In a polarized era, we expect party politicians, including the president, to try to advance the interests of their party, sometimes even against what appears to be the interests of the nation. But lately, particularly in last week’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change, it looks like the Trump administration is pressing issues that are nationally unpopular and also make the Republican Party look worse. Why would Trump, or any other party politician, do such a thing?
It’s possible to depict this behavior as reckless, random, or motivated by pique, but there’s more going on here. The simple fact is that parties, especially American parties, are not unitary actors, even in an era of considerable polarization. Any party contains multiple factions competing for power and influence at any given time.
As Heather Hurlburt wrote at National Interest last week, two major schools of thought are currently battling over America’s foreign policy. One is a larger, more traditional belief (“Team Interdependence,” in Hurlburt’s description) that international collaboration, at least on some issues, is good for the nation and may improve the human condition over the long run. The other is a somewhat smaller coalition (“Team No Entanglements”) that sees basically any international agreement as inherently hostile to American interests and even contrary to the Constitution. In this latter view, the US is simply the strongest power in the world, and any agreement with another country axiomatically reduces that power.
While the latter school claims fewer adherents, it is currently in a very powerful position. It achieved it the way ideological factions often have in the past — by seizing control of a major party’s nomination process.
Key figures in this team — including but not limited to people like Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon — helped to mold the notably malleable views of Donald Trump prior to his run for the presidency. By the time he was ready to run, he was committed to a worldview that immigration was basically bad, that international treaties were inherently suspect, and that any agreement we had with another nation was probably screwing the US. This view wasn’t taken terribly seriously by many experienced political observers, but then again, neither was Trump.
Now he’s in the Oval Office, and, at least on issues that don’t require congressional approval, Team No Entanglements possesses a great deal of influence over the functioning of American foreign policy. And there’s no real reason to believe that the issues they advance will be popular among the American people or even among most Republicans.
British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote an important essay about imperialism that has useful lessons about our understanding of political parties. As he wrote:
The annual cost to Germany of administering the Cameroons was five times as great as her total trade with the colony, and much the same applied to other countries. ... In almost every case, European countries spent a great deal of money in acquiring colonies which proved of little economic value.
These arguments, though true, are also irrelevant. They treat European countries as communities in which policies were conducted for the benefit of all, much as companies are conducted, or supposed to be, for the benefit of the shareholders. This was not so. Benefit went to the few who determined policy and shaped public opinion; it was of no concern to them that this was achieved at great loss to the many. ... [W]hen we are told that imperialism was not profitable, we can reply “It was to the imperialists.”
Parties are defined by policy demanders — people who want to move the government in one direction or another. Some of those activists will be mindful of the party’s long-term reputation and the importance of electability in future elections. Others recognize that no matter how they behave in office, all power is fleeting, and they’d best act on advantages while they have them. The team surrounding Trump is clearly in the latter camp.
(h/t Jennifer Victor)