28 February 2016
Trump's conservative foreign policy
Who ever expected to hear a Republican saying the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Iraq, or with Khadafy still in power in Libya? Of course, a lot of Republicans don't feel that Donald Trump is really one of them, and statements like the one he made at the most recent presidential primary debate are among the reasons why. But if Trump's status as a real Republican, whatever that means, remains in dispute, it's increasingly clear who the real conservative is, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Trump is always careful to emphasize that dictators like Saddam and Khadafy were very bad men, but as he said at the debate, "At least they killed terrorists." This suggests that Trump has an appreciation for order that many more credentialed Republicans have lost. In fact, conservatives and neoconservatives have two quite different notions of "order." Trump is trying to say that, despite their occasional international mischief, the two dictators brought a kind of stability, however cruel, to their countries. By comparison, neocons and sometimes-sympathetic liberals like President Obama refuse to acknowledge dictatorship as a form of order. They consider dictatorships inherently unstable, both because dictators supposedly know no limits to their lust for power and because dictatorship by its nature provokes rebellion. It's this line of thinking that holds Bashar al-Assad, another very bad man, responsible for all the carnage in Syria because of his violent intolerance of even peaceful dissent. The responsibility is his, so the thinking goes, because his people have a right to rebel against his repressive government. There can be no real order, so the thinking continues, without liberty, preferably "ordered liberty" constrained by a rule of law, respect for individual liberty, a pre-existing moral code, etc. Conservatives of the more distant past, especially outside the U.S. would not have taken such notions seriously. For them, order was an end unto itself, equivalent to peace, while those who cried Liberty were dangerous theoretical radicals. Going further back, the monotheist tradition offers plenty of admonitions recommending obedience or submission to rulers regardless of their religion. The Jeffersonian idea that people had a natural right to rebel when other natural rights were denied would have been incomprehensible or absurd to the conservatives of his epoch, who probably were far less impressed by appeals to "nature" than people are today. For them, there could quite easily be order without liberty, and "order" didn't have the vaguely pejorative quality it has for many thinkers today. So is Donald Trump saying that people have a duty to submit to their rulers, regardless of their abuses of power? Probably not, but he does seem to have learned from recent history, unlike his presumably more learned rivals, that to invoke a natural law of rebellion inflexibly, to say that rebellion is always the best option against any tyrant, can result in more trouble than rebellion was meant to solve -- especially when outsiders try to tip the scales in favor of rebellion, whether on abstract principle or for reasons of their own. Trump may have some unrealistic notions of his own when it comes to foreign relations, but sometimes you can see, however slightly, why so many people hope an outsider will contribute common sense to politics.