In his sledgehammer assault against the cornerstone institutions of the Western alliance, Donald Trump is replaying one of the defining confrontations in the Republican Party’s history. Only this time, the outcome is being reversed—with potentially tumultuous implications for both the GOP and the future of American foreign policy.
Trump is reprising the conflict between the Republican Party’s internationalist and isolationist wings, which raged between the end of World War I and the early Cold War. That extended scuffle crystallized in the battle for the party’s 1952 presidential nomination, when Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of the internationalist forces, beat Senate Republican Leader Robert Taft, who championed an earlier generation of “America First” nationalism and isolationism.
Eisenhower’s victory seemed to irreversibly settle the GOP’s direction. Every Republican president for the next five decades followed Eisenhower’s lead in pursuing a vigorous role for the U.S. in leading a robust international system of military, economic, and diplomatic alliances.
But cracks appeared in that Republican consensus under George W. Bush, both because of disillusion with the Iraq War and because of the party’s growing reliance on working-class whites, who are often dubious of any foreign entanglement. Now, President Trump is moving to virtually raze the structure of the U.S-led international order, with his open disdain for the alliances and economic relationships built after World War II.
As on so many fronts, the portions of the GOP resistant to Trump’s insular vision have managed barely a peep in protest. In the rematch between the ideological descendants of Eisenhower and Taft, only one side is in the ring. “For now, Taft beats Ike—that’s your headline,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern struggles between moderate and conservative Republicans. “Trump is closer to Taft than he is to Eisenhower, and he has reshaped the party in his image. The forces of Eisenhower and the East Coast internationalist establishment is back on their heels at this point.”
This struggle over the GOP’s foreign-policy direction both echoes and reconfigures the earlier conflict. Then, as now, the GOP’s isolationist elements were dubious of international engagement in all three of its principal forms: military and diplomatic alliance, free trade, and openness to immigration.
The struggle’s most heated confrontations came over international security alliances. Isolationists resisted U.S. involvement in World War II and fumed as internationalists Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey repeatedly topped Taft for the GOP presidential nominations through the 1940s. Finally, in 1952, Taft seemed poised to seize the party. A free-trade skeptic, Taft opposed the creation of NATO, and while he reluctantly voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II, he repeatedly sought to reduce it. Yet Taft again failed to claim the nomination after the party’s internationalist forces rallied behind Eisenhower, who entered the race only after Taft would not commit to maintaining the U.S. security guarantee for Western Europe through NATO.
In those years, the GOP foreign-policy debate split mostly along regional and economic lines. Isolationism dominated among Midwestern and Western Republicans, many of them farmers or small-business owners, while the internationalist forces were centered in the east, especially among banking and Wall Street interests already tightly connected to global markets.
Some traces of that older outline persist in the GOP’s differences today, with multinational business representing the strongest internal voice for global engagement. But the principal Republican divide over international involvement is now demographic. Trump’s insular nationalism resonates powerfully with his core constituency of Republicans without a college degree, a group that is almost entirely white. College-educated Republicans, who are also almost entirely white, are generally more skeptical—though even many of them have grown more suspicious of global engagement.
Data provided to me by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs from its most recent annual national survey of American foreign-policy attitudes tracks these patterns. College-educated Republicans, the survey found, were more likely than their counterparts without degrees to view globalization and trade in general and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular as good for the U.S. But the share of college-educated Republicans expressing such favorable views has declined in recent years, and today it’s far lower than the proportion of college-educated Democrats who view trade positively.
On U.S. alliances, the data paint a similar picture. While more college-educated than non-college-educated Republicans believe NATO is essential, both groups were far more likely than Democrats at either education level to question its value. Both college-educated and non-college-educated Republicans were also much more likely to assert that U.S. security alliances benefit Europe more than America. Similarly, college-educated Republicans view immigration more favorably than those without degrees, but not as favorably as Democrats. Looking across all these attitudes, Kabaservice, now the director of political studies at the center-right Niskanen Center, concludes that “very deep in the Republican id is this sense that we don’t need the rest of the world.”
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist, rejects the idea that changes in the GOP’s coalition have irreversibly shifted the party toward Trump-style isolationism and unilateralism. “The cost of alienating our allies … will start to mount,” said Feaver, who analyzed public opinion for Bush’s National Security Council. “It’s going to be harder and harder to sustain it.”
Yet in recent days, the GOP’s internationalist voices have been stifled at every turn. Beyond Arizona Senator John McCain, stunningly few criticized Trump’s outbursts around the G-7 meeting, when he questioned the cost of NATO, urged Russia’s reinstatement to the group, and lashed the trading practices of Canada and the European Union. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on bipartisan legislation to limit Trump’s power to unilaterally impose tariffs. And House Speaker Paul Ryan stymied a moderate rebellion to demand a vote on legalizing young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Feaver sees an opening in the future for more elected Republicans to reject Trump’s foreign-policy course because few of them have explicitly endorsed it (even if they haven’t overtly condemned it, either). Yet Republican internationalists face the risk that Trump’s truculent nationalism will accelerate the drift of college-educated voters away from the party—tilting its internal balance further toward the blue-collar voters most sympathetic to his belligerent approach.
Trump isn’t nearly as consistent, thoughtful, or principled in his views as Taft. But, for now, Trump has demolished Eisenhower’s consensus, and routed the forces of global engagement inside the GOP as Taft never could. The only question is whether Trump’s victory lasts as long as Ike’s did.