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The populist Trump versus an international Trump

The most controversial issue in the US is definitely not Iran. It’s actually a matter that’s related to sports and human rights and it got embroiled into a debate on patriotism, creating wide social and political divisions, after President Donald Trump tweeted about it.

American football players decided to show their rejection of racial discrimination against African-Americans by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Trump viewed this as an insult to the US, to the flag and to the soldiers who scarified their lives for it. He then acted like a company director and proposed to the National Football League (NFL) to punish these errant players calling for their suspension and firing them if they repeat this behavior.

If you are confused about Trump’s populist character, then this is the perfect example to gain insights into it. He chose to get involved in the most important sport, defy the most famous players and manipulate national feelings and the symbolism of the American flag. 

Mobilizing supporters 

Is Trump doing all that for America, which God blesses? Of course not. He’s doing that to expand his electoral base and mobilize his supporters.

Although some writers and analysts criticized him, the electoral and political scene in America changed a lot in the past years after big money, media outlets and social media platforms became strongly involved in politics, particularly amid the erosion of influence of traditional political parties. Let’s keep in mind that Donald Trump won, although the Republican Party preferred Jeb Bush over him.

The phase of fair play is practically over and it’s acceptable to use all scandals and any possible means, even filthy ones, to stain your opponents’ reputation.

However, the international Trump is very different from the populist Trump. It’s important to know the difference between the two characters in order to understand the American administration’s approach abroad and evaluate it properly without being deceived by the domestic campaign launched against the president.

Mamdouh AlMuhaini



Trump is not the only one who does that, and his rivals do that as well. An example is the audio recording, which showed Trump making sexually degrading remarks, and which was leaked by his rivals to the Washington Post a month before the presidential elections in an attempt to bury him alive.

However, the international Trump is very different from the populist Trump. It’s important to know the difference between the two characters in order to understand the American administration’s approach abroad and evaluate it properly without being deceived by the domestic campaign launched against the president. This campaign has its own logical motives and it’s related to internal affairs such as Russia’s intervention in the elections or to social matters such as his party’s stance against gay marriage but it’s not related to international affairs that harm the fate of countries across the world.

The populist Trump argues with the American media and accuses it of faking news, while the international Trump is the man who ordered striking al-Shayrat air base with 59 Tomahawk missiles after the Khan Shaykhun chemical massacre.

The populist Trump tweets until mid-night mocking and attacking others but on the next morning announces an important strategy to confront Tehran and its militias.

While he uses a popular rhetoric and asks football players to stand up to voice respect for the American flag, his team is preparing a plan to deter Pyongyang.

The populist Trump depends on himself and on his Twitter account now that his strategic consultant Steve Bannon is out of the White House.  

Sklled administration team 

The international Trump, however, depends on prominent administration officials like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. These men are skilled and experienced in international matters and are not preoccupied with partisan arguments and debates between their president and the media.

There is a lot of difference between a populist Trump and an international Trump but many hold the second character accountable, based on the first character’s actions. This is because it is difficult to combine the two characters which are greatly, and sometimes intentionally, contradictory. Therefore, criticism that Trump’s administration is isolationist is inaccurate unless we get mixed up between the populist and the international personas of President Trump.

Truth be told, the former Obama administration which was commended and described as international, ended up as an isolationist administration, that was negatively viewed by many. The main problem is that it bet on the idea that a number of international axes will emerge and share the burden of maintaining the world order, as the US does not want to be the world’s police.

However, the results were disappointing as none of these new axes such as that of Russia maintained the right international norms because basically it is already opposed to them since the Peace of Westphalia in 1684, when the new world order that we know today came to be established. 

Punishing the victims 

The worst disappointment was in Syria where the Assad regime committed massacres for years. Instead of rising to punish the mass murderer, these new world powers punished the victims and shook the trust in the value of international justice which Western powers had protected for decades. This world order which now included several axes was witness to controversial agreements, like the Iranian nuclear agreement which ignored the horrific massacres that Shiite militias affiliated with Tehran committed.

Trump’s strategy for a war on Tehran clearly reveals the international leadership of the new and realistic American administration that seeks to maintain the liberal world order which the US inherited from the collapsed British empire and expanded by force.

It is very different than George W. Bush’s approach as he was dragged into the delusional project of creating democracies around the world, building nations as per the Western model and turning Iraq into a new Germany.

Trump wisely got rid of these altruistic ideas and resorted to the old and realistic American approach of restoring close ties with historical allies and supporting stability by eliminating the two biggest sources of chaos in the region: Shiite and Sunni terror and political Islam groups and rogue regimes like the Iranian regime.

However, these developments which are important on the international level will not be clear if the populist Trump and his tweets dominate the scene.

Trump’s populist character made a writer muse about Obama’s bed in the White House, as he asked: “How can a bed which a smart and intellectual man like Obama slept on be used by an ignorant and demagogic man like Trump?”

This article is also available in Arabic.
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Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.

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Last Update: Thursday, 19 October 2017 KSA 13:59 - GMT 10:59
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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