A central conceit of the last two Republican presidential campaigns was that President Obama had eviscerated America’s global standing. Mitt Romney cast him as inordinately apologetic. “President Obama began his [presidency] with an apology tour,” Romney claimed. “America, he said, had dictated to other nations. No, Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators.” Trump similarly claimed that Obama got duped into unfavorable deals with countries like Iran and went so far as to call him “the founder of ISIS” for his purported diplomacy failures in the Middle East. This was part of a pattern: The ex-president, Trump has claimed over the years, was a “disaster,” “weak,” “ineffective,” and “the worst president maybe in the history of our country.” “We need a President who isn’t a laughing stock to the entire World,” he tweeted in 2014.
The claim made by both men — and echoed by a range of conservative pundits — is that Obama projected weakness and therefore failed to command respect. America’s enemies and allies alike ran roughshod over him as a consequence, greatly eroding the country’s esteem on matters both military and economic while his countrymen wallowed in shame back home. This is demonstrably false: If anything, Obama improved how other nations viewed the United States, overseeing a dramatic spike in worldwide favorability that had plummeted during George W. Bush’s tenure and has fallen again under Trump. (The Obama spike was most acute in Western Europe; in Middle Eastern countries racked by his drone war and decimated by Bush-initiated military occupations, U.S. favorability has stayed underwater.)
The nagging irony is that Trump — the self-styled strongman elected to resurrect American greatness from the grave in which Obama purportedly buried it — has made a practice of getting laughed at by foreign leaders. This dynamic generated headlines during the NATO convening this week, where French president Emmanuel Macron used reverse psychology to provoke him into expressing plaudits for NATO — which the American president had previously lambasted and sought to withdraw from — then joined Prime Ministers Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and Justin Trudeau of Canada to laugh at Trump’s knack for aimless rambling. Their mirth was preceded by that toward a speech Trump made at the United Nations in 2018, where he claimed, absurdly, that his “administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” The audience of foreign dignitaries responded by collectively bursting into laughter. Most recently, the lack of respect Trump commands on the global stage was the theme of a Joe Biden attack ad.
Unsurprising though it may be that Trump has pursued his promise to restore American esteem abroad by making a mockery of it, it’s equally unsurprising that his supporters in Congress and the electorate are mostly unbothered. (Romney, to his credit, is a rare exception.) This can be explained largely by partisanship: Trump has pursued a racist and plutocratic domestic-policy agenda that aligns firmly with much of the GOP’s own, so it’s often in their interest to continue supporting him no matter how embarrassing he is. But it’s also explicable by the manner in which he and his followers believe their power should be projected — namely, performed loudly and insistently with little regard to how its putative targets actually interpret it. What Trump thinks translates as power, after all, is apparently not the same as what Macron and Trudeau do. On the contrary, plenty who encounter this behavior find it amusing, even worthy of ridicule.
But this fails to register — or matter — to Trump and his supporters because the rest of the world and its leaders are not their intended audience. It’s a display for their own benefit, an assertion of their ability to menace those with smaller guns, less money, and less to gain cathartically from responding in kind — a way to claim a superficial brand of social dominance recognized primarily by themselves. This is not an accurate reflection of real strength, brute or otherwise. Obama’s more conciliatory approach to foreign policy neither diminished his standing with NATO nor negated the number of nuclear weapons at his disposal. It’s a difference of affect, a divergence in philosophy regarding how the American ego should be stroked. Obama’s approach, at least initially, endeared him to those critical of Bush-era jingoism. Trump’s does the same for people who think saying “sorry” makes you weak.
This difference complicates any analysis claiming that ridicule from global leaders is a crushing blow to Trump’s ego. Fragile though that may be — and while he almost certainly despises being laughed at — the respect he craves most is that of his supporters who, ironically, applaud him for the same conduct that elicits eye rolls from those whose regard he purports to be regaining. It doesn’t require a brilliant political strategist to weigh the costs and benefits of such a dynamic and conclude that it’s more important — if one wishes to win reelection — to please the people voting for you than those in other countries with whom you conduct sporadic diplomacy.
It also highlights a political advantage: The American electoral system is set up so that Trump can win reelection while earning several million fewer votes than his opponent. His primary mandate is to attract a crucial cohort of (almost exclusively white) supporters in a handful of states while ensuring that his core supporters stay motivated. It’s an indictment of American pseudo-democracy that this reelection strategy has been proved successful once before, and rests on the whims of a minority that shares his appetites rather than a majority that largely does not. Crucially, none of this translates to worldwide respect. And rather than aberrant, such behavior merely continues a long history of American arrogance on the global stage — an impulse to manipulate international affairs, often by force, to suit its own ends with minimal regard to the upheaval, impoverishment, or death it causes others. Trump’s putative mission to reestablish the country’s global standing isn’t a failure if it’s not actually the goal. Instead, it’s poised to pay dividends by a metric dearer to Trump’s heart: getting reelected in 2020.