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The hilarious Trump orb photo is a nearly perfect metaphor for his foreign policy

Don’t worry, we explain what the orb literally is too.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There is one picture from Donald Trump’s trip to the Middle East that has come to stand in for the entire thing. It is a photo of Trump, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi holding a creepy glowing orb in a darkened room in Saudi Arabia.

When the picture came out on Sunday, it blew up on social media with the obvious pop-culture references. The obviously correct one, for my money, is the palantír from Lord of the Rings.

(Knaakvey/New Line Cinema)

But what’s actually going on here?

Trump was attending the opening of Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, a new organization dedicated to monitoring propaganda from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and similar groups. The opening was attended by more than 50 Muslim heads of state from around the world, some of whom can be seen in the background of the photo.

The Saudi royal family is well known for its opulent tastes and love of theatrics: They literally projected Trump’s face on the hotel he stayed at in Riyadh.

So having Trump, Sisi, and Salman simultaneously press their hands against the glowing orb — which, if you look closely, is a globe — was just their characteristically flashy way of officially declaring the new center open for business. According to the Saudi press, their hands on the globe “officially activated” the center.

Which, okay, fine — it was just a dumb PR stunt. We get it. But the symbolism here is really remarkable.

Think about it for a second: This is Donald Trump — the guy who campaigned on banning Muslim immigration to the United States and replacing “globalism” in foreign policy with “America First” — literally holding a globe surrounded by Muslims. That’s absurd!

Absurd, yes — but also telling. As much as Trump has been himself when it comes to his never-ending scandals, his actual foreign policy has so far constituted a complete and total reversal of his campaign promises. It’s hard to think of a more potent metaphor for this than what we saw in that photo.

Trump the globalist

At the same event in which Trump held the palantír — er, globe — he delivered a speech to the assembled leaders about Islamic extremism. What’s striking, as my colleague Sarah Wildman notes, is that the speech was utterly and totally banal.

"This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” the president said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”

These are things that have easily could have been said by Barack Obama or George W. Bush — pretty standard “Islam is not the problem, extremists are” type comments. By contrast, the Donald Trump we saw on the campaign:

  • Said “I think Islam hates us” in an interview with Anderson Cooper;
  • Told a fake story about a US general executing 50 Muslim prisoners in the Philippines using bullets dipped in pig’s blood, citing it as inspiration for how he wants to deal with prisoners; and
  • Blamed “political correctness” for blocking Americans from telling the truth about “the hateful ideology of radical Islam.”

That candidate Trump bore approximately zero resemblance to the President Trump we saw in Saudi Arabia. The Muslim ban, the clearest point of continuity between candidate Trump and President Trump on Islam, is currently being blocked in court — and wasn’t mentioned at all publicly, by either the president or the other attendees. It was as if Trump was a normal American president, one who had never spoken of Islam and Muslims in harsh terms, attending a typical counter-extremism event with American partners.

Nor is Islam the only issue on which the president’s foreign policy has ceased to resemble what he promised on the campaign.

The core thing that distinguished Trump from his enemies in the establishment, according to candidate Trump, was his skepticism of so-called “globalism.” That word, a pejorative favorite of the alt-right, referred to the elite consensus in favor of an active US presence in global affairs: membership in international institutions like NATO and the UN, open trade policies, intervention in foreign conflicts, and the like.

“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” Trump said in his first major foreign policy address last April. “The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down and will never enter.”

Trump had a series of ideas for how to enact this. He proposed, at various times, ending America’s ironclad commitment to defending its NATO allies, labeling China a currency manipulator (a term which would be accompanied by trade sanctions), opening up to partnership with Russia, and staying out of Middle East quagmires unless they involve killing terrorists. So far, he has reversed himself on most of these proposals:

  • On NATO, he explicitly reversed himself in an April press conference: "I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.”
  • On China, he backed off entirely in an April interview, saying "They're not currency manipulators.”
  • He has failed to remove any sanctions on Russia imposed after the invasion of Crimea or meaningfully alter America’s stance toward Moscow in any other respect.
  • He intentionally bombed Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria for the first time in punishment for chemical weapons use — a more aggressive intervention against Assad than anything Obama was willing to do.

A few of Trump’s campaign ideas have made it through to his presidency, like the Muslim ban and a commitment to renegotiating NAFTA (albeit in toned-down form). But right now, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

On the big, basic, defining issues of American foreign policy — alliances and relations with great powers — Trump has basically committed himself to the “globalist” stance of every other post-Cold War US president. There is no radical, sharp break in basic foreign policy orientation, which is what Trump explicitly promised.

That’s why Trump holding a glowing globe while surrounded by Muslim leaders is such a potent symbol.

It’s not just that the orb is hilarious. It’s that it’s a perfect stand-in for President Trump’s betrayal of candidate Trump.

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