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It was this impulse that made Obama unusual. He embodied a mix of Jefferson and Wilson, preferring to reduce US overseas commitments while promoting democratic values where possible — an impossible contradiction. While he did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalist platform, once he was elected it became clear that anti-exceptionalism clearly shaped his “leading from behind” stance. The world’s challenges, as he put it, “can’t be met by any one leader or any one nation”.

Obama, in 2009, observed: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He was deeply critical of “free riders” relying on America to provide their security. His target was the Nato and Asian allies who failed to meet their defence spending commitments. His critique was justified, but it did call into question the strength of the alliance.

The reality of Trump’s electoral victory is that it happened because, for a large section of America, Obama failed to deliver his campaign promise of “change we can believe in” at home. Overseas, he leaves his successor a series of foreign policy disasters, change that was not needed. Senior Republicans and Democrats seemed united during the election in the belief that Obama left behind a much harder set of foreign policy issues than he inherited. Indeed, the range of threats is unusual, mixing state- and non-state-based actors in almost every region of the world and peculiarly linked across regions.

There is always danger in rushing to judgment, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have been marked by a degree of chaos uncharacteristic for a new administration. What most commentators have missed is that although this chaotic upending of political norms and challenges to the US constitutional order is a function of Trump’s personality, it is also a deliberate style of government. Under Trump, the Republican domination of government conceals an uneasy tension between the anti-establishment forces of the Trump coalition and more traditional conservatism, which has expressed itself in the bizarre incongruity of policy statements by Trump and the actions of his political appointees. So Trump’s suggestion that torture might be allowed back onto the battlefield has quietly been dropped. Neil Gorsuch, a staunch Republican, has been nominated to the Supreme Court, even while there is a serious risk of a constitutional crisis as Trump faces off against Republican judges opposed to his travel ban. How should we interpret this tension? Is Trump really a fairly standard conservative figure, trying to court the far-Right for electoral purposes, or does he represent a more extreme form of anti-establishment, personality-based politics?

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