Probably the most important thing that Donald Trump has done for the Republican Party is shift the Overton Window on foreign policy and military intervention within the GOP. Many of his positions – tax cuts, deregulation, pro-life policy, religious liberty – are boilerplate Republican policy and have been for decades. Many of us in the Republican base were very surprised that he followed through on that.
Non-interventionism is new – or at least newly popular. Sure, there have been non-interventionist Republicans before (such as Pat Buchanan) but Trump popularized non-interventionism within the GOP in a way that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago. Imagine in 2005 if a Republican in Congress argued the Iraq war was a mistake and that we need to pull back. They were relegated to the fringes. Ron Paul gained some traction in 2008, but nowhere near close to winning the nomination.
But Donald Trump comes along with an “America First” foreign policy that emphasizes putting our own interests ahead of any other consideration. He points the finger at the establishments of both parties, saying that they have not looked out for American interests. Pat Buchanan had to be pulling his hair out watching Trump succeed using the platform Buchanan had advocated twenty years earlier: Both non-interventionist and skeptical of free trade.
Some of this, I am sure, is due to Republican electoral losses that have been blamed in part to fatigue over the war in Iraq. Some of it is partisan opposition to Democrats: Barack Obama was an interventionist President, and Hillary Clinton was a very interventionist candidate. It also helps that Trump wraps non-interventionism in patriotism. Non-interventionists have been slammed as “unpatriotic” for decades.
This shift in what is acceptable position in the Republican Party is a good thing. Limited government does not just mean cutting taxes, lessening burdensome regulations and protecting the Second Amendment. Limited government also means restricting military intervention to where we have a vital national security interest or a direct threat to our people or allies. It also means that military force should be the last resort.
If Trump loses in November, I hope his brand of non-interventionist foreign policy remains strong within the GOP. I think it will be for an election cycle or two, but after that I’m not sure. If he wins, non-interventionism will be in a much stronger position within the GOP when he leaves office in 2025.
Trump, for all his many flaws, is a dominant personality and has been able to shape the GOP’s foreign policy platform. Do other non-interventionist candidates within the Republican Party have the same force of personality to rally support to that cause? I do not know. Today, non-interventionists can attach themselves to Trump, but that will not be the case in 2026 or 2028. A debate over the benefits and drawbacks of public policy should not be about personality, of course, but that is the way politics works.
Has Trump been as much of a non-interventionist as President as he promised to be as a candidate in 2016? No, he has not. But just the fact that Trump won the Republican Party nomination and the White House on an “America First” foreign policy that is skeptical of sending troops to various places all over the world is a dramatic change in Republican politics. We should be thankful for that.