There can be little doubt that President Donald Trump has appeal. From his electoral victory to his roaring rallies and his social media following, it is an objective fact that a sizable portion of the US population (if even only a minority) finds him appealing. This appeal is often ineffable to his followers and a source of constant frustration to his enemies. His tendency to buck the status quo is often cited by his supporters as a virtue and by his opponents as a vice. Regardless of where one stands, there is little to doubt that Trump has entered into the American political theater and on the world stage as a disrupter.
Every week, each day, and every issue seems to lie before him like a blank canvas. Then Trump ever the political artist begins to create ex nihilo and what results often looks more like Pollock than Pissarro. In an environment where the status quo is maligned and convention is seen as corrupt Trump’s detachment from the bonds of the protocol are at the root of his appeal.
He deftly channels this domestic disenchantment into American foreign policy. Whether addressing immigration, trade, tariffs, or terror, every outward facing policy has an echo back into the disgruntled American heartland. And the only consistent theme and message that reoccurs is that, what has been is not necessarily what has to be. This is the foundation of “America First” which begins by unhinging of American foreign policy from the past. Regardless of what past administrations have done, regardless of what past presidents have said, Trump seems willing to see policy and the present in isolation from history. His attitude could best be described as, “devil-may-care,” (an idiom which in its entirety states, “The devil may care, but I do not.”)
Trump’s “America First” stance translates into both renewed economic protectionism at home and the frequent willingness to distance America from its geopolitical allies abroad. On the protectionist front, this month Trump moved to enact tariffs on steel and aluminum produced and exported by European and North American Allies. These tariffs and the increased potential for a trade war represents an an economic isolationism on the part of the United States not seen since before World War II. This isolationism is not only economic, it is geopolitical, as Trump has distanced the US from its allies and alliances. The two greatest examples being his withdrawals from the Paris Climate Accord and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran Deal. Trump even seems willing to ignore long standing protocol regarding North Korea which has led to an on-again-off-again summit, the occurrence and outcome of which is all but uncertain.
This tendency of Trump, to ignore the past and rely on instinct, is his trademark. As Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Meacham has observed, “Trump does not believe in the power of the past to inform.” This apparent disregard for history is appealing on a much deeper level than we realize. While most of us read these headline and see policy and politics; but beneath the headlines the source of his appeal is rooted in our human nature.
The Importance of History
History stalks us all. Everyone from presidents to prisoners has the desire to be free from the shackles and limitations of the past. The guilt of misdeeds and the ramifications of our mistakes as a nation linger long after they are done. The wrongs of slavery and injustice, of institutional racism and international failures haunt the hopes of America’s future. These memories weigh us down and often hold us back as a nation and as individuals. The past is never neutral in our lives. Try as we might, many of us are powerless against its charge. We long to be free, and are willing do what we can to forget what we cannot forgive.
The freedom that awaits us however is not in the disregarding the past, but in triumphing over it and in light of it. This triumph is the message of grace in the gospel of Christianity. In Christ our past is not erased, rather it is overcome. God assesses your past, accounts for your weaknesses, and offers you Christ in a gracious act of sacrifice wherein His righteousness replaces your flaws. Your future hope is rooted in his past work. In this new unique paradigm, your history then serves to inform your present. Jesus Christ will for all eternity bear the scars of history to serve as a reminder that the present and future were purchased at great cost. We are no longer bound by our history, but we are damned if we ignore it.
This is an axiom, as true for foreign policy as it is for our faith. We may not be bound by history, but we are damned if we ignore it. The root of conservatism is the tendency to see value in traditions not as ends unto themselves but as visible reminders of the sacrifices of those who have gone before. The present, whether economic partnerships or strategic alliances was purchased at great cost and is dismissed at great peril.
Tale As Old as Time
The type of isolationism we should fear is not necessarily economic or geopolitical, although “America First” is not without its risks. The type of isolation we should fear is chronological. We can not afford as a nation to make decisions in ignorance of the past and in indifference to the future. To live and decide “in the now” may feel instinctive, it may feel good, but it is a temptation as old as humankind itself. The serpent’s plea to Adam and Eve in the garden was not to promise a better future, it was a plea to disregard the past. And in that isolated moment in pre-time, quite literally the devil did care, but Adam did not. No doubt all of us have had similar moments in our lives; but few, in hindsight, would claim those moments as our finest.
The temptation to disrupt is strong; the appeal of disruption is ever-present; so to are the consequences for those who act in ignorance of what history teaches. We can not be blamed, as a nation, for rejecting the idea of history being our guard; but we would be foolish if we refuse to let it be our guide.