If you weren’t already convinced that parody is now the central art form of our era, then Donald Trump’s grand foreign policy speech yesterday was the proof. All of the elements of spoof “foreign policy seriousness” were in place. The introduction from a serious foreign policy figure, Zalmay Khalilzad. The sponsorship by a serious foreign policy magazine, the National Interest.
The speech itself was a pastiche of a serious foreign policy speech. Trump plucked slogans and cliches used in the past — “America First” and “draw a line in the sand” — and mashed them up into a new form. The multiple inconsistencies and internal contradictions have already been listed by others. On the one hand, he said that “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them.” On the other hand, he threatened to “walk” if those same friends didn’t pony up to his demands. He wants to invest heavily in the military, but he wants to stop using the military. He doesn’t want to do “nation-building” but does want to promote “regional stability.” There was no sense that he knew what either of those terms actually meant.
But the use of multiple and contradictory phrases means, of course, that audiences can pick and choose their message. Isolationists and “realists” heard what they wanted to hear. On the other hand, Trump’s call to “reinvigorate Western values and institutions” might well appeal to those voters who aren’t isolationist at all. He says he likes American soldiers and wants to spend more on defense, so what’s wrong?
Foreign audiences are already hearing different Trump messages and are picking and choosing the ones that they like. The Russians love the way he talks about foreign policy as if it were a cynical business deal, because that’s exactly how President Vladimir Putin sees it. A part of the European left is already warming up to the suggestion that the United States withdraw from Europe, because that’s what it has always wanted, too. And yes, all concerned will be perfectly capable of ignoring, simultaneously, all of the things about Trump that they should in theory deeply dislike.
Anyone who sits down and analyzes the speech from start to finish will, of course, worry about the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the impossible claims, the detachment from reality. But most people won’t do that. Instead, they’ll hear the slogans that they want to hear, or those sentences in the speech that echo something they already believe. And don’t be lulled into complacency: Just because this way of campaigning is intellectually incoherent doesn’t mean that it can’t work. This form of scattershot messaging has attracted voters in plenty of other places — Berlusconi’s Italy, for example, or Chávez’s Venezuela or Putin’s Russia. Maybe it can succeed in America, too.