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Ten days into the previously unthinkable Trump administration, the outlines of a conceptual framework through which to view the new American president’s political philosophy are beginning to emerge amid the fog of confusion and perpetual avalanche of tweets.
We can safely conclude that Donald Trump is not a realist, after a week that began with the new president of the United States casting doubt on the flawed US electoral system that propelled him to the White House before doubling down on his post-truth fixation on inauguration crowd size, then handing Asia to China by killing the Trans Pacific Partnership, causing a major rift with Mexico over his proposed border wall, tactically re-casting American journalism as an enemy of the government and finally unleashing an international crisis over immigration and refugee policy.
Trump’s embrace of Henry Kissinger, the 20th century’s second-most famous realist after Hans Morgenthau, can’t be interpreted as an espousal of realism any more than his consultations with Kanye West can be interpreted as an indictment of “big-ass striped scarves” or anything else he does or says can be interpreted as an indication of anything else he might say, do or believe.
And we know Trump is not an idealist or small “l” liberal in international relations theory terms because he has given no indication that he fundamentally believes that the destructive potential of nations to thwart progress in human events can be mitigated by a rules-based international order.
“The world is a total mess,” Trump observed last week in an interview with ABC’s David Muir before making it seem like he actually meant that as a compliment by igniting massive domestic and international backlashes after obliterating more than a century of U.S. immigration policy with an effective ban on Muslims entering the country from a blacklist of seven nations.
Both realism and liberalism, as the major schools of thought in international relations of the past century — as well as the sub-schools of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism — have been defined and differentiated based on how nations behave vis-à-vis their self-interest. But all are based on the assumption that, even when nations act in immediate mutual or collective interest, they are always still serving their longer-term self-interest.
Trump defies these classifications because, unless he believes that he lives in a different America, one that is not the world’s pre-eminent democracy, post-Cold War superpower and beacon of liberty and opportunity to the world’s oppressed and huddled masses, he doesn’t seem to actually be acting in its self-interest — short, medium or long-term.
His behavior with regards to the media, the electoral system, the truth, public discourse, trade, national security, diplomacy, governance and democracy generally would seem to not only defy existing theoretical categories but to demand the creation of an entirely new one in the realm of geopolitical comportment: perhaps “disruptive surrealism.”
(Since the closest precedent to Mr. Trump’s leadership style so far would be the relentlessly gobsmacking tenure of Neville Chamberlain in both the late-1930s British prime minister’s policy of appeasement and his incomprehensibly incompetent pre-ousting conduct of the phony war in a way that overwhelmingly served the interests of his geopolitical rivals as opposed to those of his own people, disruptive surrealism is a relatively generous label).
If we define disruptive surrealism as the proactive eschewing of truth, fact, reality, convention and history while actively undermining the reputation, credibility, moral authority, stability, security and — ultimately — power of one’s own country for purposes that defy all rational measures of national self-interest, then we have a handy conceptual prism through which to process Trump’s presidency.
Lisa Van Dusen, associate editor of Policy, was a Washington columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, Washington bureau chief for Sun Media and international news writer for Peter Jennings at ABC World News Tonight as well as an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Lisa_VanDusen