President Donald Trump has values and philosophy. It all has something to do with Alexander Hamilton.
Sounds crazy, right? But it's true. And Washington elites on both sides of the aisle are still, two years after the election, fatally underestimating the president and demonstrating contempt for his voters. Critics love to refer to him as a “transactional” president and insist his voters are rubes who fell for an alluring sales pitch. But Trump has strong ideas that he is hell-bent on fighting for, and his core supporters remain willing to ignore his various outrages. Indeed, they may very well head to the polls for him again in 2020.
Thus, Democrats who dismiss Trump as an empty suit do so at their own peril.
No, Trump might not be so read up on the philosophical basis of his own ideology. He is not perusing the works of John Locke, Edmund Burke or Friedrich Hayek between morning tweets. But he is also not simply channeling Machiavelli.
He is not perusing the works of John Locke, Edmund Burke or Friedrich Hayek between morning tweets. But he is also not simply channeling Machiavelli.
A certain amount of the Trump ideology, particularly in regards to trade, harkens back to what was once known as “Hamiltonian economics” or “The American System.” Alexander Hamilton believed that a degree of protectionism was vital to support America’s young manufacturing industry, which was imperiled at the time by the era’s international economic behemoth, Britain.
The American system, which continued well into the 20th century, emphasized tariffs to protect U.S. industry and fund the federal government. It also featured federal support for major infrastructure projects — another stated Trump priority.
Hamilton, wrote author William J. Gill, “understood that any nation that desires to remain politically independent must also protect its economic dependence and strive toward as much self-sufficiency as possible. The whole concept of nationhood rests upon this premise.”
“Make America Great Again” is not just a cynical slogan. It encapsulates Trump’s America-first ideology. Through instinct, experience and even some instruction, Trump has absorbed a populist worldview largely abandoned on the coasts but still embraced by many in middle America. It posits a unique American culture that is basically good — despite serious flaws — needs protection and, to the extent it evolves, must do so gradually so as not to lose its essence.
Once fully understood, the elements of a Trump ideology begin to fall into place. Immigration, particularly legal immigration, must have some limits so the culture isn’t altered so quickly that it becomes perverted into something else. Foreign military entanglements, alliances and participation in international treaties and organizations must be limited to prevent America from becoming too mixed up with, literally, foreign ideas.
American companies must be based at home to preserve their American character, while tariffs must protect them, in order to support the American middle class and workers.
None of this has to be nativist, racist or intolerant — though of course it can be. Being in favor of uniquely American values and taking the steps one feels are needed to protect them does not have to imply hatred of others.
Being in favor of uniquely American values and taking the steps one feels are needed to protect them does not have to imply hatred of others.
One advisor who helped school Trump on some of these ideas was former White House chief strategist Steven Bannon, who first sat down with Trump to talk policy back in 2010 — when the real estate developer and reality TV star was considering challenging President Barack Obama in 2012.
But Trump, Bannon told me, had already formed much of this thinking on his own.
“Every one of these ideas were ideas he'd been talking about for 25 years,” Bannon said. “On trade, on China. On the military. Basically, he already had pretty well-formed his mind — already, it was America First.”
You may remember when Trump said: “We're spending billions of dollars. So what's happening? They don't contribute one penny of this defense." Or you may not. He said that in 1987 in New Hampshire, during a brief flirt with a presidential run. He was not talking about our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Rather, he was referring to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Back then, Trump warned about our unfair trade nemesis in Asia. But it was not China. “We let Japan come in and dump everything into our markets,” he said on Oprah Winfrey’s show that year. “It’s not free trade.”
Bannon said, however, that Trump’s ideas on immigration and social issues were not quite as well formed.
While the worst of these epithets are untrue, there’s no doubt the author of “The Art of the Deal” does not hesitate to bargain his way to a palatable, if imperfect, result. Trump is an opportunist, but it is his beliefs — and not a thirst for power — that drive him to remain steadfast and advance his agenda, even amid the incessant storm of criticism and derision he incurs from the establishment.