he reconciles the tension between wanting to reassure our allies that they can depend on the United States and also threatening to kick them out of NATO if they don’t carry their share of the financial cost of the alliance. Sure. But I gather it is true the United States pays a disproportionate share of the cost of the alliance and that many NATO countries, including some wealthy ones, pay less than the amount that the treaty agreement requires.
Is that OK? Is there a way to get them to pay more without threatening them with consequences? Is this an area where a famously hard-headed negotiator like Trump might be able to extract a better burden-sharing deal? I don’t claim to know, but I do wonder whether a certain logical tension between various sentences in a program like this really constitutes a “total mess.”
Trump’s central principle in the speech is that everything an American president does in the world should hold the concrete interests of the American people, their safety and their prosperity, as the top priority. That’s surely in some category of oversimplification, but is it a crazy rule of thumb? I guess not. It’s actually one of those things helps me understand some of Trump’s appeal.
Anyway, I was hard on Trump in my piece, in some ways. (I called him a liar and gave a very concrete, very relevant example, namely his false claim to have been an opponent of the Iraq War.) And I will be again. Somehow, without the benefit of any rules of objectivity to guide me, I guess I will reserve the right to note the difference between the crazy (“and I will make Mexico pay for it”) and false things (“ISIS is making millions of dollars a week selling Libyan oil,” which he said in his big Wednesday speech, and here’s Politifact’s writeup with a rating “false”) and other things that he might occasionally say that are at least worthy of consideration.