The Truth About Populism and Foreign Policy

Examining the Data

A Trump supporters before Trump's speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 2016. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Last week in Foreign AffairsRichard Fontaine and Robert D. Kaplan analyzed the impact of this year’s campaign populism on U.S. foreign policy. Domestic economic difficulties, they argued, have made Americans less willing to have their country play a large role abroad. Even if neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders ends up as president, future policymakers will have to heed the strong sentiments these candidates have tapped.

At first glance, the data confirm this view. A Pew Research Center report published May 5 found that 65 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats want the next president to focus on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Almost two-thirds of Trump supporters—and a narrow majority of Sanders backers—agreed that the United States has suffered from its involvement in the global economy. And 61 percent of Americans (as well as 71 percent of Republicans) agreed that the United States has lost the international respect it once enjoyed.

Dig deeper, however, and the populist consensus looks shakier. On many of the most important issues, the big story is still disagreement between the parties—especially between Trump voters and Sanders voters. In the past five years, for example, support for increased defense spending has more than tripled among conservative Republicans, from 20 percent to 67 percent. Among Trump supporters, the number is 66 percent. By contrast, only 16 percent of those who “feel the Bern” want to increase the Pentagon’s budget; 43 percent prefer to cut it.

It’s conceivable, of course, that spend-more Republicans favor a strong national defense but have grown more cautious about actually using military power. The polls, however, suggest otherwise. Seventy-four percent of Republicans believe that the United States hasn’t gone far enough in fighting Islamic State (also called ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria. And they don’t just want more air strikes. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans favor ground troops, and among Trump supporters the number is higher still, at 70 percent. Liberal Democrats disagree: they oppose ground troops, 75 percent to 21 percent.

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