American Candidates Abroad

It is difficult to imagine a better day on the campaign trail for Donald Trump than August 31, 2016. Future historians will recall it as the day when a skeptical American public saw a palpable contrast between the real Trump and the cartoon image—not even drawn but merely “phoned in”— by a tired and arrogant Hillary Clinton campaign. Clinton is apparently so confident in her quasi-inherited right to the Presidency, that she is now operating on auto-pilot—having not submitted to a presser, CNN notes, since before David Bowie died.

Future historians will also recall this as the moment when Trump’s status as “shrewd negotiator” was elevated over and against the silly shrieking of “madman” and “loose canon” from his detractors. Trump demonstrated that he knows the difference between playing in the mud with a “journalist” or a rival candidate (all “show”) and conducting actual business—even if his detractors do not. Trump arrived in Mexico upon the invitation of Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto,  and he displayed in their joint press conference the qualities of an American statesman, in that he showed great respect for his hosts but an even greater love for his own people. He was dominant.

Note the way Trump speaks both with candor and with warmth to the Mexican people; and not just about American interests but about our common interests. He does not speak in platitudes with an appeal to some amorphous principle of our common brotherhood when he is speaking merely about working out interests in an international negotiation. It’s not about advancing some cause bigger than ourselves.  He doesn’t have that kind of hubris, thank God.

This is about our respective national interests and whether we may have some in common so we can work out a deal. He gives Mexicans their due respect, and he is clear-eyed about what necessity dictates Mexico achieve from negotiation. But he reserves his love for his own people. He does not insult Mexicans by repeating bromides and pretending to care for their welfare more than he does. Nor does he insult his own people by equating his concern for Mexico’s well-being with his love for America. Armed with that love, he is there as a firm representative of American interests and he does not ask permission or beg forgiveness for asserting them. On the other hand, he invites Mexico to consider the ways in which their particular interests are advanced by promoting or, at least, by not interfering with American interests.  And he encourages them to consider the ways that good fences often have the counter-intuitive effect of making people better neighbors because they reduce so many of the stress points that bring misunderstanding, tension, and conflict.

Consider:  Who, besides the United States, suffers as the result of our porous southern border? That’s right. Mexico does. Their illegal immigration problem is at least as bad as ours and it is made worse by our lackadaisical enforcement of our border. Their policy of shuttling non-Mexican immigrants through their country to cross into ours makes sense for them as things stand now. As long as we are not serious, Mexico will be subject to waves of people coming at them from Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as they seek a way into the United States.

Often, these desperate people end up as pawns in the service of enriching criminals and cartels which corrupt and distort Mexican politics as they promote violence, drugs, human trafficking, and gun running. Our open border is like a giant green light to criminals everywhere:  “Come here!  It’s a free-for-all.” Why wouldn’t all honest and decent Mexican people want to help put a stop to a temptation that is causing so much misery in their own country?

On to trade. Trump—showing a real understanding of the thinking behind the Monroe Doctrine—noted our common interests as leading powers in the western hemisphere. A decades old trade deal like NAFTA that promised to promote our mutual national interests actually may be working against our common and long-term prosperity and security today. Why? Because a weakened and less prosperous United States is bad for everybody who values freedom in this hemisphere.

Specifically, as the logic of globalization spreads, Mexico finds itself competing with countries like China and Vietnam for industry. This, when combined with Mexico’s own internal problems of corruption, have assured that the prediction accompanying NAFTA of a prosperous and self-reliant Mexico slowing the flow of illegal immigration to the United States, would never materialize. Someone, somewhere will always do things cheaper, if they don’t always do them better.

Trump is not saying that the U.S. and Mexico should close ourselves off from trading with each other or from trading with the rest of the world. But he is saying that we need to be smart about it and to consider that there are more important things at stake in such negotiations than the ledgers of crony firms looking to maximize their profits. Trade is good and it is important for our prosperity. Competition and the profit motive are good ways to promote honesty—at home and between brothers. Abroad and between strangers?  Well, it’s complicated.

Trade should not be restricted for the sake of powerful interests seeking to escape the natural effects of legitimate competition. But neither should it be advanced for the sake of cronies. Cronyism can go either way. Trade should be negotiated to work in ways that are consistent with our national interest and it should, above all things, maximize the freedom and prosperity of Americans, first. Mexico, naturally, will think of Mexico first. But Trump is shrewdly reminding Mexico that they need to understand that Mexican interests dictate that the U.S.  stick to the position of top dog in the western hemisphere. That is, if Mexico thinks they think they can step up and secure the safety and prosperity of the hemisphere over and against us—good luck to them.

From there, Trump went on to Phoenix to deliver his much-anticipated immigration policy address—and, yes, campaign rally. There was no backing down from advancing American interests as doubters gleefully speculated would come after an unfortunate interview last week with Sean Hannity. (Or was it scripted? One always wonders since his “foibles” seem always to have a way of building his audience and earning him free media coverage.)

I will leave it to others to dissect the speech which, of course, I thought was excellent.  I especially liked his strong remarks about the importance of assimilation—a concept which,  I have often noted, it would be well for many native-born Americans to consider contemplating and perfecting.

By way of contrast to this fine showing from Trump yesterday, let us consider the last time an American presidential candidate who was not (yet) a sitting president went abroad—let’s be frank—to advance his campaign. Those who recall Barack Obama’s famous speech in Berlin, will also recall that it did help his campaign. There he described a vision (or was it an hallucination) of American diplomacy that was directed less toward our own interests and more toward the interests (as he saw them) of the world.

Recall. Obama’s opening lines were:

I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before. Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world. [emphasis mine]

But what does it mean to be a citizen of the world? Here Obama seems to imply that there is such a thing as dual citizenship in one’s own country and in the larger world. But citizenship is necessarily exclusionary by nature. It says who you are and who you are not. It announces where your loyalties lie, and where they don’t. Again, how is it possible to be a citizen of the world while also being an American? The answer may depend on how you define “the world” to say nothing of how you define “American.”

Obama’s notion of “the world” is wrapped up in his progressive vision of the end of history and of politics. Most questions are settled questions in Obama’s mind. There can be no legitimate disagreements about things because “the science is settled” or history has chosen its side and he has chosen history’s side. Unlike retrogrades who still squawk about things like consent of the governed and the limits on government, Obama seems to suggest there is nothing advancing the interests of “the world” that could betray American national interests. He is not counseling respect (seasoned with healthy suspicion) of our neighbors. Instead, he is asking us to consider that our neighbors are us and must be considered in exactly the same relation as we consider our American brothers. They are us and we are them. Our quaint and peculiar interests are nothing next to that. And who are we to stand in the way of progress? With what? Mere opinions and interests? What do we think this is? Politics?

While progressives laughed with derisive contempt for George W. Bush when he spoke of America’s need to advance freedom because freedom is the “desire of every human heart” they simultaneously argued that their guy’s smug self-assurance that he knew what the world needed would be different. Bush’s certainty that the Middle East wanted American style democracy was laughable, but not for the reasons progressives mocked it.  As we came to find out, the common sin the two men shared was a lack of respect for politics and the persuasion it takes to conduct it.

Bush thought God took care of it by making human nature yearn for freedom and that being elected President made him “the Decider.” Obama credited his own wisdom in being on “the right side of history” and, in like manner to Bush, noted that he “won” when he was challenged by Congress. They were flip sides of the same tarnished coin. Neither of them has a clue about what American politics is. In America the people are sovereign and no one “decides” anything without first convincing them.

In 2008, after almost a decade of war in the middle east, who didn’t want to believe the siren song that we could shirk our responsibilities there and go back to the status quo ante? Who didn’t feel tempted to sing an ode to the wonders of standing by passively as the “brotherhood of mankind” worked its magic against the evil tide of hatred directed at everything we held dear?  We wanted peace, and we didn’t care if we got it with honor or—as it has worked out—with actual peace. We just wanted out. So Obama began his apology tour in Berlin, and we waited. We are still waiting.

Obama’s faith in the “brotherhood of mankind” and in the utility of tearing down all walls has now proven itself to be as silly and as dangerous as Chamberlain’s trust in Hitler. Tearing down walls only works when the walls are separating actual brothers who rightly ought to be together sharing common interests and pursuing a common good. The rest of the time a decent wall serves to keep good neighbors acting with respect and to keep the barbarians from coming in.

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About Julie Ponzi

Julie Ponzi is Senior Editor of American Greatness. She holds an M.A. in political philosophy and American politics from the Claremont Graduate University. She was an Earhart Fellow and a Bradley Foundation Fellow while studying at Claremont and also earned a Publius Fellowship from The Claremont Institute. Formerly the Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute, she also taught American politics at Azusa Pacific University. Her writing has appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, The Online Library of Law and Liberty, The Columbus Dispatch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Times. She was also a regular and long-time contributor to the Ashbrook Center's blog, No Left Turns. She lives in California. You can follow her on Twitter at @JuliePonzi