These are confusing times to be a self-described “true believer” in Donald Trump and Trumpism. Trump’s most passionate supporters might not have yet lost faith in their redeemer, but he seems to have lost faith in them.
As White House strategist Steve Bannon appears to be losing ground in his ill-conceived, public war with Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, his position in the administration is increasingly tenuous. Evidence that Trump’s chief strategist is losing his power to set presidential strategy came in the form of 59 Tomahawk missiles that struck targets in Syria last Thursday night. Bannon reportedly tried to argue against executing those strikes in defense of the norm prohibiting the use of WMD and in retaliation for the massacre of Syrian civilians. He lost that argument.
The strikes on Syria appear to have sent Trump fans who thought he would pursue a semi-isolationist foreign policy into a state of existential dread. The president’s biggest boosters on the populist nationalist right are livid over this display of American military power in pursuit of recognizable and even traditional U.S. geopolitical objectives. Bannon’s diminished stature and Donald Trump’s embrace of interventionism in the Syrian conflict may represent a welcome pivot to political realities and away from the naïve idealism that typifies “Fortress America” advocacy, but it has also inaugurated a communications crisis inside the White House.
The president’s first 100 days in office are almost up, and the West Wing is reportedly growing panicky about the lack of tangible progress within this usually energetic period for young administrations. Even before last week’s cruise-missile strikes targeting the Assad regime, the administration’s confused approach to foreign affairs has caused headaches for the president’s communications staffers.
“There is no Trump doctrine,” said Communications Director Mike Dubke, according to Politico’s Shane Goldmacher amid a meeting of officials involved in the “rebranding” of the Trump presidency. This statement of objective fact appeared to panic the “true believers” who already feel the floor beneath them buckling. “He was elected on a vision of America First,” said one irritated White House official in the room. “America First is the Trump doctrine.” Another official explained with palpable frustration that the president’s communications team didn’t understand the administration for which they worked.
This display of self-consciousness by pro-Trump nationalists is fitting. Their efforts to retrofit a compelling rationale onto whatever Trump felt like saying in the moment, often before adoring crowds that dictated the tempo and content of the president’s campaign-trail speeches, was always a fraught prospect. They deserve the terror that’s now gripping them. Yet, in their anxiety, Trump’s “Originals” have created a set of conditions that no president should be expected to meet. Of course, there is no such thing as the “Trump doctrine.” It’s day 80.
A president’s “foreign-policy doctrine” is a thing that becomes transcendentally relevant only in hindsight. Doctrines are evolutionary. They form organically and over the course of years, often in response to very specific challenges from a unique set of threats to American national interests. Presidencies that believe they can fabricate a doctrine from whole cloth on day one usually find that their plan doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy.
The Trump administration’s doctrine, to the extent it exists, is to be the anti-Obama administration. The Obama administration entered office with no grander objective than not being the Bush administration. And so on. Clearly defined doctrines, like those associated with George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and James Monroe, were formed amid defining crises. Presidents who eschew doctrine-setting like President Obama (the 44th President famously said his doctrine was “not going to be as doctrinaire” as Bush’s, because blanket approaches to complex foreign-policy matters were often overly simplistic) end up having a doctrine imposed on them.
Fuming over the constant criticism of his approach to foreign affairs, by June of 2014, Obama and his aides reportedly dubbed their approach to geopolitics “don’t do stupid s**t.” This petulant response to valid critiques—arrived at only after Russia invaded Ukraine, China inaugurated a crisis in the South China Sea, and a terrorist state the size of Great Britain burst out of the cadaverous Sykes-Picot agreement—was never a doctrine but a tantrum.
Doctrines are forward-looking and prescriptive. This is retrospective; no one can say for sure what constitutes “stupid s**t” until the effects of a particular action are known. In truth, the Obama administration applied an ideological litmus test to every foreign-policy decision from day one. Obama’s doctrine was progressive internationalism of the kind that would strike the starkest possible contrast with his predecessor. In seeking to distinguish himself from Obama on foreign-policy matters, Trump appears to be reacting to events non-dogmatically. That’s not a doctrine, and it doesn’t need to be.
Doctrines develop out of crises, and Donald Trump will not be the first American president in history to avoid confronting an international crisis. There should not be any panic over the lack of a presidential doctrine within the first 100 days of a presidency, and there wouldn’t be if people in this White House hadn’t campaigned on a myth. “Fortress America” is an impossible objective. The growing pains associated with giving up on “America First” may be uncomfortable, but they do nevertheless represent growth.