Donald Trump, just days before his inauguration, has given his first extended post-election interview to the foreign press. In a session with two correspondents—one from Bild, the other from the Times of London—Trump talks about Europe, Russia, trade, migration, and other issues. The interview clarifies the principle that will guide Trump’s foreign policy: narcissism.
In the crystallizing moment, one of the correspondents asks Trump: “Are there heroes that you steer by? People you look up to from the past?” Trump struggles with the question. “I don’t like the concept of heroes,” he says. First he talks about his father: “He did houses and housing, and I learned a lot about negotiation from my father.” Then, on second thought, Trump takes the credit for himself: “Negotiation is a natural trait. … You either have it or you don’t.” Then he segues to a self-tribute: “I got a letter from somebody, their congressman. They said, ‘What you’ve done is amazing, because you were never a politician, and you beat all the politicians.’ I had three months of experience, and the 17 guys I was running against, the Republicans, had 236 years.”
The answer, jumbled as it is, provides a complete tour of Trump’s worldview. He doesn’t have a philosophy. He has an algorithm. He sees no heroes, mentors, or bonds of moral affiliation. He applies the term “Republican” not to himself but to the public servants he vanquished. Every topic, triumph, and virtue comes back to Trump, and everyone else is a rival. His foreign policy, therefore, is a policy of self-interest. It’s not even a policy of national self-interest. It’s a policy of tribalism of the narrowest kind and, ultimately, of glorifying Trump.
In American politics, nationalism used to be divided between the major parties. Democrats were the party of economic nationalism. Republicans were the party of military and cultural nationalism. Trump captured the presidency by demolishing this arrangement and seizing all forms of nationalism for himself: trade protectionism, immigration control, and peace through strength. “I won the election because of strong borders and trade. And military …” he tells the Bild and Times correspondents.
This guides Trump’s advice to other countries. He thinks Europe, too, should embrace nationalism. When the interviewers ask what Trump thinks of the European Union, he replies that “people, countries, want their own identity.” He argues that this hunger for national identity combined with the influx of non-European immigrants led to Brexit. He predicts that it will drive more countries to leave the EU.
Nationalism, in Trump’s algorithm, means the absence of transnational values. In his case, it means disregard for conservative commitments to free trade and political liberty. He brags to the Bild and Times correspondents that when Jeb Bush said Trump was “not a conservative,” crowds at Trump’s rallies shouted, “Who cares?” Trump says he’s unbounded by ideology. “I’m really about making great deals for the people,” he says.
Any country that clings to transnational idealism is, in Trump’s view, a chump. The EU, for instance, claims to stand for economic cooperation, human rights, and democracy. Trump thinks that’s nonsense. “You look at the European Union, and it’s Germany,” he argues. “Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the U.K. was so smart in getting out.” Trump also wants Europe to stop welcoming refugees. “People don’t want to have other people coming in and destroying their country,” he says. He dismisses the recent migrants to Europe as “illegals.”
Trump holds out the idea that nationalism will be good for Europe. A nationalist America will cut a trade deal with a nationalist U.K., and so on. But if all we care about is cutting deals, it’s not clear why America would favor traditional allies over powerful dictators. One of the interviewers asks Trump: “Who would you trust more—Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin?” Trump expresses no preference. “I start off trusting both,” he says.
Would Trump trade away Europe’s security for a deal with Putin? He sounds as though he would. In 2014, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, which borders four EU member states. In the interview, Trump is asked whether he supports these sanctions. He replies: “Let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia. … You do have sanctions, and Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”
President Obama calls the EU a force for democracy, prosperity, and peace. Trump sees it as an adversary. “The EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade,” he says. But Trump seems less concerned with how Europeans treat the United States than with how they treat him. He praises Nigel Farage, the anti-immigration British politician who campaigned for Trump in the U.S. election and who, as Trump reminds his interviewers, “said Trump was gonna win.” Trump also boasts about his standing in the European press: “You guys wrote it, put it on the front page—‘Trump said that Brexit is gonna happen.’ ”
This is where Trump’s narcissism ultimately leads him: not to the pursuit of America’s national interest but to the glorification of himself. Even on the brink of inauguration, he entertains his European guests with tales of his conquests at home. He fondly recalls his battles with “Low Energy Jeb.” “I had the biggest crowds anybody’s ever had for a presidential election,” he asserts. He says he’ll keep using his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, not @POTUS, because his account has a bigger following. He brags that “a front-page story” says “Trump’s people will never leave him.” That’s what Trump prizes: not the loyalty of Americans to America, but the loyalty of Trump’s followers to Trump.
For Europe, an American turn toward Trumpian self-interest is full of perils. It promotes the disintegration of the EU. It calls into question the United States’ commitments to NATO. It raises the prospect of American acquiescence to further Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Baltics. But Americans, too, are at risk. An algorithm of self-interest has no external loyalties. It drives Trump to compete not just with Europe but with institutions and constituencies inside the United States.
Already, Trump is at war with U.S. intelligence agencies. For more than a month, he has mocked the agencies and accused them of unjustly implicating Russia in the hack that aided his campaign. On Sunday, Trump insinuated that they leaked “fake news” to hurt him. The agencies have asserted their innocence and tried to make peace with Trump, but he won’t have it. In the interview, he hits them again. “I tweeted about the intelligence agencies because it all turned out to be false information,” he says. One of the interviewers, referring to the dossier of anti-Trump opposition research that was recently leaked, asks him: “Who do you think, then, is behind it all?” Trump seems torn between what he regards as his two principal enemies. “I think [it] probably could be intelligence, or it could be, it could be, the Democrats,” he replies.
Trump’s inability to distinguish nationalism from narcissism, and his consequent preference for Russian flattery over warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, creates obvious national security problems. But he also seems unable to distinguish nationalism from ethnic or religious identity. His thinking is fundamentally tribal, and this makes his version of nationalism a threat to the cohesion of the United States.
As a candidate, Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, and he said an American-born judge was unfit to preside over a fraud case against Trump University based on the judge’s Mexican “heritage.” In the Times/Bild interview, Trump is asked again about the Muslim ban: “You said during the campaign that you’d like to stop Muslims coming to the U.S. Is that still your plan?” The pluralist answer would be “No.” Instead, without negation, Trump switches to code: “Well, from various parts of the world that have lots of terrorism problems.”
Trump also expresses dismay at American Jews who support President Obama, and some misguided notion of universal values, in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I’ll have friends who are Jewish have a fundraiser for Obama,” he tells the interviewers. “And I’ll say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” The notion that people might put principle and country before tribe, or that they might even recognize a principle other than tribe, baffles him.
In the interview, this descent into tribalism plays out as a grotesque return to 19th century chatter about heredity. The Times interviewer, a Scottish politician who helped lead the Brexit campaign, asks Trump what he takes from his Scottish ancestry. “Well, the Scottish are known for watching their pennies, so I like to watch my pennies,” says Trump. The German interviewer asks: “What does it mean for you to have German blood in your veins?” Trump gets around to the cartoon response: “I like order, and I like strength.”
This is where Trump is taking the world: away from democracy, away from human rights, toward an orgy of ethnic rivalries and appeals to tribal affinity. At the center of this world sits a delicate ego, craving flattery and lashing out at perceived threats—foreign or domestic. We’ve seen this world before. It doesn’t end well.