Donald Trump’s State of The Union has yet again hammered the point home that US President is a political moderate within the context of American party politics. For one, the commitment to fiscal prudence, monetary conservatism, low taxation, de-regulation, free markets and a generally pro-trade policy which has defined Trump’s Republican party for decades, is squarely out the window when it comes to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is an unabashed protectionist, he’s fiscally liberal (aka spendthrift) in the extreme, even proudly declaring that he could outspend any other superpower in an arms race whilst saying nothing about balancing the budget or reducing America’s towering Federal budget deficit. For Trump, historically high levels of national debt is the rule and not the exception. Meanwhile, Trump seems to have contented himself with rather modest tax cuts, something too which was not entirely unheard of among the moderate Democrats of yesteryear.
In terms of foreign policy too, Donald Trump often sounds more like a moderate Democrat of the 1970s or early 1980s than a hawkish Republican, let alone the neocons that had dominated the Republican Party since at least the 1990s. During the State of The Union, Trump said the following about the wars in Syria and Afghanistan:
“Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.
As a candidate for President, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.
When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers.
Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.
I have also accelerated our negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan. Our troops have fought with unmatched valour — and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a political solution to this long and bloody conflict.
In Afghanistan, my Administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism. We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace”.
Thus, just as moderate to left leaning Democrats had by the 1970s, wanted to engage in what passed for a dignified withdrawal of US troops from south east Asia, so too does Trump aim to do the same in respect of both Syria and Afghanistan. In each case, his own party (with the vocal exception of libertarian leaning Rand Paul), as well as most contemporary Democrats are opposed to these attempts at pivoting the US away from more years of war in Afghanistan and Syria.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) February 5, 2019
Perhaps the biggest revelation of Donald Trump’s entire speech was his confirmation of a meeting with DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un later this month. Trump announced this to the world in the following way:
“As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. And Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam”.
Although Trump did mention the ongoing US attempts at hostile regime change in Venezuela, he devoted very little time to discussing the matter. Notably, while the official US position is that a military option to secure regime change in Caracas is still on the table, Trump did not reiterate this in his State of The Union. This further bolsters the thesis outlined in Eurasia Future, that while Trump very much has his heart in the Korean peace process and attempts to de-escalate the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, at a personal level he has little at stake in respect of Venezuela.
Instead, after effectively jettisoning his ultra-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton in the Korean peace process and largely sidelining him in Syria after his massive faux pas in Ankara that resulted in President Erdoğan refusing to meet with him – Trump has unleashed Bolton on Latin America – the consummate “backyard” for an historically pro-regime change US foreign policy.
Turning to domestic affairs, Trump’s trade war is straight out of the outdated and discredited AFL-CIO playbook. While today, many American union leaders understand that the nature of international supply chains means that free trade can preserve and create jobs, Trump remains mired in the old fashioned attitude that taxing foreign goods through the regressive taxation on importers and consumers known as tariffs, is somehow good for jobs. This was a point that Trump was all too willing to hammer home in the style of a Democrat from several decades ago.
Of course, when it comes to his remarks on illegal aliens and abortion, Trump is very much part of the post-1970s Republican tradition, but it further helps to remember that until the 1980s, neither of these issues were as stridently partisan as they have become in subsequent decades.
The proper conclusion to therefore draw is that while no US leader in the 20th century truly exercised a non-interventionist foreign policy, in terms of the domestic optics of US politics, Trump is not the extremist he is made out to be. Even by the policy standards of his own right leaning party, he is often far more moderate than his more politically experienced colleagues.
Therefore, the best way to describe Trump is as a moderate with extremist characteristics. He likes to shock the system, but due to his middle of the road policies, it is more often than not the system that is shocking him.
One must of course remember that a State of The Union speech is largely rhetoric and that specific action steps to follow often deviate from the intentions of any given president. But since the State of The Union is all about rhetoric, it cannot be ignored that Trump’s rhetoric last night was as middle of the road as a highway divider.