WASHINGTON – President Donald J. Trump’s America First approach to international relations and world leadership probably would have resonated with the late Jim Jontz.
Jontz, a former Democratic Hoosier congressman, ran against then-Sen. Richard Lugar in the 1994 election. At the time, I was Lugar’s deputy press secretary and often had to help respond to Jontz’s favorite attack: Painting Lugar as someone who cared more about Peru, the country, than Peru, Ind. Or Brazil, the country, more than Brazil, Ind.
Jontz ran radio and TV commercials depicting him visiting such Hoosier small towns in a red pick-up truck and asking rhetorically when Lugar had last been there.
The ads turned out to be ineffective because Lugar was a regular presence in Indiana. But Jontz had the advantage of just being flip and trying to make people laugh.
The bigger challenge fell to Lugar, who explained how his leadership on foreign, security and agricultural policy led to a stronger and more prosperous United States in which Hoosier workers and farmers in Peru and Brazil – the Indiana versions – could thrive.
But 23 years after Hoosiers embraced Lugar’s internationalist views and sent him back to Washington in a landslide, Jontz’s rhetoric is being revived by Trump.
“It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – along with many, many other locations within our great country – before Paris, France,” Trump said on June 1 when he announced that the United States would abandon the Paris climate agreement.
Trump said that his decision to pull out of the Paris accord was motivated by his “love” for American workers. He returned to this kind of rhetoric in his weekly radio address on July 8, when he defined his “America First” agenda as one that “will not allow other nations to take advantage of us any longer.”’
“That’s why I withdrew from the one-side Paris climate accord – and, believe me, it was one-sided,” Trump said. “Not a good deal for our country. And the job-killing Trans Pacific Partnership, and that’s why we are pursuing a total renegotiation of NAFTA, and if we don’t get it, we will terminate – that is the end of NAFTA forever.”
This way of expressing affection for American workers, however, could end up hurting them. Evidence of this outcome was seen at last week’s G20 meeting, where the European Union and Japan announced a trade agreement that bypasses the United States.
Instead of keeping the United States at the table, where it can negotiate agreements that open markets for U.S. goods and defend American workers, it is being kept out of the room.
For the most part Mr. Trump wants to boost the American workforce by cloistering it from the rest of the world. The bottom line in trade and security agreements is: What’s in it for America?
The risk is that a defensive, insecure, confrontational United States undermines the alliances and relationships that advance American interests – not just in economics but also in security matters, such as North Korea’s nuclear threat. It would be easier to contain North Korea if the United States were a strong trade and security partner with Asia.
Developing thoughtful, nuanced policies that allow the United States to exert global leadership while also addressing those who might be left behind in globalization takes a lot of hard work. It can’t be done through a series of executive orders, Trump’s favorite governing approach so far.
But there doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive alternative to Trump’s world view among Republicans in Washington.
In a recent speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence advocated a “holistic approach” to relations with Central and South America, but he also dwelled on gangs, criminal networks and illegal immigration and mentioned the wall that Trump wants to build between the U.S. and Mexico – tacking back to the insecurity trope that runs through Trump foreign policy.
No Indiana Republican is stepping up to become the next Lugar, with a comprehensive, coherent approach to foreign and trade policy. Instead, they are nudging Trump here and there.
Freshman Rep. Jim Banks, 3rd CD, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, advocated a skeptical and muscular approach to Russia in a July 10 series of Tweets, a contrast to the coziness that Trump demonstrated in his G20 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Freshman Sen. Todd Young serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Lugar chaired twice. Using that forum, he has joined Democrats in backing a plan to increase foreign aid funding and in opposing Trump’s arms-sales agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Reps. Luke Messer, 6th CD, and Todd Rokita, 4th CD, both want to join Young in the Senate. In preparation for their likely GOP primary next year, they have not pushed back on the Trump worldview – or many Trump policies, for that matter.
For now, that may be a winning political position for an Indiana politician. But if Trump’s America First policies put Americans behind because the United States no longer has leverage to shape the world to their benefit, Hoosier Republicans may want to dust off the Lugar playbook.

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.