Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements, including the World Health Organization, is a play taken straight from Reagan’s playbook. Republican Presidents have been flouncing out of international agreements ever since some political hack decided that it was a good way to incentivise a voter base that prioritises American jobs above all else. In fact, there are Democrats Presidents like Jimmy Carter have employed the same tactic. In copying this stratagem, Trump is for once acting like an established politician and is following in the footsteps of both Reagan and Baby Bush. Reagan pulled out of UNESCO decades before Trump once again curtailed US involvement in 2017; it isn’t a Trumpism to isolate the US on the world stage.
If it seems like this might pay off in the build-up to the 2020 Presidential election, that is probably because it will. Trump, for all his sins, knows his base and he knows that to win key rust-belt states he needs to promote jobs. In an age of globalisation, Trump’s support stems from those who feel left behind – those whose jobs have vanished because of the cheaper labour costs elsewhere; those employed by collapsing businesses that have been left unable to compete.
If a protectionist response seems daft, because free trade does create more jobs in the long run and is one of the driving factors of economic growth, then you’re probably not a Trump supporter. Creative destruction is often painted as a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mitigate its negative effects if the consequences fall on your head. ‘Make America Great Again’ is a slogan that promises ‘America first’, isolationist policies – if you’ve just lost your job because factory workers in a far flung corner of the world don’t have a minimum wage and aren’t unionised, then this might provide a little bit of hope that the jobs that are available will be protected. It is this reaction that Trump is relying on. Withdrawing from international agreements and UN councils is an easy way for Trump to reaffirm that he will put American interests above even global ones; it’s a simple tactic to make those who feel ignored feel valued.
Leaving the WHO is also part of a wider sinophobic response to the pandemic, or as Trump has designated it, ‘the Chinese virus’. He can claim that it is a necessary step to protect the American people from international agents that do not have their best interests at heart. China (alongside Latin American countries like Mexico), has been the target of criticism from Trump because many of the workers who undercut the labour costs of American workers are Chinese, and are working in Chinese factories. Much of his anti-Mexico rhetoric has been based on jobs, and in the face of an escalating trade war with China, after years of uncertain negotiation, there is a clear electoral payoff in criticising and alienating Chinese people. A key aspect of populism is the defining of an ‘other’ – a group of people that are furthering their own interests at the expense of yours. Trump blaming the pandemic on China gives people who already blame China for the loss of their jobs another justification for their racism and hatred.
The repercussions for the rest of the world might seem serious, but this is where the true beauty of this gambit lies. The inevitable march towards globalisation will not be stopped, so the consequences of these actions may turn out to be small. Treaties that are renounced can be rewritten, and the President can reclaim the glory of achieving international cooperation; failing this, organisations can be quietly re-joined or renamed, as the USA’s history of joining and leaving UNESCO has proven. Little political capital is at risk for Trump here – he incentivises his base, and then creates an international organisation that the US was effectively a former member of.
Reagan knew what he was doing and despite arguments to the contrary, so does Trump. The decline of American industry is a longstanding electoral issue in US politics and the Republican party likes to be seen as the party of fiscal responsibility and protecting American jobs. Republican Presidents have pinned the blame on ‘others’, and proudly use military force to protect American economic interests.
Isolationist policies are a band-aid solution but in an election year, there is an incentive to artificially pump numbers. An administration that can claim that they are creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs is more likely to be re-elected than one in recession, and in the wake of the pandemic, there is a worry that Trump won’t have to try too hard to skew the numbers as the economy reboots.
Whether this will play out well for Trump on election day is unclear – we are still months away, and there is still time for Biden to become an exciting Democratic candidate, or to pick a VP that can incentivise his own base. But, despite the fact that Biden is polling well clear of the incumbent Trump, in elections with such low turnout, it is all about who turns out on the day. Every time Trump appeals to his base he gets closer to another four years in the White House. But whether he regains the Presidency or not, the legacy of the racism and hatred that his actions have created will remain. The visceral anger that he incites will fester, and America’s turbulent relationship with race and difference will not improve.