Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts GOP Foreign Policy Opinion in the Trump Era

GOP Foreign Policy Opinion in the Trump Era

The Trump presidency has produced a continual stream of sweeping, yet misinformed, analysis regarding the internal state of the Republican Party. Amongst journalistic, academic, and political commentators today, the condition of opinion within the GOP regarding foreign policy issues is regularly misunderstood.[1] Here are several prevalent and mistaken assumptions that have circulated since November 2016:

  1. Among Republican voters, support for American internationalism is dead.
  2. Republicans are now pro-Putin.
  3. The GOP base strongly opposes free trade.
  4. Republicans are deeply divided over President Trump’s foreign policy.
  5. Trump’s foreign policy views are not representative of the median voter.
  6. Donald Trump has revolutionized Republican foreign policy opinion.

A closer look at public opinion polling results from organizations such as Gallup, the Pew Center, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs over the past couple of years reveals a far more nuanced picture, often directly contradictory to the above myths. Let’s consider each one in turn.

Among Republican voters, support for American internationalism is dead.

Donald Trump’s nomination and election as a GOP presidential candidate was commonly viewed as the Republican electorate’s repudiation of American internationalism. And indeed Trump’s 2016 campaign offered a withering critique of Wilsonian foreign policy traditions. But if American internationalism is defined as favoring a certain kind of U.S. activism overseas, including the maintenance of alliances, then there is still considerable support for it among Republican voters. A 2017 Pew Center study found that “Core Conservatives”—the single biggest group of Republicans and Trump supporters—are more likely to say that “it’s best for the US to be active in world affairs,” rather than simply “focus on problems at home.”[2] A Chicago Council study, also from 2017, shows a solid majority of Republicans—some 65%—agreeing that’s it’s best for the United States to “take an active part in world affairs.”[3] On the maintenance of existing alliances, a clear majority of Republicans including core Trump supporters agree that the preservation of NATO is “still essential” to U.S. security.[4] Indeed, with regard to the U.S. military presence in Europe, the Middle East, or the Asia-Pacific, Trump supporters and Republicans generally are more likely than Democrats to support either the continuation or enhancement of current U.S. troop levels.[5]

To be sure, these same studies show a significant percentage of Republicans—like a significant percentage of other Americans—ready to question existing U.S. alliances and force commitments, along with the underlying premise of U.S. foreign policy activism. The Chicago Council, for example, found that 36% of Republicans now believe NATO is no longer essential to American security.[6] Internationalist and non-interventionist impulses do compete within the heart of the GOP today. But this has always been true, including with regard to the American public as a whole. The notion that Republican voters no longer support U.S. foreign policy activism is an oversimplification.

Republicans are now pro-Putin.

This is one of the most commonly suggested findings of the Trump era: namely, that GOP voters are now supposedly “warm” toward Putin and Russia.[7] A widely discussed YouGov poll found a significant shift in Putin’s favorable ratings among Republicans over the course of 2016.[8] The logical implication is that this shift was in response to Trump’s unusual language regarding Putin over the course of the 2016 campaign.

Some polls do indeed suggest that Republicans are now less likely than Democrats to view Russia as a major threat. A recent Pew Center poll found that 63% of Democrats, compared with 38% of Republicans, view Russia as a major threat.[9] And insofar as the Russia issue has become entangled in domestic political and legal controversies related to ongoing special counsel investigations, party opinion has certainly polarized. However, the fact that tends to go missing amidst the headlines is that according to these same polls, the majority of Republicans retained a negative impression of Putin before, during, and after the 2016 campaign. Moreover, in polling results other than Pew’s, this past year has seen a dramatic rise in the percentage of Republicans inclined to view Putin’s Russia as an adversary. According to YouGov, as of February 2018, some 83% of Republicans viewed Russia as either “unfriendly” or an “enemy.” This was actually a higher percentage than among the general public, where 63% viewed Russia in similarly negative terms.[10] Other polling organizations, such as Gallup, never found a significant rise in GOP voter favorability toward Russia in the first place.[11]

In sum, when asked directly, an overwhelming majority of Republicans had a negative impression of Putin before the 2016 campaign, and an overwhelming majority of Republicans now hold that same position. The big and lasting story since 2014 is not that GOP voters have shifted toward Russia, but that Democrats have shifted against it.

The GOP base strongly opposes free trade.

Even champions of free trade often draw the regretful conclusion from the last couple of years that Republican voters have now turned hard against this tradition. A significant portion of GOP voters indeed are and have long been skeptical regarding the benefits of economic globalization and free trade agreements. Donald Trump won the 2016 GOP primaries in part by appealing to this constituency.[12] Yet, any blanket statement that the Republican base simply opposes free trade is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that the base of the party is divided on this issue.

The Pew Research Center found in 2017, for example, that over half of GOP voters believe U.S. involvement in global economy is good for new markets and growth. At the same time, a large minority of Republican voters—including 24% of core conservatives—disagreed with this statement.[13] Republicans are also divided over the question of whether trade agreements benefit the United States along with other countries. Core Trump supporters are more likely to believe that such agreements mostly favor other countries and that NAFTA in particular has been bad for the United States.[14] Most Republican voters today—like most Americans—believe that international trade has been on balance good for the American economy, but bad for the job security of American workers. Party leaders are far more likely to say that globalization has been good across the board.[15] This gap between popular and elite conceptions over U.S. trade policy has been wide for many years and was fully revealed in 2016.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump took an unusually stark position against numerous free trade agreements. Yet, since his inauguration, there is considerable evidence from multiple polling organizations including Pew, Gallup, and the Chicago Council to suggest that popular support for free trade within the Republican Party has actually gone up. Diana Mutz of the Chicago Council points out that whereas 46% of Trump supporters opposed new trade agreements as of October 2016, a full year later, only 17% were opposed.[16] Polling on trade policy has produced contradictory images since 2016, in part depending upon the precise questions asked. Yet, that is precisely the point. The picture that emerges of Republican voters as a whole is one of mixed feelings, rather than unalterable opposition toward free trade.

Republicans are deeply divided over President Trump’s foreign policy.

The regularly intense and churning criticism against the Trump administration’s foreign policy from elite opinion commentators, including many conservative intellectuals, sometimes creates an impression of deep opposition toward the president’s international approach from inside the GOP. But although there are broad divisions among Republican voters on a number of substantive international issues, when it comes to the question of supporting President Trump’s foreign policy, there is no such even division.

On the contrary, when asked simply whether or not they support the president’s foreign policy, the vast majority of Republicans say yes, and have said so ever since his inauguration. Representative polls find the level of GOP voter support for Trump’s foreign policy to be roughly 80%, and remarkably steady at that level for over a year now.[17] This is in keeping with trends during recent presidencies such as Barack Obama’s. The pattern in recent administrations has been that fellow partisans are much more likely to support a president of their own party, even when there is internal party disagreement over substantive issues. Interestingly, the reverse is also true: voters of the opposite party have been far more likely in recent years to say they oppose a given president’s foreign policy, even when they themselves are divided on matters of substance. According to the polls, this is certainly true for Democrats in the Trump era. As with Republicans, Democratic voters today express some serious internal divisions over numerous foreign policy issues including free trade, U.S. foreign policy activism, and military intervention. But when asked simply whether or not they support the president’s foreign policy, an overwhelming majority of Democrats reply that they do not.[18] There is even some evidence that the very fact of Trump’s taking a given issue position produces Democratic voter movement in the opposite direction.

The result is paradoxical: both parties are internally divided right now over international issues, with some overlapping mixed opinion on matters of substance. Yet, when framed as supporting the president, party opinion lines up very differently, strongly for or against.

Trump’s foreign policy views are not representative of the median voter.

A simple way of dismissing Trump’s views from the very beginning has been to label and discard them as “isolationist.” It is then easy to confirm that the general public is not isolationist. Naturally, this encourages the impression of a great distance on numerous international policy issues between Trump and the median voter.

The Chicago Council, for example, released a widely discussed report last year asking whether U.S. public opinion is closer to Donald Trump or the infamous “Blob”—i.e., the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment based in Washington, D.C. For those who wanted a quick takeaway, the report’s subtitle was: “Americans are generally closer to the Blob.” Yet, a closer look at the Council’s own results in that poll showed a much more complex picture, revealing some genuine gaps between foreign policy elites and the general public. One way to demonstrate these gaps is to compare the views of voters to opinion leaders, among self-identified political independents. According to the poll, compared to opinion elites, the general public is: considerably less likely to say that globalization is good for the United States (61% of independent voters, as opposed to 85% of independent opinion leaders); more focused on job protection as a key U.S. foreign policy priority (69%, versus 29%); significantly more likely to say that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States constitute a “critical threat” (40%, versus 19%); less likely to say the U.S. should take an active part in world affairs (57%, versus 92%); and considerably less likely to say that defending allies’ security should be an important U.S. foreign policy goal (33%, versus 53%).[19]

Obviously, large portions of Trump’s foreign policy are quite controversial. Over 50% of Americans typically say they do not approve of his foreign policy overall. Yet, insofar as the president projects mixed feelings or ambivalence regarding any of the usual components of American internationalism—free trade, traditional alliances, intervention, and U.S. foreign policy activism—he may not be so far from the median American voter.

Donald Trump has revolutionized Republican foreign policy opinion.

It is convenient for both pro-Trump and anti-Trump partisans to pretend that the president has utterly transformed the Republican Party on foreign policy as on other matters. And with regard to certain issues, such as free trade and U.S. Russia policy, there was an observable bump in support over the course of the 2016 campaign among Republican voters in the direction of Donald Trump’s own stated views. But this bump is dwarfed by three larger and observable trends, implied above.

First, movements in GOP popular opinion specifically over the course of 2015-16 toward trade protection or warmer relations with Russia appear to have been temporary, and may have already evaporated as of 2018.[20]

Second, any observed changes in opinion during 2015-16 applied to only a minority of Republican voters. All of these polls reveal that a majority of GOP voters never changed their views on issues such as Russia or free trade, one way or another.

Third, and perhaps most important, intra-GOP divisions over questions of trade and military intervention—and a sense of nationalist resurgence—predated Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Roughly half of Republican voters expressed skepticism toward free trade and economic globalization several years before Trump’s candidacy began. And increased popular Republican skepticism regarding U.S. military interventions, counter-insurgency operations, or nation-building exercises was already noticeable during Barack Obama’s first term. Donald Trump did not create these trends; he tapped into them. For an outspoken nationalist to win the Republican presidential nomination was indeed unusual. But internal GOP divisions over issues of trade and intervention existed well before 2015.[21] The broad configuration of Republican foreign policy opinion is therefore much the same as it was before Trump ran for president.

Part of the confusion surrounding current analyses regarding the GOP, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy lies in the common mistaken simplification that bipartisan support previously existed for an agreed-upon definition of American internationalism, only recently destroyed by Donald Trump. In reality, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have held some significant differences over these matters going back many years. Liberals and conservatives disagree and have long disagreed over issues of multilateralism, global governance, the United Nations, the use of force, humanitarian intervention, foreign aid, defense spending, arms control, immigration, covert action, counter-terrorism, civil liberties, and the need to address environmental challenges including climate change. These broad inter-party differences go back decades, arguably to the domestic political fallout from the U.S. war in Vietnam. Ever since the 1970s, liberal Democrats have tended to favor cooperative, multilateral, or accommodating forms of liberal internationalism.[22] Conservative Republicans have tended to be more hard-line. So for Republicans, a hawkish American nationalism in itself is nothing new. The great question has always been whether specific Republican presidents are capable of combining that impulse with realistic, engaged, and successful foreign policies under ever-changing conditions. Some have done so quite effectively.[23]

Myths Busted

An objective look at public opinion polls over the past few years reveals the limitations of some common and current misconceptions regarding popular Republican attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. Support for multiple aspects of American internationalism among Republicans has never really been extinguished. But this support takes the form of some specific policy preferences that liberal Democrats are unlikely to favor, which is presumably why we have more than one political party competing for high office.

The great majority of Republican voters have no affection for Putin’s Russia. Nor is the base of the GOP overwhelmingly hostile toward free trade. Rather, there is a deep and longstanding division among GOP voters over the relative merits of free trade agreements. A certain ambivalence toward economic globalization, military intervention, alliance commitments, and U.S. foreign policy activism is prevalent among American voters writ large, including Republicans, now as in the past. Trump’s particular formulations in response to this are of course new. But neither internal GOP divisions over important foreign policy issues, nor the presence of an intense American nationalism, are truly anything new when it comes to the Republican Party. At the end of the day, the president retains the support of the overwhelming majority of Republicans for his foreign policy overall. Whether Trump has revolutionized U.S. foreign policy remains a matter of intense debate. Every U.S. president has the ability to reshape America’s foreign relations, and his own party’s projected image, in profound sometimes unexpected ways. But on the question of whether Trump has radically reshaped Republican voter opinion on foreign policy issues, altogether the polls over the last few years tell an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive story: He has not.

Colin Dueck is a Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, a non-resident senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford 2015), Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton 2010), and Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton 2006). His current book project is on the subject of conservative American nationalism.


[1] For a good example, see Dylan Matthews, “Trump has changed how Americans think about politics,” Vox, January 30, 2018.

[2] Pew Research Center, Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2017), 63.

[3] Chicago Council on Global Affairs, What Americans Think About America First (Chicago, IL: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2017), 8.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 33.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] David Weigel, “GOP voters warm to Russia, Putin, Wikileaks, poll finds,” Washington Post, December 14, 2016.

[8] David Byler, “The Republican Party in the Age of Trump,” The Weekly Standard, February 16, 2018.

[9] Kristen Bialik, “Putin remains overwhelmingly unpopular in the United States,” Pew Research Center, March 26, 2018.

[10] Kathy Frankovic, “Americans see Russia as a threat – but aren’t sure Trump does,” YouGov, March 23, 2018.

[11] Megan Brenan, “Americans, Particularly Democrats, Dislike Russia,” Gallup, March 5, 2018.

[12] Emily Elkins, “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” Voter Study Group (June 2017), 9, 20.

[13] Pew, Political Typology, 64.

[14] Chicago Council, What Americans Think, 22-23.

[15] Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “The Foreign Policy Establishment or Donald Trump: Which Better Reflects American Opinion?” (April 2017), 4.

[16] Diana Mutz, “Free Trade is becoming more popular – especially among Republicans,” Washington Post, November 17, 2017; Dina Smeltz and Karen Whisler, “Pro-Trade Views on the Rise, Partisan Divisions on NAFTA Widen,” (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, August 2017), 6.

[17] See for example The Economist/YouGov Poll (April 8-10, 2018), 184; Lydia Saad, “Trump Rated Best on Terrorism, the Economy; Better on Taxes,” Gallup, February 22, 2018.

[18] Chicago Council, What Americans Think, 10, 35; Pew, Political Typology, 4, 63; Saad, “Trump Rated Best on Terrorism.”

[19] Chicago Council, “The Establishment or Trump,” 3-6, 8, 10.

[20] Frankovic, “Americans see Russia as a threat – but aren’t sure Trump does;” Mutz, “Free Trade is becoming more popular – especially among Republicans;” Smeltz and Whisler, “Pro-Trade Views on the Rise,” 6.

[21] See, for example, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Foreign Policy in the New Millennium (Chicago, IL: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2012); Scott Clement, “Majority of Americans Say Afghan War Has Not Been Worth Fighting,” Washington Post, December 9, 2013; Jeffrey Jones, “Americans Oppose US Military Involvement in Syria,” Gallup, May 31, 2013; Andrew Kohut, “American International Engagement on the Rocks,” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, July 11, 2013; Frank Newport, “Americans Disapprove of US Decision to Arm Syrian Rebels,” Gallup, June 17, 2013; Pew Research Center, “In Shift from Bush Era, More Conservatives Say ‘Come Home,’ America,” June 16, 2011; Rasmussen Reports, “28% Say Libya Important to US National Security Interests, 42% Disagree,” and Brian Rathbun, “Steeped in International Affairs? The Foreign Policy Views of the Tea Party,” Foreign Policy Analysis 9 (2013), 21-37.

[22] Ole Holsti, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004 edition); Eugene Wittkopf, Faces of Internationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).

[23] Colin Dueck, Hard Line: The Republican Party and US Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).