In Donald Trump’s “America first” policy we can detect “an unintended reincarnation of Ayn Rand,” suggests Arnold Steinberg in The American Spectator.
Rand’s ideas may well have influenced Trump in some indirect way (the cultural impact of her philosophy is far-reaching). And I would welcome signs of such influence, having written two books that advocate for aligning our nation’s foreign policy with Rand’s morality of rational egoism. But when we look past Trump’s rhetoric, how committed is he to the principle of putting the self-interest of Americans first?
Trump differs profoundly from Rand’s conception of American self-interest. Whereas Rand’s distinctive approach upholds America’s founding ideals of individualism and freedom, Trump exhibits an authoritarian and collectivist streak. We can see that by looking at Trump’s approach with a wide-angle lens, one that includes aspects unaddressed in Mr. Steinberg’s essay.
Let’s start with the seeming echoes of Rand’s approach in Trump’s rhetoric. For Mr. Steinberg and many others (myself included), Trump’s rhetoric about firmly confronting enemies resonates with a bracingly self-assertive tone. Regarding alliances, Trump has pointedly — and rightly — asked, what’s in it for us? Trump might do some good, if he sticks to that path. Mr. Steinberg aptly notes, however, that Trump’s foreign policy is “evolving,” but reports that the president “remains a critic of using American boots on the ground to build nations or to spread democracy. And he is unlikely to give foreign aid to socialist idiots.”
These points call to mind Ayn Rand’s distinctive approach to foreign policy, which is predicated on her basic philosophic worldview. Rand was a thoroughgoing individualist, and her political views — from her support for laissez-faire capitalism to her view that our foreign policy should be guided by the principle of rational egoism — stem from that. Individualism regards every person as “an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.” Man, in Rand’s view, is capable of using reason to identify and pursue goals necessary for his own flourishing. Thus, for Rand, government’s only proper function to protect the individual rights of its citizens — domestically and in foreign policy.
Crucially, that rules out treating our citizens as cannon fodder (through a military draft and selfless missions, such as Vietnam and the nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan), or disposing of their wealth by giving handouts to other countries (through foreign aid or international welfare schemes). For Rand, who vehemently opposed the Vietnam war as an instance of “senseless, altruistic, self-sacrificial slaughter,” the only moral justification for war is self-defense: the elimination of threats against American lives and freedom — with decisive force.
But does the reality of Trump’s actual foreign policy positions match his rhetoric? Consider two vital implications of a self-interested foreign policy: the paramount importance of moral judgment; and an uncompromising advocacy of free trade. From these positions, Trump diverges sharply.
Rational judgment is critical if we are to sort friend from foe (and everything in between), and act accordingly. What’s true for an individual is doubly true for a nation’s foreign policy. This entails a commitment to facts and judging other regimes by objective moral standards. We have much to gain from free nations, and a great deal to worry about from regimes that violate the rights of their own citizens, because these latter typically seek to do the same beyond their borders.
Consider Trump’s startling assessment of the Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin. Trump fiercely admires Putin, whom he recently praised as a “bright and very talented man.” This is the same Putin who imprisons reporters, murders political opponents, and wages wars of conquest. Isn’t Putin a killer? asked Bill O’Reilly in a recent interview. Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” To admire this killer and then stick up for him is horrendous. To denigrate America as somehow morally on par with an authoritarian regime like Russia: that’s the last thing we would expect from a president who really believes American interests are worth defending.
A self-interested foreign policy also entails a commitment to (genuine) free trade — without trade barriers, protective tariffs, or special privileges. It means, as Rand noted, the “opening of the world’s trade routes to free international exchange and competition among the private citizens of all countries dealing directly with one another.” That’s a logical expression of individualism applied to politics and economics. Rand observed that free trade in the 19th century liberated the world by undercutting statist regimes and led to the longest period of general peace in human history.
Consider Trump’s vociferous opposition to globalization and international trade. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, pushes “economic nationalism” and by all accounts, the president agrees with him. Reflecting that collectivist mindset, Trump vilifies foreigners for “stealing” jobs and luring away “our” factories. He promises to solve these “problems” through protectionism and strongman tactics. Trump has openly threatened to punish American companies that leave the country. This is one more example of Trump’s marked authoritarianism. The president emulates his Russian hero.
Trump’s collectivist and authoritarian streak underscores his divergence from a genuinely self-interested approach, which rests on the American values of individualism and freedom. Based on those values, what constitutes our national self-interest? It is nothing more than the aggregate interest of each individual American to the protection of his or her rights: the freedom to enjoy life, liberty, and property unmolested by foreign aggressors.
The idea of “American exceptionalism,” in my view, captures the achievement of America’s political system — a system predicated on the moral idea of protecting the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s a virtue that Ayn Rand, who recognized the evil of authoritarianism and collectivism in all their forms, admired in America. In Trump’s statements we can sometimes hear a welcome pro-America motif, but the president’s signature positions don’t live up to that ideal.