From Realist to Moral Crusader to Contradiction: Trump and the Children

As a longtime student and occasional teacher of international politics, I tend to see the world through the lenses of international relations (IR) theory. These are tools of explanation, capable—more or less—of illustrating the structural forces of international being. So in recent weeks, I have taken great interest in US President Trump’s crusade against illegal immigrants, even going so far as—as we all know—separating children from the parents of asylum seekers. While all of this is in keeping with Trump’s presidential moral character, I cannot help but shake my head with frustration.

While it is true that there are deeply ethical and even moral concerns about pulling children from their parents’ arms, my grievances go beyond the abhorrent and into simple arithmetic that breaks down.

Trump, the Realist

Prior to politics as a profession, Trump was essentially a political realist: calculate cost and benefit, focusing primarily on balancing against large powers that might seek to do you harm. Act if doing so makes you better off than before. And during the Obama Administration, Trump, through Twitter, urged Obama to keep US troops out of Syria after Syrian President Bashar al Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” by, allegedly, using chemical weapons against his own people. The following tweet explicitly shows Trump’s logic.


Here, we see Trump essentially saying, “There are few rewards and tremendous costs in attacking Syria.” This is precisely the kind of advice realists would give and have given. It was the lead up to the Korean War that compelled Hans Morgenthau to issue stark rebukes against wars of liberation and against Communist invasion. It’s not that what happened on the Korean Penninsula was not horrible; it’s that the war was a waste of resources that could have been better utilized to balance against the main Soviet threat. In other words, Trump was following a logical train of thought that had been long-ago established by heavy hitters, such as E.H. Carr and Hobbes.

While 2013 Obama faced no such major contenders against US power, it is certainly true that what Assad does to his own people has little effect on the US’s position as—more or less—a global hegemon. Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe and China’s slow encroachment in the South China Sea deserve tremendous more attention than a relatively insignificant dictator and what he does to his own people.

Trump, the Moral Crusader

And so it should come as a huge surprise to anyone recently liberated from a years-long shipwreck on a deserted island that, following Assad’s April 2017 chemical attack against his own people, Trump completely changed course. The following, taken from the New York Times, shows Trump’s new position on the topic.


Please, step back and let this statement soak in. It’s quite amazing, really. The vocabulary leaves the listener with no uncertainty—“horrible,” “brutal,” “beautiful babies cruelly murdered,” “barbaric attack,” and the coup de grâce, “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

Trump made this statement to explain why he would be sending additional troops to Syria and, eventually, attack a Syrian airfield. But the language is fascinating. He puts it in a Biblical context, almost as if doing nothing amounts to giving Satan a free pass to spread evil through the lands. The language tugs at your heartstrings. Of course, no baby should suffer a suffocating sarin bitter end!

We completely understand the moral and ethical responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children who share no fault in the world’s ills.

And so Trump became the moral crusader, intent on using significant US military resources to protect babies. This is a remarkable shift from Trump the realist to Trump the social constructivist. Despite realism’s undeniable logic, the world simply doesn’t work that way. The world has agreed that it is an imperative norm to protect innocent infants from monsters, by any means necessary.

But this is, unfortunately, not the end of Trump’s story. IR theories collide. The laws of reality and normative obligations collide.

Trump, in the Written Security

How do you convince a group of people with whom you identify to murder human beings—strangers? It’s simple really. Nationalist movements have been doing it for hundreds of years. The US has been doing it since its founding. You simply must convince your people that the out-group is evil. It’s not enough—and is counterproductive—to focus on the morality of the in-group. Telling human beings, “You are good people; therefore, you must kill those other people” does not work. Focusing on the ills of the other signals to the in-group that the in-group is good. [For a really good, but long, book on this—probably in my top three favorites—see Writing Security by David Campbell. Go ahead and pick up a copy!]

Candidate Trump famously called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, signaling to his voters that Americans are not rapists and murderers. By doing so he makes Americans feel as if they have the moral high ground, while simultaneously constructing a villain that must be stopped. But there’s an inherent danger here.

Morgenthau was, primarily, anti-nationalist. The wars in Eastern Asia, in his view, were not to balance against the spread of Communism—the “domino theory”—but rather to express US nationalism, and it was to the detriment of US national security. The enemy was Stalin, not his ideology. But to Trump, the enemy is neither a tangible threat nor an ideology. Trump has no enemy south of the Mexican border from which to protect Americans; rather, he has his own nationalist ideology and must create danger where it does not exist.

[Of course, one could argue here that bona fide criminals do pose threats to individual Americans, but it is no easy feat to separate potential criminals from non-criminals—not until we develop a mind-reading technology.]

Trump, the crusader, has furthermore undermined his crusade by violating its tenets. If your goal is to protect human children—even the children of Syria—then you cannot in the next breath deprive Latin American children their parents or lock them up, families united, while their asylum-seeking parents await trial. This violates the normative constructs humans have long adopted. It creates a contradiction.

In other words, Trump, through separating children and arresting asylum seekers, follows neither the cold logic of realism (balance against the actual enemy) nor the social contract Americans have with the US government to protect innocent babies, no matter where those children sit.

I find it quite remarkable that political realism and social constructivism overlap here. Both prescribe identical courses of action: Take no action against the children of asylum seekers. Nationalism violates both realism and norms.

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