Donald Trump, Realism, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

February 4, 2016

Dan Drezner thinks Donald Trump is a realist and that therefore academic realists should endorse him for President of the United States.  There are only two problems with this.  First, Donald Trump is not realist.  Second, no one with a shred of decency or good sense should endorse Trump, regardless how closely one’s foreign policy foundations resemble his latest ravings.

Drezner thinks Trump is a realist because he has at times articulated policies that accord with realist principles, as Drezner documents, largely based on the claims of Trump’s team to Josh Rogin.  This would indeed be huge, but calling him a realist implies more than occasional support for policies consistent with realist principles.  It implies that his world view consistently accords with those principles.  So academic realists can, I suppose, cheer Trump’s disinterest in exporting democracy.  But they can hardly be thrilled with his proposal to “bomb the shit” out of ISIL-controlled oil fields in Iraq and Syria and then surround them with a “ring” of American troops.

Indeed, inconsistency is the real Trump doctrine, not realism.  Many candidates struggle to explain away the apparent hypocrisy in, say, claiming to be careful in committing American lives, yet simultaneously advocating wild, testosterone-fuelled military schemes to defeat America’s enemies.  But Trump embraces the idea that moral purity, and even the dictates of logic, end at the nation’s shores. Regardless of the contradictions, he will voice unapologetic pride in America and his foreign policy— then just as forcefully accuse China of stealing American jobs, while outsourcing his own clothing line to that country.

Does this celebration of hypocrisy make Trump a realist?  Maybe, but in this view, realism can be most anything as it can absorb any sort of inconsistency. Drezner verifies this in his subsequent retort to his (realist) critics when he manages to associate realism with both the very internationally-oriented foreign policy of Richard Nixon and nativism and even isolationism.

Drezner’s impressive demonstration of realism’s flexibility shows that the question of whether Trump is a realist is just yet another iteration in the perennial academic debate about what realism really is. This debate has become—after many, many decades—spectacularly boring and you should pay no attention to it even if you are an academic realist. Honestly, a marathon session watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer would give you greater insight into international relations than plunging into that tired dispute.

And regardless of what realism is, the more important point is that Trump’s foreign policy beliefs alone don’t and shouldn’t dictate how academic realists feel about him.  They might quite reasonably feel that even if the philosophical foundations of his foreign policy foundations are solid, the fact that he is a racist, megalomaniacal neophyte with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old girl might nonetheless disqualify him from the presidency. Nobody, even the much-maligned academic realists, have to endorse someone just because he shares their foreign policy priorities.  Now back to Buffy.


Jeremy Shapiro is the Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he was a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Prior to Brookings, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, where he advised the secretary of state on U.S. policy in North Africa and the Levant.


Image: DonkeyHokey, Flickr, CC