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Why America-firsters become globalists when their guy is in the White House

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Polls found President Donald Trump’s bombings more popular than not, but if you look inside those poll results, the partisan breakdown is interesting, if not surprising.

Do Americans generally favor a more interventionist military role for the United States in world affairs or a more isolationist (or at least non-interventionist role)? The answer, which I found surprising, is that — for many of us — it depends on which party controls the White House.

Donald Trump ran for office as an America Firster. America First-ism is a mushy, bordering-on-stupid appeal which suggests that, as president, a candidate will put the interests of America and Americans ahead of the interests of other nations (or perhaps the world in general).

If you take this seriously, you will find very little there there. It’s hard to imagine a president or especially a presidential candidate who will pledge to put the interests of America or Americans second or third.

But those who tried to take Trump’s America Firstiness seriously and literally would have guessed that he intended to stop meddling in the world so much, especially including meddling militarily in conflicts that wouldn’t have much of a chance of producing clear, concrete benefits for Americans.

(Trump was on the record as telling Obama not to get involved in Syria. In 2013, he tweeted: “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!)

Then, once in office, Trump saw TV pictures of little Syrian children who had been gassed. Then, as one of his first actions as commander-in-chief, he ordered a bombing raid to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The direct benefit to “Americans first” is hard to identify.

Then Trump ordered the “mother of all bombs” to be dropped in Afghanistan. Hard to see how these were America First-y things to do. And it’s easy to believe that Trump would have criticized President Obama if he had done them.

Polls found Trump’s bombings more popular than not, but if you look inside those poll results, the partisan breakdown is interesting, if not surprising.

Republicans (in this CBS News poll) approved of the Syria bombing by 84-11 percent, but Democrats opposed the action by 53-40 percent. I don’t want to be too cynical, but I suspect those numbers would be roughly reversed if Barack Obama had ordered those raids. Yes, of course, partisanship affects these things bigly. No duh.

But, writing for the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, under the headline “Why presidential candidates (like Trump) campaign as isolationists but (like Trump) govern as hawks,” political scientist Verlan Lewis took my understanding of this phenomenon to a new level.

It isn’t just a partisan inclination to support whatever the president does (if he is from your party) and oppose whatever he does (if you are in the other party). There is a powerful, measurable tendency for partisans to generally take a more isolationist, or at least non-interventionist attitude toward the U.S. role in the world when a member of the opposite party is in the White House. And vice versa.

Lewis claims to find evidence for this going back at least to the early 20th century. But his most powerful evidence dates from the post-World War II era. That evidence is based on the amazingly valuable set of survey data known as the American National Election Study, which has been conducted regularly, with scientific rigor, before and after every presidential election since 1948. (That’s 17 presidential election cycles, which covers nine cases of the presidency passing back and forth across party lines.) It’s considered the gold standard of election surveys, not in predicting the outcome of the presidential race but in understanding what the electorate is thinking before and after each election.

Lewis’ finding is not based on a question like “do you approve of the way the president handling foreign policy?” Those questions are heavily influenced by straightforward partisan loyalty.

Instead, the ANES has been asking voters for 68 years whether they agree or disagree with the statement: “This country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world.”

That’s a pretty straightforward effort to locate the responder on the isolationist-to-interventionist scale. But Lewis tracks answers to that question, by the party identification of the people answering it, over time. And when he charts the changes, he finds that when Democrats are president, Democrats are more likely to give the interventionist answer and Republicans are more likely to give the isolationist answer. And when a Republican is in the White House, the lines flip.

Here’s the chart. I find it quite impressive and it explains a lot. Trump ran for office as an America Firster and is governing as a world policeman.

It’s true that, on balance, since the mid-1950s, Republicans, in general, were more likely to give the interventionist answer. But Lewis wants you to notice what happens to the trend lines when the president is a Republican versus when the president is a Democrat.

Without fail, the inauguration of a Democrat made Republicans substantially less willing to intervene abroad. And, without fail, the election of the next Republican president restored Republicans’ confidence of the value of interventionism. The same happened in reverse among Democrats.

I find this surprising and a little creepy. But I suppose it’s one more bit of evidence that party identity is fairly tribal. If my tribe’s leader decides to take us into foreign adventures, I try to be for it, perhaps out of team spirit, perhaps out of a confidence that when my tribe’s guy is in charge, he’ll pick the right battles and manage them well.  

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Comments (27)

Bombing

Bombing polls well no matter who is president.

Gosh knows, I am no admirer of President Trump. But one of the things I liked about him every once in a while was his rejection of Hillary-ist reflexive foreign policy, the policy of the dreaded proportional response. Something happens that we don't like, let's drop a bomb on it. It may not do any objective good, but it does make us feel so much better about ourselves. Serious people then can say serious things The level of outrage Senator McCain manages to maintain at all times can be lowered ever so slightly. CNN's ratings can blip up.

In terms of surveys and polling, the general problem is that people rarely hear the question that's asked. The question that they do hear and answer is, do you like the guy in charge? That's why people so freely give outrageous answers to the most ordinary questions. Do you believe Obama was born in Kenya? Republicans answer yes. But what the pollsters don't tell you that the poll numbers would be about the same among Republicans if you asked them, "Do you believe President Obama is alien born on the planet Tralfamadore?" And in fairness to my own party, we Democrats answer polling questions in much the same way. I am personally entirely open to the suggestion that President Trump is an immigrant from some foreign planet.

Here are several articles

Here are several articles that that exception to the "pox on both their houses" conclusion you have made.

First, on taxes (Republicans find their taxes more fair now--no change for Dems):
http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/04/how-do-partisans-react-ele...

Second, on bombing (Repubs big on bombing now--no change for Dems):
http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/04/republicans-love-bombing-o...

Third, on the economy (Repubs like the economy now--no change for Dems):
http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/04/immigration-and-economy

Seems like the Republicans respond more strongly to the party line and party leadership cues.

Eurasia and Eastasia, who can keep it all straight--need direction from the apparatus.

I think Democrats vote party

I think Democrats vote party line more often than Republicans..

"Think"

We all know what you "think," Ilya - it's clear every time you post. Evidence from a reputable source? (Not from the "'Merica! Times," please.)

ALL Senate Democrats voted

ALL Senate Democrats voted for Obamacare while several Senate Republicans were against Trumpcare. In general, there is a lot of disagreement among Republicans now when it comes to Trump while Democrats have been united for Obama and Clinton…

That's because

... we now have an incompetent president who couldn't even pass his "totally awesome" repeal & replace bill, with control of both houses, after, btw, over 6 years to come up with it. The GOP is torn with whether to keep supporting this half-baked administration, or actually grow a conscience. All bets are off in this comical post-fact Trump era.

Trust

Eric wrote: " If my tribe’s leader decides to take us into foreign adventures, I try to be for it, perhaps out of team spirit, perhaps out of a confidence that when my tribe’s guy is in charge, he’ll pick the right battles and manage them well."

I was actually thinking about this as I read through the column, and even before I reached this final sentence, I was leaning towards the latter, e.g. "when my tribe’s guy is in charge, he’ll pick the right battles and manage them well."

It's a trust thing. I trust the judgement of "my guy" more than I do that of "the other guy".

Even so, I wish Obama had been less hawkish than he was during his time in office.

Trump Was Never An Isolationist

Trump did not campaign as an isolationist. He may have been America First in terms of trade, but not in foreign relations.

He wanted to "bomb the s!!t out of ISIS". In a debate he said he might send 30K troops to Iraq. He wants to ladle another $54B(!) on the military. He's been standard issue GOP bluster.

If anyone thought he was going to withdraw from the world, they weren't paying attention to what he said in 2016.

I'd like to see…

Eric's analysis seems pretty straightforward, and frankly, in line with my own experience/observation as a certified old person who's paid attention to foreign affairs for half a century or so.

Isolationism in what's probably the "classical" sense of centuries past is economically silly, and in the modern world, impossible for an industrial economy. What I'd like to see, however, is "interventionism" that doesn't rely so heavily on a military response to trends or events overseas that we don't like, or that don't seem to fit our national interests, at least in the short term. The whole point of having a State Department is to make, and use, actual strategy and policy (thoughtfully devised by people who will not make money from the results: i.e., career diplomats) through diplomatic means rather than military ones to achieve our own self-serving (or global-serving, or humanity-serving, take your pick) ends. Republican or Democrat, Congress and Presidents alike have been just a bit more eager than I personally want us to be to adopt a military solution to some foreign affairs problem when results have shown us in the past couple decades, certainly, that a militarized approach often doesn't satisfy our national interest(s).

Arms sales are a case in point. We're the armorer of the world, which serves the military-industrial complex quite well, and provides plenty of relatively high-paying technical jobs to everyone from machinists to test pilots to naval engineers, but we've also—too often—found the weapons we sold to supposedly aid a particular group that was purportedly on "our side" have been used against us later on. The phrase from the post-World War I world, "Merchants of death," comes readily to mind in that context for an old history teacher.

Arms sales aside for the moment, I'd prefer to see political and economic pressure applied, relaxed, threatened, etc., rather than an automatic call-up of the National Guard or the Marines, and an alert for C-130s to fly them somewhere far away on the planet to serve a top-of-the-head, short-term excuse for foreign policy that mostly benefits interests entrenched in Washington, D.C., but that doesn't necessarily make life better for the bulk of the citizenry, and in the process provides one more little bit of support for the militarization of our society, to the detriment of us all.

Language lessons

"Hard to see how these were America First-y things to do." Actually it's easy. Scare or intimidate the whole world, friend and foe alike, then somehow "America" benefits from trembling "others" fearful of offending "us" who are defended by "the new sheriff in town" -- a title, by the way, that enthralls the rightie pundits who would recoil at the similar phrase "there is a new world policeman on the beat."

It's not foolish

America First is not a foolish idea as some think (or try to present it). Sure, no presidential candidate (or any politicians for that matter) would admit being America Second but some do act that way. First, let me define this: If a President does things that do not bring benefits (and can’t bring them even potentially) to America and American people but bring them to someone else, he is acting in “America Second” way. Examples: Bombing Yugoslavia, bombing Libya, allowing illegal immigration, advocating for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, etc. Those may be moral and humanitarian actions but America as a whole doesn’t benefit. Police actions are supposed to benefit the community, not the policeman. Bombing Syria, on the other hand, may do good to America, at least in theory (by projecting strength and decisiveness). So Trump’s action do fall into “America first” category rather than the “world’s policeman’s” one. Globalism conducted in American interests does not contradict America First doctrine.

Short vs. Longterm Effects

The problem is that many people who use the slogan 'America First' are fixated on short term effects. So Trump bombs Syria because of an emotional reaction even though it will have no long term benefits for the United States.
On the other hand, bombing parts of the former Yugoslavia may not have brought us immediate benefits, but if it helps to stabilize Europe by stopping a genocide, it will benefit us (and the populations of Kosovo and Bosnia) in the long run.

I don’t care how Trump

I don’t care how Trump explained bombing Syria, but it will help in the long run by showing strength and determination to use force. On the other hand, how did bombing Yugoslavia helped us? Stabilizing Europe? But Europe was not threatened… And, by the way, it was illegal since Security Council did not approve it…

Ummm . . .

"On the other hand, how did bombing Yugoslavia helped us? Stabilizing Europe? But Europe was not threatened… " Has unrest in the Balkans ever been a threat to Europe? Seems to me it was once. Look how well that one turned out.

"And, by the way, it was illegal since Security Council did not approve it." It's been many years since I studied international law, but I don't recall Security Council approval being the measure of the legality of military action.

Things have changes in 100 years

“Has unrest in the Balkans ever been a threat to Europe? Seems to me it was once.” A hundred years ago - sure. I just don’t think there was a EU at that time…

“It's been many years since I studied international law, but I don't recall Security Council approval being the measure of the legality of military action.” I haven’t studied international law but I remember that Bush was accused, among other things, of attacking Iraq without Security Council approval…

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

"A hundred years ago - sure." Is there any reason to think a volatile, warring region in central Europe would not cause destabilization today? How about in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was newly broken-up and the former Warsaw Pact nations just beginning to exert themselves? The EU had just adopted the Maastricht Treaty, so its potential as a stabilizing force was untested. What could possibly have gone wrong?

I'm reminded of a contemporary joke from (I think) Johnny Carson: The Russian Empire is breaking up, Germany is becoming more powerful, there's unrest in the Balkans--isn't this how the century started?

"I remember that Bush was accused, among other things, of attacking Iraq without Security Council approval…" Meaning what, exactly? The US argued at the time that an additional Security Council Resolution was not needed. That point is still being debated.

“Is there any reason to think

“Is there any reason to think a volatile, warring region in central Europe would not cause destabilization today?” Well, you answered your own question by quoting Carson “The Russian Empire is breaking up, Germany is becoming more powerful, there's unrest in the Balkans--isn't this how the century started?” This is indeed how the last century started which was followed by the WWI; a similar start of this century was not followed by any significant confrontation in Europe…

“The US argued at the time that an additional Security Council Resolution was not needed. That point is still being debated.” Well, I have always been of the opinion that a SC resolution was not necessary at that time… but liberals have insisted on the opposite all the time… and were proud that Obama got one on Libya (the reason he did, of course, was that Russia and China didn’t care about Kaddafi and, maybe, anticipated the troubles the West will get itself into). So predictably, the result in Libya was disastrous…

The problem with America

The problem with America First-ism, the reason why it's a discredited slogan in American politics, is that it suggests that American interests are not tied to those of the rest of the world. Put simply, we tried to turn our backs on Hitler, and the direct consequence was the a holocaust.

And now we see the limits of America first-ism. After only a few weeks on the job, Trump is bombing people, and all those heartfelt tweets have been dropped in a convenient memory hole. That leaves us with the preeminent question of the Trump administration, and Trump years: Now that he has abandoned everything he campaigned for, what is it he actually supports?

My only quibble...

I''m not disputing the observation but I would quibble a little because every president that deploys military force manipulates and deceives the public in order to do so and that fact should inform the correlation.

It could be that what your really observing here is a Party dependent susceptibility for like-Party deception, i.e. Democrats are more susceptible to deception by other Democrats etc. That's a little different that concluding that attitudes towards military intervention change depending on Party affiliation.

The other problem is that American's can be a little wobbly about their own political identity, so even when they self identify or vote for a given Party, it's not necessarily a clear indication of their ideological mentalities. For instance I've been raging about Democrat's soft liberalism as of late, so if I'm correct, and the Democratic Party and many of it's voters are actually moderate Republicans or repentant liberals, what you seeing is a baseline tendency to support military intervention in both parties regardless of president, and that baseline is layered over Party affiliation. In other words if you sorted the sample according ideology rather than Party affiliation you might get different results.

Trump

Ran as a Trump first-er, and continues in kind.The America first was nothing more than a means to and end, (nothing to do with globalism or not, great propagandist technique), make me master of the universe, is the real theme here, The judicial branch is broken, the previous administration is broken, the legislative branch is broke, the economy is broke, and only I the master of the universe can make all right again. And all those so called Constitutional Trumpi-es would be more than happy to trash out their so called sacred constitution that they never read, least wise understood/understand and give Trump the keys to a Putin type autocratic regime!

It could be that what your

It could be that what your really observing here is a Party dependent susceptibility for like-Party deception, i.e. Democrats are more susceptible to deception by other Democrats etc. That's a little different that concluding that attitudes towards military intervention change depending on Party affiliation.

Well, tribalism has a lot to do with it. Republicans are quite right when they say we tend to support our own. We Democrats also tend to be critical of our own, something Republicans are brilliant at exploiting. Sometimes we are manipulated, but it's also the case that we live in a complex world, and that requires us to do stuff we don't fully understand, and just hope for the best.

I do think the Hillary-ist Trumpist foreign policy, that if you see something you don't like, just drop a bomb on it. I do hate to admit, but Trump's criticisms of that had a lot of resonance with me. What Trump utterly failed to understand is the vast political inertia that supports such policy, and the lack of imagination that fails to find an alternative. The Donald, we are learning over and over, to even the despair of his critics, is just like every other politician.

Well...

"Sometimes we are manipulated, but it's also the case that we live in a complex world, and that requires us to do stuff we don't fully understand, and just hope for the best."

This is a backhanded way of claiming that anti-war movements are naive, I've seen it many times before. The problem is that almost without exception the peacenik's have been right. The people who consistently and repeatedly look at all these all oh so complex situations and arrive at the correct solutions and course of action are the anti-war people. You don't lob bombs and hope for the best, you act intelligently, or as Obama is reputed to have said: "Don't do stupid stuff". Complexity doesn't justify stupidity or deceit and from the bogus "missile gaps" that justified the Cold War to the domino's and Soviet bases in Nicaragua and WMD's you have a unbroken streak of deception and stupidity. And through it all the REAL adults in the room were the kids on the street telling us not to go war. McNamara, Kissinger, Rumsfeld, etc. etc. were wrong, and dishonest. They looked at complex situations and got it wrong. And every single time they manipulated the American public into supporting military actions with lies and misinformation.

This is a backhanded way of

This is a backhanded way of claiming that anti-war movements are naive, I

I think it might be a backhanded way of saying pro naive wars are naive. But actually, I was more a way of saying we act on insufficient information.

It is really hard to say who is right or wrong. A lot of the judgments made are dependent how the problem is defined, and by the fact that we never know how things would have turned out had we acted differently. Not even hindsight is as good as we would like it to be.

Santayana famously said that those who don't remember history are condemned to repeat it. But he didn't go on to say what is really disturbing which is those who remember history are also condemned to repeat it.

Apology not accepted

"I think it might be a backhanded way of saying pro naive wars are naive. But actually, I was more a way of saying we act on insufficient information.

It is really hard to say who is right or wrong. A lot of the judgments made are dependent how the problem is defined, and by the fact that we never know how things would have turned out had we acted differently. Not even hindsight is as good as we would like it to be."

History is very clear on this. Yes, you can act with insufficient information, and sometimes you have to, but that's not what warmongers do or have done. From the Viet Nam War to Iraq sufficient information WAS available, it was just ignored for bad reasons. And again, we know who was right and who was wrong, and it wasn't hindsight because the arguments were documented at the time. Millions of people marched against the Iraq War months before the invasion, that wasn't hindsight or a lack of information.

And by the way, hindsight is claiming you didn't have reliable information but decided to act anyways. NO President EVER makes that case for military action. No president tells the nation that they're not sure this is a good idea but their gonna do it anyways and hope for the best. No president has ever told the nation that they have incomplete information but they're sending our kids into combat anyways just see what happens. Sure, that's what presidents do, but you can't claim that they ever admit they're doing it.

A conservative on double

A conservative on double standards...

(quote)

Remember when we knocked President Obama for spending so much time on the golf course? Not all of us did, but many of us did. Donald Trump, for example, was unrelenting in his criticism. You don’t hear that anymore. Conservatives don’t knock the president for spending so much time on the golf course.

We used to tote up Obama’s travel — how much it cost to go to Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii, etc. Remember the trip that Mrs. O. took, with one of her daughters, to the Costa del Sol? Man, we howled about that. Taxpayer dollars. Anyway, Trump is set to spend more in a year on travel than the Obamas spent in eight.

Remember how we counted up the times Obama said “I” and “me” in a speech? That was fun. It was kind of a conservative pastime. We don’t do that anymore.....

.....Hypocrisy in human beings is as normal as lust. You can no more stamp it out than you can stamp out crabgrass. You’d have a much easier time with crabgrass. But, now and then, we should pause to acknowledge what we’re doing, and not doing. We should hear the dogs not barking …

… about golf, travel, “I” and “me,” etc.

Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/446982/way-we-were-c-jay-nordlinge...

(end quote)

you can act with insufficient

you can act with insufficient information, and sometimes you have to, but that's not what warmongers do or have done

Do warmongers have complete information? Very often, particularly when they lose, it seems that they do not.

There are always oceans of information available. The trick is to identify the information that matters. And the fact is, wars can be fought between countries that know little about each other, and between countries that share centuries of common history.

It's not THAT tricky

"There are always oceans of information available. The trick is to identify the information that matters. "

Well, if it is a trick, it's a trick anti-war protesters have mastered because they've been interpreting information correctly, repeatedly over the decades. As for war mongers, they're not interested in reliable information. The LAST thing Cheney and Bush wanted was RELIABLE information. Leaders with agendas don't look for reliable information, they look for useful information... there can be a huge difference.