Are Trump and Obama really that different?

A final continuity lies in perhaps the most unexpected arena of all— immigration. Immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, is a highly charged political issue. Trump’s promise to build a wall with Mexico has cast the election as one about proponents and opponents of immigration. In that narrative, Democrats take on the role of the immigration-friendly party. Yet pro-immigrant activists have been deeply disappointed with the Democratic administration’s track record, denouncing Obama as the “deporter-in-chief.” Indeed, the administration boasts of returning more immigrants than any predecessor. Of course, all sides in this debate fudge their statistics, and the administration has its own political reasons to try to appear to be tough on immigration. More interesting, though, is the fact that when the President tried to block the deportation of nearly five million unauthorized immigrants, the Supreme Court upheld an Appeals Court ruling that the executive action exceeded his legal authority. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed up against the limits of constitutional power: A Trump presidency would not represent the first threat to the checks and balances system.

How the Clinton candidacy fits into this picture of continuity between the Obama legacy and the Trump vision remains to be seen. The Sanders campaign has pushed her to the left on the domestic agenda, but not particularly on foreign policy. Indeed, parts of the neoconservative foreign policy elite are apparently warming to Clinton, given Trump’s neo-isolationism: In his acceptance speech he declared his support for “Americanism, not Globalism,” and he denounced “nation-building” abroad and “regime change.” We may be entering the first campaign in decades in which the Republican candidate runs to the left of the Democrat on foreign policy.

However the election plays out, deep crosscurrents in the political vision of the country are coming to the surface, challenging received opinion. For Obama and Trump alike, the insistence on repairing the national domestic condition means a retreat from a global extension of American power. Some conservative critics argued early on that Obama’s policy agenda was defined by an anti-imperialism from the left, a hostility to American military deployments around the world, and a resistance to the history of western colonialism. In that sense, Trump brings an anti-imperialism from the right, a program to wind down overseas engagements in order to redirect resources domestically. Obama established the rhetoric of a ratcheting down of American global leadership in order to achieve a greatness on the home front. Will Trump be able to ride that same wave to the White House? Could his neo-isolationism appeal to the anti-war left and attract some Sanders voters, repelled by Clinton’s foreign policy? Or will she be able to put forward a hawkish message of liberal internationalism in a way sufficiently convincing to the electorate? That would require of her a willingness to criticize the Obama legacy, a risky political move.