Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to bust up NATO and the European Union, together with his penchant for starting trade wars and his repeatedly expressed affinity with autocratic strongmen, have led a lot of commentators to bemoan the threat he poses to the liberal international order that the United States has led since World War II. Not a few pundits have remarked that his behavior seems remarkably in line with the geopolitical interests of one Vladimir Putin, with whom our president seems to have some kind of special relationship.

The NY Times’s Brett Stephens thinks Trump’s behavior isn’t just a reflection of his defective personality; it’s willful ideology. Trump knows what he’s doing—he’s seeking

….the substitution of a liberal order with an illiberal one, based on conceits about sovereignty, nationality, religion and ethnicity. These are the same conceits that Vladimir Putin has long made his own….”

Stephens may well be right, but I have my doubts. I doubt that Trump is capable of caring about, much less strategizing against, anything so abstract as a “liberal international order.” I think most of his behavior could well be explained by his personal convictions (yes, he does have some), his domestic political interests, and his disordered personality.

Trump has few political convictions not subject to revision for political expediency, but  his crude hyper-nationalism is genuine. His behavior is consistent with his long-held belief that an over-generous United States is exploited relentlessly by its allies and trading partners. He’s also playing to his base, who want to MAGA and are happy to see their impolitic leader telling it like it is it to phony friends who have diminished America’s greatness. Anyway, it all comes very naturally to Trump, a true sociopathic narcissist whose lifelong constant is his drive for self-aggrandizement and domination over others, no matter the consequences.

It could be, as Jonathan Chait suggests, that Trump is a willing Russian asset. And/or, as Stephens argues, that Trump is consciously engaged in unmaking the existing international order. But we can’t know for sure, and there is a simple alternative explanation for his obnoxious and destructive behavior: it’s just Trump being Trump.



  1. Jeffrey Herrmann July 14, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    It is impossible to imagine tRump pondering the nature of the international order and deciding “Hmmm. I think an illiberal order would be better than the present liberal order.” The better hypothesis is that the behavior of this Presidunce is driven by emotional impulses and needs, not cognition. The result is the same, if not the explanation.
    In the same vein, although Chait makes a good case for the hypothesis that tRump is a witting agent of Putin, it seems more likely that tRump, being at heart an insecure coward, admires strongmen and craves a reciprocal admiration from them. Knowing this, a cynical manipulator like Putin can play tRump like a fiddle. The result is the same, if not the explanation.
    It cannot be excluded that in addition to his well-known traits of personality, i.e., those of a “malignant narcissist,” tRump is motivated by fear. It is likely the Russians have “”kompromat” on him from his all-expense paid trip to Moscow and stay in a KGB-bugged hotel in 1987, from his facilitating money laundering by Russian oligarchs through real estate transactions and maybe even from pee tapes in 2013. And dreading the humiliation he will experience when — er, if — Don Jr. goes to jail for helping the Russians help his dad to become Presidunce, fulfilling the Donald’s fear that Jr. would be a loser, must keep him awake in the early hours of the morning, alone in his big but empty bed. Creating chaos on the world’s stage provides distraction from the gnawing fears. The result is the same, if not the explanation.

  2. Jeremy Graham July 15, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    He maybe a psychopath, but he’s not stupid. He knows how to accomplish his goals. His desire for more money and power is an ideology. He is more pragmatic than what we’re used to in national politics, but not devoid of ideology. I don’t think he’s worried about anything. He has more power than most people perceive. I predict, that unfortunately, he will remain powerful for at least a normal life span.

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