Peace be upon you: Trump wrong-foots critics with foreign travel, US dollars and religion

Donald Trump's move into the foreign arena reveals intriguing subtexts about his Presidency and how it will shape up

Trump's early state visits have been set in a religious context

There’s been a trade element to President Trump’s first overseas trip, no doubt about that. Multi-billion dollar weapons deals with the Saudis are part and parcel of the American axis of power in the Middle East.

But it was very noticeable that within broad definitions and in a few short hops Trump visited cities central to each of the Abrahamic faiths: Jerusalem, Rome and Riyadh.

No President has encompassed all three in a single trip before, and the full significance of the itinerary has been hotly debated across global media.

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What is likely though, is that setting up these key pillars of the world’s faiths as early beneficiaries of his attention will play well with Trump’s core constituency at home.

His electoral base centres around suburban and rural white communities of older voters, in particular Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals, although in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the Jewish vote by a handsome 71%-24%.

Perhaps more significant though, Trump polled better amongst evangelicals than predecessor Republican candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W Bush. More white Catholics supported Trump than supported Romney, but perhaps most tellingly of all, those who went to Church at least once a week backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 56% to 40%.

So, if the business of Trump is being in power, then religion is always going to be a key consideration.

Quite what his voters make of his claims to be able to solve the problems of the Middle East remains to be seen, but when Trump visits Israel it’s the evangelicals in the US he’s pandering to, 82% of whom think God gave Israel to the Jews [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/02/jewish-americans-vote-democratic], and not the Jews themselves.

So, with Jerusalem and the Vatican he’s got the evangelicals covered.

What then of the Saudis? After all, Muslims don’t feature heavily enough on the American electoral role to be significant as voters themselves and, doctrinally-speaking, the evangelicals don’t bother too much about Islam.

But the White House, in the form of national security adviser General H R McMaster, was keen to bring the Saudis fully into the picture.

“What President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress and prosperity," he said.

And actually, perhaps the Saudis were the key to whole thing after all.

Having projected Islam generally as a negative global influence for some years now, President Trump clearly has some backtracking to do if he is to retain old friends and win new ones in the Islamic world.

What better way to lay the groundwork for that than setting a visit to Saudi Arabia in the context of the West’s greatest religious traditions?

The Saudis themselves were delighted to play along. Being brought back in from the Obama-era cold has been top of their wish-list ever since the first overtures to Iran were made all those years ago.

And, if there is a way to Trump’s heart it’s surely through deals and flattery - the Saudis provided both, projecting pictures of Trump onto buildings, presenting gifts galore and agreeing to do US$55bn worth of business with US companies.

In turn, Trump took the opportunity to pander to his audience at home by lecturing the Wahhabi Saudis on the perils of Islamic extremism - even as terrorists associated with Wahhabi extremists were on the point of detonating a bomb in Manchester, England.

His speech was introduced by the recitation of verses from the Koran and the Saudis then listened politely.

"We are not here to lecture,” said Trump. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values, to pursue a better future for us all."

That didn’t go down so well with the alt-right in the US, but it went down well enough with the Saudis. In Vienna, OPEC kept oil prices low, and markets, which had endured tumultuous times earlier, when Trump was still in the US, were steady.

Could it be that Donald Trump will conduct foreign policy on a surer footing than he conducts domestic policy? That would be an interesting surprise development, and would have some obvious ramifications, not least a downward pressure on the gold price.

But for more on that, tune in to the next Federal Open Markets Committee Meeting in June.

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