On Friday at an NRA rally in Indianapolis President Trump, live on stage, signed an executive order effectively pulling the United States out of a UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which aimed to set global standards for the transfer of military weapons. With showmanship and embellishment, Trump declared “We are taking our signature back”. This is event is yet another in a long line of similar actions by the president to isolate America or distance it from various international organizations or treaties. It is difficult to forget, for example, his similar disparaging of NATO. Multiple times on the campaign trail, in office, and during interviews the President has shown disdain and called for removal or renegotiation of the NATO treaty citing everything economic needs to national sovereignty.
What is striking about Trump’s tendency towards isolation however, is the fiery rhetoric he uses to convince voters that this is a necessary, if not beneficial, course of action. When negating the ATT at Friday’s rally he stated that “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy”. Similarly, in previous comments about NATO, which while admittedly inconsistent, have commented on its obsolete nature, its drain on American resources, its inability to stop terror, and accusing member countries of taking advantage of the United States. Not only is the president attempting to remove America from these organizations and treaties, but he is actively attempting to portray the nation as under assault and being unfairly treated on the world stage, even by our closes allies.
These tones of highly nationalistic and isolationist policies easily open the doors to Xenophobia, and fuel the Trump motto of “Make America Great” with the ideas that the world, friend or foe, is an economic or bureaucratic enemy of the united states. What results is almost a cover for Trump’s own worrying policies and actions back at home. In an article by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, populism and its dangers to democracy were discussed. Among the shared themes of populist leaders was the ability to “harness widespread discontent to gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule” . While Trump recently has been doing a better job trying to create enemies of his political opponents at home, the villainizing of allies abroad can also serve to sustain a populist, authoritarian leaning policy. International outcry and condemnation have served as one of many gatekeepers against populist leaders and regimes. As McCoy pointed out in a recent article in the Washington Post, reactions to Maduro’s rewriting of the constitution as resulted in financial sanctions as well as the recognition of a rival political leader, splitting the nation . Yet, just as Maduro in that country twisted international outcry into a condemnation of imperialist plots, by setting America apart from the institutions and international organizations it has a leading part in, Trump may be able to more effectively dismiss any foreign criticism as a plot to once again take advantage of the nation.
But can we really claim Trump is doing this as a form of stealth authoritarianism, or as a way to undermine our democratic institutions? J.W. Miller in his book What is populism? Defines three major criteria’s all populist regimes must share to be considered such, a Manichean world view, championing a ‘pure people’, and setting them apart from a corrupt elite. By pulling away from global institutions Trump certainly hits on some of these notes, claiming America to be the people, drained and unfairly used by a global elite. Yet there is a lack of Manicheanism, but in a disturbing way, as Trump increasingly aligns himself closer to Putin’s Kremlin. What is sure however is the clearly populist strain Trump put himself in by isolating the country from many of is historic allies and global trade arrangements. Far from its traditional role as the global defender of Democracy, our president has chosen instead to distance from our democratic allies and pull closer to nationalist, authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Kremlin. If we are to see this as a populist tactic, and Trump as a truly populist leader, we must be wary, as Taylor and Frantz warned, of a “personalist dictatorship” forming under our president. One isolated from our international allies, fearful of other democratic nations, and in a situation that can threaten the very core of our
 McCoy, Jennifer. “Venezuela’s controversial new Constituent ASsembly, explained”. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/01/venezuelas-dubious-new-constituent-assembly-explained/?utm_term=.8ef6bf8e34d9. 4/28/2019  Müller, Jan-Werner. n.d. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
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