Obama First Tapped Into The Roots of Trump’s America First Policy

He called for “nation-building here at home.” He conveyed his frustration with longstanding U.S. allies, complaining that “Free riders aggravate me.”

He panned America’s allies for repeatedly calling on the U.S. over several decades despite “an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”

He even warned the U.K. that its “special relationship” with the U.S would collapse if it continued failing to meet the minimum 2 percent defense-to-GDP requirement among NATO members.

Which U.S. president are we talking about here?

If you picked President Barack Obama, then you are correct.

For the past year, the impulse has been to suggest that President Donald Trump’s populist and nationalist America First rhetoric facilitated the American turn away from the rest of the world. On the surface, it seems Make America Great Again came out of nowhere to stand against globalization that defined the international system since the end of World War II.

But Trump is a symptom of an international system in flux, a person who, in fact, has exhibited remarkable similarities in foreign policy with his predecessor. None of this is new, and we should have seen it coming.

GettyImages-632195452 Barack Obama congratulates Donald Trump after Trump took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

We should not be surprised that 9.2 percent of Obama voters voted for candidate-Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, Trump won 194 of 207 counties that Obama won in 2008 and 2012.

While Obama criticized NATO allies for being too dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, Trump brought it to an entirely new level.

During the 2016 election, Trump often criticized U.S. military commitments to European allies, claiming that the U.S. absorbs too much of the security burden within NATO. He even suggested that if a NATO member were attacked, he would first check their spending levels before he decided whether to come to their defense per the requirement in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter.

As president, he tweeted, “They (Germany) pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”

He followed this up in a speech at NATO Headquarters, “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years…”

Though Trump’s undermining of NATO’s credibility seemed to come out of nowhere, it was Obama’s earlier criticism that allowed Trump to call out NATO allies for not pulling their weight.

Indeed, no part of the MAGA philosophy came out of a vacuum. Populism and nationalism were awoken by the housing crisis, the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, emerging markets in Asia, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Uneven economic growth and stagnant median family income since the 2008 Great Recession, combined with the decades-long transformation of the American workforce away from manufacturing, led the American public to question long-standing U.S. global commitments and alliances.

Americans became concerned with why U.S. foreign policy continued to support a global order that many believed outlasted its usefulness or harmed the middle-class.

Rising economic inequality and shrinking middle-class income in addition to hyper-partisanship and an increasingly gridlocked Congress prevented Obama from transforming U.S. foreign policy at home.

As a result, frustrated and angry American voters were susceptible to Trump’s America-First nationalist sentiment and engaged in a populist, nationalist backlash against the American-led global order they believed was underwritten by U.S. military power and financed by American consumers.

Trump’s election in 2016 was not a conservative reaction to the waning of the American-led order; rather, it is a right-wing populist reaction to globalization centered on ethno-nationalism and revivalism.

Where conservatism is an outward, optimistic and hopeful expression of American exceptionalism and benevolent U.S. global leadership, Trumpism is an inward, angry and resentful longing for the past that rests dangerously on white identity politics and scapegoating.  

Chris Dolan is a professor of political and global studies and the Chair of the History, Politics, and Global Studies Department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

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