In the 1990s, Americans had not yet experienced the downside of having a foreign-policy elite that faced no rival superpower. The first Gulf War was perceived as a glowing success, the five-day victory with precision air strikes and few American casualties heralding what neoconservatives rushed to herald as “the unipolar moment,” or “benevolent global hegemony.” It was followed by a relatively costless (to Americans) conflict with Serbia. For the past 15 years, however, the United States has engaged in seemingly permanent and unwinnable wars—the ground troops supplied largely by the white working class—in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Trump’s sallies against the folly of military intervention thus resonate far more than Buchanan’s ever could. Trump’s foreign-policy assertions may have been all over the map, but he is plainly less biased in favor of military intervention than Hillary Clinton. Recent American policies—the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi, for instance—reinforce another of Trump’s arguments: intervention unleashes waves of non-Western refugees. As Trump advisor Stephen Miller put it, “Hillary’s platform is, I want to start wars in the Middle East, and then import all the refugees into the United States without knowing who they are.” In the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the Cologne sexual assaults, with the endless columns of refugees now trying to enter Europe perhaps the most dramatic visual news story of the past year, this is a powerful argument.
It is unlikely that Donald Trump believes with certainty that negotiating better trade deals, or slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, will be a panacea for the American economy or that building a wall will ensure an immigration policy that broadly benefits our citizens. But variants of these two policies, protectionism and immigration restriction, have been tried before and succeeded. America experienced its greatest era of industrial growth behind protective tariffs; its extraordinary success in assimilating a huge and diverse group of immigrants was accomplished only after the restrictive legislation of the 1920s. It would be peculiar indeed, after a generation of middle- and working-class income stagnation and growing inequality, if such tried-and-true remedies could not even be considered because a bipartisan establishment opposed them. However surprising it might be that real-estate tycoon and promoter Donald Trump was the man who figured this out and acted successfully upon it, the truth remains that he did.