Donald Trump officially removed the US from the United Nation’s Human Rights Council on Tuesday, a partial response to the Council’s views on border separations and in response to the Council blasting into the US on negotiations with North Korea. Democrats expectantly took aim for partisan gain but the move fits within a much larger pattern with Trump. For the first time since the 1950’s, a GOP President is returning the GOP to its roots on foreign policy.
Trump is reigniting a divide within the GOP that has not been seen since the 1950s. The battle was largely settled in the GOP President Primary of 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Senate GOP Leader Robert Taft, who championed an America First nationalism and isolationism pre-WWI.
Eisenhower’s victory has had long-term consequences for the GOP. For the last five decades every GOP President has followed the lead of pursuing a strong and vigorous role for the US in leading a robust and systemic system of alliances, both economic and diplomatic. Militarily, the GOP is now part of over a dozen alliances and is now involved in more conflicts globally than ever. Even George Bush, who campaigned on a soft foreign policy, bowed to this reality in the party.
But cracks also appeared in the party under Bush, starting with his campaign in 2000 running on a humble foreign policy and at the end of his tenure with disillusionment with the Iraq War and the explosion of blue-collar whites entering the party who tend not to view foreign alliances and globalization as good things. Trump, in his Presidential campaign, exploited these divisions and ran on challenging the conventional wisdom in the GOP. During the campaign he openly criticized Bush over the Iraq War, took aim at the UN and promised to raze the US international order. Now, he is making good on the promise.
Recognizing Trump has the hearts and minds of the GOP faithful, the Never Trumpers, the Marco Rubio’s of the party, have all been strangely silent as Trump has bowed the party to his views. In a rematch of Taft vs. Eisenhowever, Eisenhower has definitively lost and while Eisenhower still has more of an ideological faithful in elected ranks, Taft might so thoroughly burn the house down in his tenure in office it might not matter.
Much then, as now, the party’s struggle over the its foreign policy direction reflects the divergent views of the party’s electoral coalitions. Then, the GOP’s business wing was supportive of international trade and alliances to foster profit and markets. But the GOP’s down-scale wings, farmers and Western rural areas, were skeptical of the benefits and costs of such foreign entanglements. Indeed, if not for FDR, the US might never have entered WWII.
The isolationists in the GOP mightily resisted international security alliances. But, they were outweighed by the suburban and managerial wing of the GOP and watched their nominees of the 1940’s basically echo the assertive foreign policies of elected Democrats. No matter what they did, their candidates could not break through. In 1952, the sea seemed to part and Taft had a shot. A skeptic of international agreements and the creation of NATO, Taft only begrudgingly supported the Marshall Plan. Eisenhower was the internationalists choice in the party, and despite toying with running on the Democratic ticket decided to run as a Republican after Taft refused to commit to guarantee US security for Western Europe through NATO.
As mentioned above, these divergent views reflected the preferences of the party faithful. In the Midwest and West, isolationism and limited foreign entanglements dominated. Many of these Republicans were farmers, ranchers and small business owners who saw little benefit. Meanwhile, among Eastern suburban Republicans and dominant business interests, the idea of globalization and foreign alliances appealed.
Today, those different views are somewhat reflected in the GOP today, with multi-national business interests and suburban, up-scale Republicans advocating for defending the global order. But now, more so than ever, the principle divide in the GOP is demographic. Trump’s pre 1950’s foreign policy views resonate with his core constituency of voters without a college degree while college educated Republicans, are generally skeptical but supportive of the global international order.
Perhaps taking their cue from Trump, both college and non-college educated Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to say NATO was essential and globalization was a good thing. Republicans were also more likely to say US security alliances benefited Europe more than America. Unsurprisingly, Democrats of all stripes were more likely to say immigration was a good thing.
Adapting to this new, albeit perhaps temporary reality has been difficult for the more internationalist wing of the party. Some younger Republicans, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have largely decided to wait out Trump. Others, like John McCain, have taken to criticizing the President at every turn. Indeed, McCain was one of the few who went after Trump at the G-7 Meeting when he questioned the cost of NATO, urged Russia’s reinstatement to the group and lashed out at the trading practices of Canada and the EU. The leaders of the Congressional GOP, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have taken to working to undermine any efforts to limit Trump’s powers on tariffs and immigration.
For internationalist Republicans there is hope the party will reject Trump’s views on foreign policy. Many younger, elected Republicans share the mindset of a robust, international order. There is also an institutional order of think-tanks supporting a robust foreign policy while relatively few support Trump’s Taft era policies. But for internationalists the danger may be more demographic than electoral as more blue-collar whites join the party and more college educated voters leave it.
There is also the question of what happens to the GOP as many of the leading thinkers of the time, the fabled neo-cons, who migrated from the Democrats over Civil Rights and the party’s less firm stance against the USSR and Communism, pass away and their successors focus less on foreign policy. Indeed, while Eisenhower got the GOP moving towards a robust international order it was also due to Nixon and one of the ways he managed to win the White House (and reelection).
Even some of the most revered Republicans, like Reagan, he campaigned as hawks, had their moderate moments. Reagan stepped out of his comfort zone and ignored internationalists when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement was established, creating the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was concluded in 1991. Of course, Reagan also stood tall for NATO in a way Trump never has and probably never will.
Ultimately, the greatest legacy Trump’s Presidency might have for the GOP and the US might not be all the conservative judges he appoints to the courts, the electoral wipeout/s he might preside over, but rather the ushering in of a new era of foreign policy thought into the GOP and avenging Robert Taft’s loss, all those years ago, in 1952.