The Trump Administration’s foreign agenda for the next four years is easily summed up in two words: America First. What’s already being described as the “Trump Doctrine” represents a stark departure from decades of American foreign policy orthodoxy, putting aside traditional internationalist and moral principles in favor of an agenda that seeks to maximize American interests and power abroad. Several defining planks have already emerged from the President’s rhetoric outlining his radical policy agenda, including a new economic isolationism that involves pulling out of the TPP and renegotiating NAFTA; a crackdown on immigration from Mexico and Muslim countries; a realignment of the United States towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia while easing American obligations to NATO; an all-out war on what Trump insistently calls “radical Islamic terrorism” with distinctly anti-neoconservative pledges to target civilians, reinstate torture, and seize Iraqi oil.
Trying to gauge how the American public feels about “Trump Doctrine” at this point in his presidency is no easy task, however. Given the choice between President Hillary Clinton, who likely would have represented a continuation of the Obama Doctrine, and President Donald J. Trump, 62,985,106 Americans opted for the latter – a number which represents a substantial portion of American voters, yet at the same time a minority of the popular vote. Furthermore, at barely over two months into his term President Trump has had little time to demonstrate the effects of his policies, nor has he been presented with a real test of his leadership capabilities in an international crisis situation. It also remains possible that moderates in the State and Defense Departments could nudge the White House towards a more conventionally conservative policy agenda, should the Trump Doctrine run into major obstacles once it’s enacted in proper.
What we know now, however, points to complex and often contradictory feelings among the American public regarding President Trump’s foreign policy agenda. According to HuffPost Pollster, public approval for Trump’s foreign policy currently stands at around 47% disapproval to 40% approval – hardly outstanding numbers, but an improvement over his dismal 54% job disapproval rating. On specific policies and principles espoused by Donald Trump, polls have shown a mixture of support and opposition from the American public, narrowly divided on many topics and heavily tilted towards or against Trump in others. The President does not carry a mandate from the public on foreign policy, nor does he face overwhelming indictment.
In terms of principles, it’s clear that the American public has not embraced “Trumpism” on one of the defining elements of his foreign policy: isolationism. Gallup has reported all-time highs of Americans who view foreign trade as more an opportunity than a threat to the nation, at 72%, far beyond even the late Clinton years in the heyday of NAFTA. The CNN/ORC poll has also found a growing majority of Americans in favor of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the United States, up to 60% in mid-March, a repudiation of the President’s pro-deportation stances. Contrary to popular talk of a new era of economic isolationism, Americans seem to be growing even warmer to open trade policies for the US since Donald Trump’s election.
Opinions become less clear when Americans are asked about specific policies promoted by the Trump Administration. Though recent polls show consistent majorities opposed to the President’s proposed Mexican border wall, 80% of Americans also support deporting illegal immigrants arrested for other crimes, a policy strongly advocated by Donald Trump. Meanwhile, several polls have indicated both narrow support and opposition to the executive order restricting travel to and from several majority-Muslim countries originally imposed in February. As Harry Enten discusses at FiveThirtyEight, respondents to online polls have demonstrated greater support for the travel ban than in live polls, indicating a sizable portion of Americans who support the ban but hide it out of concern for “political correctness.” Americans are similarly cooler on free trade in practice than in theory: voters are evenly split on whether NAFTA is good or bad for the United States, and when asked if the US pulling out of trade deals such as the TPP and NAFTA is a good idea, 43% said they “don’t know enough to say” while support and opposition to the proposal received just 28% each.
Americans are similarly conflicted on the issue of the United States’ involvement around the world. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found broad skepticism about the US’s role abroad, with 57% of Americans saying the nation should let other countries deal with their own issues and a 41% plurality believing that the US does too much in solving international problems. Another poll from NBC News found two-thirds of Americans worried about the country becoming involved in a new war during Trump’s term as President. At the same time, the Pew poll also shows a majority of Americans fearing that the US won’t go far enough to defeat Islamist militants, broad concerns that the United States is less respected internationally now than in the past, and growing support for increases in military spending. And while American support for remaining in NATO is overwhelming, opinions on the UN are more mixed, with the organization enjoying favorable approval ratings but also broad agreement that it has done a “poor job” in solving the problems it’s faced. The contradictory opinions felt by many Americans on the nation’s activities overseas could dovetail nicely with President Trump’s own rhetoric, as the President has vowed to stop wasting US resources abroad while at the same time promising to defeat ISIS and restore America’s status on the international stage.
The Trump Administration’s relationship with Russia is another area where polls show Americans holding mixed feelings about the President. A Quinnipiac University poll showed an overwhelming 72% of voters supporting an investigation into connections between Donald Trump’s campaign advisors and Russian officials, and disapproval ratings for Russia and President Vladimir Putin are at historic highs according to Gallup. However, recent polls have also shown little confidence among the public when it comes to indicting President Trump himself: a recent NBC News/WSJ poll, for example, showed a third of Americans having no opinion on whether or not Donald Trump is “too friendly” with Vladimir Putin. Less than 1% of Americans consider Russia the top issue facing the nation today, and only 20% believe that President Trump has done anything criminal in his relations with Russia. Americans may generally disapprove of Russia and Trump’s friendliness towards the country, but it appears that few are ready to press the issue against the President without further evidence of wrongdoing.
Another major development in the Trump Doctrine era of foreign policy is the striking partisan divide over several key foreign policy issues. While Putin’s approval ratings remain abysmal in the US overall, they’ve seen a marked increase among Republicans compared to four years ago, when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney described Russia as the nation’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Similarly, ninety percent of Democrats consider Russian interference in the 2016 election to be somewhat or very important, while forty percent of Republicans consider Russian interference to be not important at all. Free trade, once a calling card of the Republican Party, has also emerged as far more popular among Democratic voters than among Republicans, with a growing rift between the parties since Donald Trump’s election. President Trump may enjoy a built-in policy insulator in Congress, where Republicans up for reelection in 2018 will likely hesitate to waver from a President so disproportionately supported by their constituents. At the same time, Trump will have an even harder time reaching out to congressional Democrats, whose voters oppose the President’s policies almost instinctively, which could pose a major policy obstacle should either house of Congress flip to Democratic control after the midterm elections.
While Donald Trump is struggling with public opinion to a degree unseen by most newly-elected presidents, there is no guarantee that it will cripple the President’s radical foreign policy agenda. Americans disagree with Trump in principle on many issues including immigration, free trade, and Russian relations, but they also seem to agree with the President’s instincts on American involvement abroad. When it comes to specific policy issues, many Americans also seem to be more convinced by the Trump Administration’s arguments, or at least less willing to hold their ideological disagreements against the President. And in light of the complex and contradictory foreign policy opinions felt by many Americans, Trump’s unorthodox and often self-contradictory rhetoric may prove to be a unique asset in advancing his foreign agenda.
It appears likely that approval for the Trump Doctrine will hinge on how effective the President is at enacting his policies. If Donald Trump can easily roll out his foreign policy agenda and show returns for Americans at home, he may enjoy public support in the foreign policy realm even as his job approval ratings continue to fall. In addition, without a single “smoking gun” that blows his credibility wide open, Trump is unlikely to face real indictment from Congressional Republicans over the slow drip of stories involving his administration’s connections with Russian oligarchs. If Trump’s policies are unsuccessful or unactionable, on the other hand, then he may face substantial backlash from the public; a majority of Americans already believe that Trump should stop trying to pursue the travel ban and move on to bigger issues, including a fair number of voters who initially supported the ban. The Trump Doctrine could face a collapse in support from Americans who agree with it in theory, but who would become disillusioned with President Trump’s leadership if he can’t get what he wants with his signature deal-making and bravado.