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The World Looks at Trump, Confused

July 21,2016 07:12

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 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 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.
“OK, America first, but then who’s second?” asks Thomas Gorguissian, a correspondent for Al Tahrir, an Egyptian news site. “It’s like Bill Gates saying he’s the richest person in the world. OK. But what does that mean for the other 7 billion in the world?”Story Continued Below
Even by the domestically obsessed standards of American presidential races, Donald Trump’s campaign has been unusually indifferent to the niceties of world affairs. He kicked things off last year with his most popular and enduring promise—to build a wall with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it—and fueled his rise by promising a trade war with our most important trading partner, China. He has threatened to renegotiate America’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 America’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, Trump’s campaign has been very light on details. “What does this mean?” says Morten Bertelsen, a correspondent for Dagens Næringsliv, a Norwegian business daily. “I 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 Trump’s foreign policy adviser here yesterday—what was his name?—and we tried to press him on it, but he was so evasive while saying, ‘I’m not trying to be evasive.’”
They’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. “They want to cut out the world, and that’s scary,” says Johannes Berg, Bertelsen’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 “America First,” 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, “America first” also presents a serious challenge to his region, the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s not very well understood in my part of the world,” he says. “I don’t mind if he would say it. OK, it’s internal U.S. politics. But what would it translate to if he’s elected? There are lots of issues waiting to be solved, and the leadership of the U.S. is expected and looked for.”
The U.S. “shrinking” from the world stage, he says, “has dark implications.” “There are common threads binding the world on many issues, like terrorism,” Arif says. “You cannot imagine America fighting terrorism without mounting all those connections.”
Both he and Gorguissian find it strange that Trump has made so much of his willingness to identify terrorists with the adjectives “radical Islamic.” “Already people in the Middle East are calling it ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’” Gorguissian said of Trump’s obsession with the term. “They’ve been calling it that for years. And what? It doesn’t address the real issue, it doesn’t solve anything. It’s what ISIS is doing—this is what they want.”
After Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration, Arif wonders, “How is he going to have relations with the Muslim world?” How is he going to lead the country when no foreign policy experts want anything to do with him? He adds, “It’s the convention. You should have some specifics in your foreign policy by this point.”
And if “America First” and “make America great again” 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. “It’s kind of weird,” says Yifan Xu, a correspondent with China Press. “If you have a friend that’s always saying they’re the smartest and the most beautiful, even if they’re really smart and beautiful, it’s weird that they’re saying that all the time.” She adds, “Everyone is proud of their country, but this is a little too loud.”
“Trump is, in a way, America. There’s a lot of hyperbole,” says José Carreño, foreign editor of Excélsior, a Mexican newspaper. “‘Make America Great Again’ — what? You have the largest economy in the world. You have the largest military in the world. America is the world’s hegemon. What do you mean by that? What do you want?”
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 it’s their job to cover. When Carreño talks to convention attendees, for example, and they realize he’s Mexican, he says their first reaction is “Oh!” Then they have a question: “Why did your government send all those people to our country? What are we going to do with them?”
Xu is baffled. “You guys treat us too—we’re not your enemy!” she says. “They’re saying the Chinese steal their jobs. I don’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 we’re stealing your jobs? They’re the ones saying the market should play the biggest role, so the market is playing its role. Why say we’re stealing?”
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. “They say we pay 70 percent in taxes, it’s just not true!” says Berg of his home country, Norway. Americans pay lots of taxes, too, “But I don’t understand where their taxes go. Police, I guess?”
More than anything, though, it’s the tone of this convention that has shocked these observers, many of whom have been reporting on America for years. Some thought Trump’s entrance on Monday night was eerily reminiscent of something choreographed by Leni Riefenstahl. Others thought the tone of the speeches were “jaw-dropping.” Berg, who covered the Republican convention in Tampa in 2012, says, “I felt Tampa was intense, but this is just 10 times worse. People are a lot less friendly this year. When I interact with people, they’re annoyed by me as press.”
Carreño, who has covered American politics since 1984, says the tone these days is much harsher. “American politics have never been civilized,” he said, invoking the savage 1856 caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. “What’s new for me is the personal hate.”
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.
“Has there ever been a convention like this?” asked a Japanese journalist.
“Well,” one of the professors said, “the tone is certainly the most negative one. It’s very odd for a home state governor not to speak at his party’s convention. And this time, the party isn’t really unifying behind their own, but unifying against the other.”
The foreign journalists nodded and quietly took notes.
“When I moved here, I had a Hollywood illusion of America,” says Gina Di Meo, a correspondent with the Italian news wire ANSA who has been based in New York for 10 years. “Now, all the bad is coming out, all these racist sentiments. Something bad is going to happen. I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

Julia Ioffe is contributing writer at Politico Magazine.

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