Peace Through Trump?
National interest builds a new foreign-policy coalition.
Donald Trump played a wily capitalistic trick on his Republican opponents in the primary fights this year—he served an underserved market.
By now it’s a cliché that Trump, while on his way to the GOP nomination, tapped into an unnoticed reservoir of right-of-center opinion on domestic and economic concerns—namely, the populist-nationalists who felt left out of the reigning market-libertarianism of the last few decades.
Indeed, of the 17 Republicans who ran this year, Trump had mostly to himself the populist issues: that is, opposition to open borders, to free trade, and to earned-entitlement cutting. When the other candidates were zigging toward the familiar—and unpopular—Chamber of Commerce-approved orthodoxy, Trump was zagging toward the voters.
Moreover, the same sort of populist-nationalist reservoir-tapping was evident in the realm of foreign affairs. To put it in bluntly Trumpian terms, the New Yorker hit ’em where they weren’t.
The fact that Trump was doing something dramatically different became clear in the make-or-break Republican debate in Greenville, S.C., on February 13. Back in those early days of the campaign, Trump had lost one contest (Iowa) and won one (New Hampshire), and it was still anybody’s guess who would emerge victorious.
During that debate, Trump took what seemed to be an extraordinary gamble: he ripped into George W. Bush’s national-security record—in a state where the 43rd president was still popular. Speaking of the Iraq War, Trump said, “George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
And then Trump went further, aiming indirectly at the former president, while slugging his brother Jeb directly: “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that.”
In response, Jeb intoned the usual Republican line, “He kept us safe.” And others on the stage in Greenville that night rushed to associate themselves with Bush 43.
In the aftermath of this verbal melee, many thought that Trump had doomed himself. As one unnamed Republican “strategist” chortled to Politico, “Trump’s attack on President George W. Bush was galactic-level stupid in South Carolina.”
Well, not quite: Trump triumphed in the Palmetto State primary a week later, winning by a 10-point margin.
Thus, as we can see in retrospect, something had changed within the GOP. After 9/11, in the early years of this century, South Carolinians had been eager to fight. Yet by the middle of the second decade, they—or at least a plurality of them—had grown weary of endless foreign war.
Trump’s victory in the Palmetto State was decisive, yet it was nevertheless only a plurality, 32.5 percent. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, running as an unabashed neocon hawk, finished second.
So we can see that the Republican foreign-policy “market” is now segmented. And while Trump proved effective at targeting crucial segments, they weren’t the only segments—because, in actuality, there are four easily identifiable blocs on the foreign-policy right. And as we delineate these four segments, we can see that while some are highly organized and tightly articulate, others are loose and inchoate:
First, the libertarians. That is, the Cato Institute and other free-market think tanks, Reason magazine, and so on. Libertarians are not so numerous around the country, but they are strong among the intelligentsia.