In his sledgehammer assault against the cornerstone institutions of the Western alliance, Donald Trump is replaying one of the defining confrontations in the Republican Party’s history. Only this time, the outcome is being reversed—with potentially tumultuous implications for both the GOP and the future of American foreign policy.
Trump is reprising the conflict between the Republican Party’s internationalist and isolationist wings, which raged between the end of World War I and the early Cold War. That extended scuffle crystallized in the battle for the party’s 1952 presidential nomination, when Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of the internationalist forces, beat Sen. Robert Taft. Eisenhower’s victory seemed to irreversibly settle the GOP’s direction. Every Republican president for the next five decades followed Eisenhower’s lead in pursuing a vigorous international role for the U.S.
But cracks appeared in that GOP consensus under George W. Bush, both because of disillusion with the Iraq War and because of the party’s growing reliance on working-class whites, who are often dubious of any foreign entanglement. Now, Trump is moving to virtually raze the structure of the U.S.-led international order.
As on so many fronts, the portions of the GOP resistant to Trump’s insular vision have managed barely a peep in protest. In the rematch between the ideological descendants of Eisenhower and Taft, only one side is in the ring. “For now, Taft beats Ike—that’s your headline,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern struggles between moderate and conservative Republicans. “Trump is closer to Taft than he is to Eisenhower, and he has reshaped the party in his image.”
This struggle over the GOP’s foreign policy direction both echoes and reconfigures the earlier conflict. Then, as now, the GOP’s isolationist elements were dubious of international engagement in all three of its principal forms: military and diplomatic alliance, free trade, and openness to immigration.
In past decades, the GOP foreign policy debate split mostly along regional and economic lines. Isolationism dominated among Midwestern and Western Republicans, many of them farmers or small-business owners, while the internationalist forces were centered in the East, especially among banking and Wall Street interests already tightly connected to global markets.
Some traces of that older outline persist in the GOP’s differences today, with multinational business representing the strongest internal voice for global engagement. But the principal Republican divide over international involvement is now demographic. Trump’s insular nationalism resonates powerfully with his core constituency of Republicans without a college degree, a group that is almost entirely white. College-educated Republicans, who are also almost entirely white, are generally more skeptical—though even many of them have grown more suspicious of global engagement.
Data provided to me by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs from its most recent annual national survey of American foreign policy attitudes tracks these patterns. College-educated Republicans, the survey found, were more likely than their counterparts without degrees to view globalization and trade in general and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular as good for the U.S. But the share of college-educated Republicans expressing such favorable views has declined in recent years.
On U.S. alliances, the data paint a similar picture. While more college-educated than non-college-educated Republicans believe NATO is essential, both groups were far more likely than Democrats at either education level to question its value. Similarly, college-educated Republicans view immigration more favorably than those without degrees, but not as favorably as Democrats.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist, rejects the idea that changes in the GOP’s coalition have irreversibly shifted the party toward Trump-style isolationism and unilateralism. “The cost of alienating our allies … will start to mount,” said Feaver, who analyzed public opinion for Bush’s National Security Council. “It’s going to be harder and harder to sustain it.”
Yet in recent days, the GOP’s internationalist voices have been stifled at every turn. Beyond Sen. John McCain, stunningly few criticized Trump’s outbursts around the G7 meeting, when he questioned the cost of NATO, urged Russia’s reinstatement to the group, and lashed the trading practices of Canada and the European Union. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on bipartisan legislation to limit Trump’s power to unilaterally impose tariffs.
Republican internationalists face the risk that Trump’s truculent nationalism will accelerate the drift of college-educated voters away from the party—tilting its internal balance further toward the blue-collar voters most sympathetic to his belligerent approach.
Trump isn’t nearly as consistent, thoughtful, or principled in his views as Taft. But, for now, Trump has demolished Eisenhower’s consensus, and routed the forces of global engagement inside the GOP as Taft never could. The only question is whether Trump’s victory lasts as long as Ike’s did.
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