Had he taken all (or at least most) of these steps, and in a calm and deliberate way, some members of the foreign-policy establishment would have been upset but others would have been encouraged and many would have taken a wait-and-see approach. Some of his supporters would have been disappointed, perhaps, but many of his other backers would have stuck with him provided he delivered on tax reform or deregulation and restored some working-class jobs with a decent domestic infrastructure program. This approach would have been mindful of the public desire for fewer global burdens, but also the public’s continued belief that the United States should be a leading world power in partnership with others. Acting this way would have allowed Trump to demonstrate he could be a statesman, while still challenging some reigning foreign-policy orthodoxies. Most important of all, these changes would have preserved the valuable features of the present global order, which in fact is very much to our benefit. With a bit of luck, the country would have stayed on an even keel and he might have been well-positioned for reelection in 2020, despite his advanced age and other liabilities.
Trump (and political advisor Bannon) did none of these things. Instead, they started to pick several fights with China while undercutting the U.S. position in Asia. Yesterday he badgered Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an acrimonious phone call — and here we are talking about the leader of the country that has fought at America’s side in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and he bragged (again) about his electoral win. They picked another pointless fight with Mexico, mostly because Trump can’t admit what is obvious to all: If that stupid wall ever gets built, Americans will have to pay for it. The White House announced an unlawful ban on Muslim immigrants, and rolled the new policy out as ineptly as possible. I mean, seriously: They shut the door on hundreds of extensively vetted refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day (thereby invoking memories of the country’s callous response to Nazi persecution in the 1930s), and then they doubled-down by deliberately excluding any mention of Jews from the official statement on the day itself. One guess about which of their supporters Trump and Bannon were trying to appeal to with that slick move.
Meanwhile, he is openly flirting with a trade war that would damage the entire world economy, including ours, yet with no apparent purpose or endgame in mind. After telling us that he knows “much more” than the generals, his “secret plan” for dealing with the Islamic State turns out to be “ask the Defense Department to come up with one,” as if nobody at the Pentagon had given any thought to the matter. Trump’s rash and ill-considered Muslim ban was a blunder here as well, as it will make Iraqis even more reluctant to cooperate with us, and they’re the ones who are currently fighting and dying to drive the Islamic State from the cities it still controls.