President Trump has performed a service of sorts to our debate over how the United States views itself and its role in the world. He has reminded the democratic left and the democratic right —note the small “d”—that they share more common ground than they often realize about the importance of democracy, the gifts of modernity, and the value of pluralism.
Trump has done this by articulating, fitfully and inconsistently, a dark worldview rooted in nationalism, authoritarianism, discomfort with ethnic and religious differences, and a skepticism about the modern project. He did this again during a European visit that was disconcerting both for what Trump said and for the isolation of the United States within the very “West” whose cause the president claims to champion.
His lack of constancy makes it difficult to judge exactly what he believes. We commonly describe his contradictions as the product of administration power struggles between Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the populist nationalists, and James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the representatives of a more conventional approach to foreign policy.
On the days when Trump pledges allegiance to NATO and our allies, we see Defense Secretary Mattis and national security adviser McMaster as winning. When Trump veers off this course by dissing allies and going rhetorically apocalyptic, we declare senior White House aides Bannon and Miller triumphant.
Optimists about Trump insist that “the grown-ups,” as Mattis and McMaster are often somewhat obnoxiously described by old foreign policy hands, will eventually limit the damage the president can cause us. The last several days should push them toward reappraising their hopefulness.
Trump's European trip, including his meeting with Vladimir Putin, was always going to be a high-wire act, given the president's unpredictability and his allergy to briefing books. For Trump, everything is personal, which means he's subject to being easily played. Foreign leaders know that flattering him is the way to his heart—the Chinese and Saudis seemed to have understood this well—and that his deepest commitments appear to be to his business interests.
But to the extent that Trump does have a gut instinct about the world, it seems closer to Bannon's. The president's spontaneous outbursts, his Twitter revelations, and his reactions to individual foreign leaders point Bannon's way.