January 28th, 2021


The Brussels attacks and the increasing isolationism of Donald Trump

Philip Bump

By Philip Bump

Published March 23, 2016

In the wake of the bombings that killed dozens of people in Brussels on Tuesday, Donald Trump -- likely safely cocooned in his luxurious home at the top of the Manhattan skyscraper he built -- called in to Fox News to discuss terrorism and his proposed response.

"I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what's going on," Trump said to the hosts of the cable network's "Fox and Friends," sounding a bit groggy. "We have to be smart in the United States. We're taking in people without real documentation, we don't know where they're coming from, we don't know what they're -- where they're from, who they are."

It's not clear if Trump's off-the-cuff comments were meant to be a reiteration of his past calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States or if it's a new, more expansive call to curtail all travel in and out of the country. The closest thing to the latter we've seen in recent history was the grounding of flights after 9/11 -- a temporary measure narrowly focused on the precise type of threat that had been presented. Beyond that, and beyond laws in the early 20th century limiting particular types of immigration, we've never seen an incident in which the country halted all migratory traffic. (Which, of course, would be a logistical challenge of enormous scale.)

Trump's past comments on closing the border to Muslims met with a receptive audience from the public. National polling in the wake of Trump's proposal showed support from members of his party for the idea. When the question has been asked in exit polling from Republican primaries, huge majorities expressed their support for the idea -- and pluralities of that group expressed their support for Trump in every state except Ted Cruz's home of Texas.

The attacks in Belgium came less than 24 hours after Trump outlined another way in which he hoped to contract America's presence in the world. In an interview with the editorial board of The Washington Post, he expressed skepticism about the U.S.'s role in NATO, the international military alliance headquartered in Brussels.

"I don't want to pull it out," Trump said of America's role in the alliance. But earlier, he envisioned a less-robust role: "Why is it that other countries that are in the vicinity of the Ukraine not dealing with - why are we always the one that's leading, potentially the third world war, okay, with Russia? Why are we always the ones that are doing it?"

This is not dissimilar to his past comments about Syria. "Russia is in Syria," he said last autumn about the fight against the Islamic State. "Maybe we should let them do it? Let them do it."

Despite his later insistence that he would deal with the Islamic State forcefully, there's a theme to Trump's rhetoric that is easy to identify: isolationism. Trump wants the United States to be the world's Trump Tower -- a luxurious refuge with a strict screening process where he feels absolutely safe. This is Trump's broader m.o., of course -- dropping in on primary states for same-day trips and preferring to battle news anchors from behind the tower's walls.

In a time of fear, Trump's message has been a resonant one.

That his first response to the attacks in Brussels mirrored his broader sensibility should come as no surprise.

03/21/16: Will the GOP really keep trying to Stop Trump for four more months? It'll be tough
03/10/16: The unravelling of a political messiah
03/08/16: Hillary's bogus electability argument
03/07/16: Donald Trump has not brought 'millions and millions' of people to the Republican Party
03/02/16: Trump cites his $100,000-a-year golf resort as proof of his efforts on equality
02/23/16: Ted Cruz isn't running a dirty campaign, but that perception just cost a staffer his job
02/22/16: How Donald Trump won South Carolina
02/19/16: Trump says he'll win independents and New York state, but the numbers don't
02/19/16: Does Trump have a ground game? We probably still won't know after South Carolina
02/17/16: The Bush family reinvented itself to dominate politics --- which is now Jeb's problem
01/27/16: The dead people of America really don't want Hillary Clinton to be president
01/21/16: Sarah Palin's son, and the link between combat duty and veteran violence
01/18/16: The dark undercurrent for Hillary Clinton in Sunday's Dem debate
11/23/15: Just so you know: The government already has a list of Muslims in the U.S.