Conservative Neo-Imperialism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism

As for Trumpism vs. Bushism, one will be no less dependent on “populist nationalism” than the other, to whatever extent it is also successful: In a mass electoralist national system under popular sovereignty, the winner will always be the truest national populist, by definition, if not necessarily the purest national populist according to some external or merely intellectual standard.

What remains, then, is Trumpism. Which is also, in its lurching, sometimes insightful, often wicked way, a theory of what kind of party the Republicans should become, and one that a plurality of Republicans have now actually voted to embrace.

Ross Douthat
“The Defeat of True Conservatism”

The Republican coalition as an effectively neo-conservative coalition was able to bind itself together, or bind citizens to its project as constituents, in opposition to perceived external threats – militarism, fascism, communism, Islamism – that were mirror reverses of its precepts. For conservatives under the most politically effective articulation of their premises, American Idea and American Identity could be conjoined, with whichever war at whatever temperature serving to fuse otherwise contradictory ingredients, while melting away the rough edges of unresolved disagreements and irresolvable frustrations. Though the articulation is most readily identifiable as Reaganism, Reaganism can itself be seen, and is perhaps best understood, as a re-capitulation from the right both of and integrally within an inherited framework. Similarly, Reagan’s loyal progressive and so-called liberal1 adversaries could not stray too far from the same premises without losing their ability to compete and therefore to govern on the national level.

Referencing America’s first year of direct and open engagement in the Second World War, addressing the West Point graduating class, General George C. Marshall defined this simultaneously patriotic, traditionally liberal, and global neo-imperialist consensus: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.” In our time, the ascents first of Obamism and then of Trumpism, for all of their differences, share in common an attempt forced on American national leaders or their coalitions – on us – to define an alternative sufficient consensus, or popularly accessible binding or integrative force, or source of unifying collective will, of the type without which no nation-state can function as a nation-state.

Those differences between Obamist and Trumpist reactions to this moment or conjuncture are far from trivial, but are a subject for another discussion – perhaps of Progressive Withdrawalism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism. For present purposes – of understanding what has happened to American conservatism or so-called Movement Conservatism – we can observe that Obamism and Trumpism share a significant if inconsistent or not yet consistent divergence from an ideology or civic-religious idea of “Freedom.” Freedom for Americans in Marshall’s time, as for American “Constitutional Conservatives” at any time, referred to central precepts on the “universal” rights of human beings as individuals and the political and economic superstructures thought, and thought proven, to protect as well as to advance recognition of those rights as comprehended in the founding documents of the United States of America, and as re-transmitted, under American tutelage, in the founding documents of the post-war global order. Yet for Obamism as well as Trumpism, freedom on such terms no longer efficiently defines an identity or collective ego ideal as it were internally, but in multiple respects has become externalized as dangerous. In foreign policy any positive attempt to realize the classic American liberal ideal, especially through military force, is taken to produce hopeless, counterproductive, and immoral entanglements: as acute manifestation the failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom; in chronic form a world of evils to be avoided not least because proven insusceptible to the kind of “force” that may once have “overwhelmed” an enemy state, but that has limited utility or seemingly no utility at all against other types of resistance. In domestic or economic policy the so-called Washington Consensus, or “globalization,” was until recently a matter of epochal bi-partisan or mainstream consensus, in key respects re-producing or restoring elements of the old liberal economics: It is now held by many both inside and outside of mainstream and right or left reactionary camps to be responsible for inequality, insecurity, stagnant or declining prospects for the middle and lower classes, and ecologically as well as economically unsustainable levels of consumption: Acutely the 2008 Financial Crisis, otherwise the ills and uncertainties of financialization or “Financialized Neo-Liberalism.”

As for Trumpism vs. Bushism2, one will be no less dependent on “populist nationalism” than the other, to whatever extent it is also successful: In a mass electoralist national system under popular sovereignty, the winner will always be the truest national populist, by definition, if not necessarily the purest national populist according to some external or merely intellectual standard. Differences in presentation and personality between past and present candidates – between President George W Bush and Donald J Trump, as between Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton, as between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders – may also coincide with other differences between their platforms and coalitions, but what may matter more is that the People in 2016 seem no longer to believe the same things about the nation, its vital needs, and its illimitable possibilities that the People of 2004 still believed. 2004 may in that sense belong to a different era, a view which would place it historically in some ways closer not just to 2001, but to any year back at least to 1942, than to 2016.


  1. …or social liberal, or perhaps statist liberal. []
  2. This post originated as an expansion upon a tweet in reply to Daniel McCarthy, who identified “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” as a “Trumpian” element in George W Bush’s re-election:



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3 comments on “Conservative Neo-Imperialism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism

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  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea of Obama representing a philosophy of withdrawal when we’ve not actually seen significant withdrawal on the part of the US under him. He may have won in 2008 on the specific example of Iraq, but the actual existing president has long proven those who backed the candidate for that reason to be fools. There’s even still troops there!

    Re: military force as a tool of liberal ideals… I’d say that gives the advocates for it credit they don’t deserve, but even that would leave aside whether their motivation is even in good faith in favor of just assuming they’re incompetent or naive. There comes a time after someone keeps reaching a result that’s terrible for most people on the ground when it is safe to consider that was the plan all along.

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Noted & Quoted


Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic