The theme of tonight's Republican National Convention is “Making America First Again”—a reference to our nation's place in the world, and to Donald Trump's foreign policy vision—and there's a small room walled off by blue fabric in the back of the ...and more »
The theme of tonightâ€™s Republican National Convention is â€œMaking America First Againâ€â€”a reference to our nationâ€™s place in the world, and to Donald Trumpâ€™s foreign policy visionâ€”and thereâ€™s a small room walled off by blue fabric in the back of the Cleveland Convention Center packed with people sent here to puzzle out exactly what that means. These are reporters from overseas media outlets, the people charged with figuring out what the Republican Party is up to this week, and explaining it to their readers and viewers back home. It has not been an easy job.
â€œOK, America first, but then whoâ€™s second?â€ asks Thomas Gorguissian, a correspondent for Al Tahrir, an Egyptian news site. â€œItâ€™s like Bill Gates saying heâ€™s the richest person in the world. OK. But what does that mean for the other 7 billion in the world?â€Story Continued Below
Even by the domestically obsessed standards of American presidential races, Donald Trumpâ€™s campaign has been unusually indifferent to the niceties of world affairs. He kicked things off last year with his most popular and enduring promiseâ€”to build a wall with Mexico and make Mexico pay for itâ€”and fueled his rise by promising a trade war with our most important trading partner, China. He has threatened to renegotiate Americaâ€™s debt and to bomb the unmentionable out of ISIL. Some of his kindest words have been for Vladimir Putin, a strongman whom most Western nations were counting on Americaâ€™s help to keep in check. As a result, numerous Republican foreign policy specialists have run screaming for the Clinton camp.
Beyond those few belligerent gestures, Trumpâ€™s campaign has been very light on details. â€œWhat does this mean?â€ says Morten Bertelsen, a correspondent for Dagens NÃ¦ringsliv, a Norwegian business daily. â€œI did a story this morning on the platform and the foreign policy in it. He says he wants to build a wall on the southern border, but how is he going to do it? We had Trumpâ€™s foreign policy adviser here yesterdayâ€”what was his name?â€”and we tried to press him on it, but he was so evasive while saying, â€˜Iâ€™m not trying to be evasive.â€™â€
Theyâ€™d never heard of this adviser before, a Joe Schmitz. Who was he? What were his qualifications? The way Trump picks his advisers made them uneasy. As does the foreign policy Trump seems to advocate. â€œThey want to cut out the world, and thatâ€™s scary,â€ says Johannes Berg, Bertelsenâ€™s photographer.
The Republican platform actually gets into some details, promising to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran, slow the opening to Cuba, amp up the military and block arms sales to Ukraine (which is sure to please Moscow). But Trump himself has campaigned more broadly on a new style of isolationism, retreating from the military and moral engagements of his predecessors. When Trump delivered his foreign policy speech in April, he did so under the banner of â€œAmerica First,â€ which delighted his fans and horrified most anyone who specialized in foreign policy or knew anything about American history: The phrase was also the clarion call of Charles Lindbergh and American fascist fellow travelers.
But for Fouad Arif, a Moroccan journalist, â€œAmerica firstâ€ also presents a serious challenge to his region, the Middle East and North Africa. â€œItâ€™s not very well understood in my part of the world,â€ he says. â€œI donâ€™t mind if he would say it. OK, itâ€™s internal U.S. politics. But what would it translate to if heâ€™s elected? There are lots of issues waiting to be solved, and the leadership of the U.S. is expected and looked for.â€
The U.S. â€œshrinkingâ€ from the world stage, he says, â€œhas dark implications.â€ â€œThere are common threads binding the world on many issues, like terrorism,â€ Arif says. â€œYou cannot imagine America fighting terrorism without mounting all those connections.â€
Both he and Gorguissian find it strange that Trump has made so much of his willingness to identify terrorists with the adjectives â€œradical Islamic.â€ â€œAlready people in the Middle East are calling it â€˜radical Islamic terrorism,â€™â€ Gorguissian said of Trumpâ€™s obsession with the term. â€œTheyâ€™ve been calling it that for years. And what? It doesnâ€™t address the real issue, it doesnâ€™t solve anything. Itâ€™s what ISIS is doingâ€”this is what they want.â€
After Trumpâ€™s call for a ban on Muslim immigration, Arif wonders, â€œHow is he going to have relations with the Muslim world?â€ How is he going to lead the country when no foreign policy experts want anything to do with him? He adds, â€œItâ€™s the convention. You should have some specifics in your foreign policy by this point.â€
And if â€œAmerica Firstâ€ and â€œmake America great againâ€ have foreign correspondents scratching their heads, then the constant drumbeat at the convention of America being the greatest, most amazing, most incredible nation that God created in the history or the world or the time-space continuum is straining their ears. â€œItâ€™s kind of weird,â€ says Yifan Xu, a correspondent with China Press. â€œIf you have a friend thatâ€™s always saying theyâ€™re the smartest and the most beautiful, even if theyâ€™re really smart and beautiful, itâ€™s weird that theyâ€™re saying that all the time.â€ She adds, â€œEveryone is proud of their country, but this is a little too loud.â€
â€œTrump is, in a way, America. Thereâ€™s a lot of hyperbole,â€ says JosÃ© CarreÃ±o, foreign editor of ExcÃ©lsior, a Mexican newspaper. â€œâ€˜Make America Great Againâ€™ â€” what? You have the largest economy in the world. You have the largest military in the world. America is the worldâ€™s hegemon. What do you mean by that? What do you want?â€
Most of these correspondents are also puzzled by the story that is being told about their countries, and about America: They recognize neither their homelands, nor the country itâ€™s their job to cover. When CarreÃ±o talks to convention attendees, for example, and they realize heâ€™s Mexican, he says their first reaction is â€œOh!â€ Then they have a question: â€œWhy did your government send all those people to our country? What are we going to do with them?â€
Xu is baffled. â€œYou guys treat us tooâ€”weâ€™re not your enemy!â€ she says. â€œTheyâ€™re saying the Chinese steal their jobs. I donâ€™t understand this. You can build a better regulatory environment; you can have smarter policy to bring the jobs back. I can understand that. But why say weâ€™re stealing your jobs? Theyâ€™re the ones saying the market should play the biggest role, so the market is playing its role. Why say weâ€™re stealing?â€
Europeans are puzzled at the way Europe is portrayed as a stifling cesspool of socialism and multiculturalism. The Scandinavians, for instance, find it strange the way their welfare state has become a political football. â€œThey say we pay 70 percent in taxes, itâ€™s just not true!â€ says Berg of his home country, Norway. Americans pay lots of taxes, too, â€œBut I donâ€™t understand where their taxes go. Police, I guess?â€
More than anything, though, itâ€™s the tone of this convention that has shocked these observers, many of whom have been reporting on America for years. Some thought Trumpâ€™s entrance on Monday night was eerily reminiscent of something choreographed by Leni Riefenstahl. Others thought the tone of the speeches were â€œjaw-dropping.â€ Berg, who covered the Republican convention in Tampa in 2012, says, â€œI felt Tampa was intense, but this is just 10 times worse. People are a lot less friendly this year. When I interact with people, theyâ€™re annoyed by me as press.â€
CarreÃ±o, who has covered American politics since 1984, says the tone these days is much harsher. â€œAmerican politics have never been civilized,â€ he said, invoking the savage 1856 caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. â€œWhatâ€™s new for me is the personal hate.â€
At times, they fall back on experts. In that back room of the Convention Center, they sat listening to two political science professors from the University of Virginia. American political scientists and commentators explain what in the hell is going on.
â€œHas there ever been a convention like this?â€ asked a Japanese journalist.
â€œWell,â€ one of the professors said, â€œthe tone is certainly the most negative one. Itâ€™s very odd for a home state governor not to speak at his partyâ€™s convention. And this time, the party isnâ€™t really unifying behind their own, but unifying against the other.â€
The foreign journalists nodded and quietly took notes.
â€œWhen I moved here, I had a Hollywood illusion of America,â€ says Gina Di Meo, a correspondent with the Italian news wire ANSA who has been based in New York for 10 years. â€œNow, all the bad is coming out, all these racist sentiments. Something bad is going to happen. I donâ€™t have a good feeling about this.â€
Julia Ioffe is contributing writer at Politico Magazine.
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