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After successive wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire, Donald Trump is very much the Republican frontrunner. In attempting to make sense out of his scattered foreign policy statements over the last few weeks, observers have tried to locate him within the usual categories: Is he a hawk or a dove? An isolationist or a realist? My take is that he taps into nationalist feelings more than anything else — albeit in a discombobulated way. Attempts at pigeonholing him are useful as far as they go, but they still miss the single most important thing about Trump, along with his biggest foreign policy problem; namely, he is completely unfit to be America’s commander-in-chief.
Let’s begin by stipulating that many of Trump’s supporters are reacting with understandable anger against some disturbing national trends of the last decade or more. Wages are stagnant; there is a feeling that the US is in relative decline; political correctness has run amok; the nation’s elites show a kind of contempt for blue-collar white voters; the country’s immigration bureaucracy is clearly dysfunctional; and America has seemed unable convincingly to win a series of military engagements overseas. Indeed, these negative trends have accelerated under Barack Obama. But Trump offers no serious solutions to any of these problems. He only points to others’ flaws, even when his own flaws are vastly greater.
Take, for example, Trump’s recent statements about George W. Bush and Iraq. For some of his supporters, Trump deserves acclaim for finally opening up a genuine debate about the 2003 invasion of Iraq (as if Americans haven’t been debating that war for the past fourteen years). No, Trump’s real innovation here is to be a leading GOP candidate who openly taps into wingnut conspiracy theories, not only the idea that Bush knowingly lied about Iraq’s WMD — a charge for which there has never been any evidence — but that the former president may have somehow known about the 9/11 attacks beforehand. A despicable, baseless claim.
Regarding the argument that George W. Bush made fateful mistakes in Iraq: no kidding. There is in fact no record indicating that Trump opposed that war at the time. Now, what does he propose to do about it, in redirecting America’s foreign relations fourteen years later?
Here is Trump’s foreign policy platform for 2017, insofar as it exists, together with its inevitable consequences: Raise US tariffs sky-high, encouraging the formation of 1930s-style protectionist blocs and thus mutual economic impoverishment; crack down on allies such as Mexico and Japan, rather than obvious US adversaries such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia; completely alienate Muslim allies in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda; and ignore, downgrade, or belittle America’s leading role in maintaining world peace since the Second World War. Altogether, a recipe for disaster both internationally and for the United States.
Equally serious are Trump’s deep failings of character. This is absolutely relevant to being Commander-in-Chief. We are about to elect someone with powers over war and peace, life and death. We expect this person to be minimally above the bar in terms of personal integrity. Trump clearly is not. Politics can be an insincere business, but even by contemporary standards, Trump stands out as a truly shameless liar. He misrepresents people, issues, and ideas so aggressively that many watching seem either impressed or astonished into acquiescence — they’ve just never seen anything like it.
But the emperor has no clothes. Trump’s dysfunctional temperament over multiple decades is abundantly clear. The idea that this megalomaniac will suddenly now stick up for the little guy or be fit to command those in uniform would be a practical joke, except that it’s not funny. He has never fought for anything larger than his own personal aggrandizement, fame, and celebrity; nor has he recently started. His entire presidential campaign rests on the conceit that having enjoyed every other material pleasure life has to offer, he’d really like to be president. Even his attention-getting stands on key issues such as immigration reflect no consistent position held over any period of time. He’s obviously not a conservative. Nor is he a political moderate; that would require some core convictions. What he is, above all, is a con artist. Incredibly, many of Trump’s own supporters admit this, and then reply that since the whole game is rigged, why not just elect the biggest con artist of them all. This isn’t clever. It’s debased.
The electoral argument made by Trump’s supporters is that by profoundly redirecting Republicans against free trade, immigration, and US foreign policy leadership — while abandoning other conservative traditions on domestic economic and social issues — he will pick up new voters for the GOP. This is not only wrong, but delusional politically. Hillary Clinton is eminently beatable this November, but not by Donald Trump. This is regularly confirmed in polling match-ups between the two of them. Since both Clinton and Trump have embraced ill-considered opposition to free trade, that issue will be a wash. He may pick up a few Democrats and independents willing to vote on the single issue of immigration, but Trump will lose far more voters than he gains with his positions and persona.
First, there will be millions of principled conservatives and Republicans unwilling to vote for this bizarre candidate, even if they cannot bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. Second, Trump’s noxious personality and outrageous policy positions will turn off swathes of moderate and independent swing voters who might otherwise consider voting Republican this November. Third, he will energize unprecedented numbers of Hispanics to turn out and cast their ballots against him. Finally, insofar as voters look for steady, well-informed, capable leadership in foreign affairs — and they do — they will not turn to Trump. Hillary will ask the obvious question: Would you trust Donald Trump’s hands on the American nuclear arsenal in an international crisis? And the answer will be no. Unfortunately, Hillary will then not be held accountable for her multiple failings as Secretary of State, because to the median voter, Trump will seem even more unappetizing by comparison.
The notion that all of these various losses can be counteracted simply by mobilizing white, conservative-leaning, blue-collar voters, is a myth. These voters already exist: They’re called “Republicans.” If the stars line up for him, Trump may indeed have found a new way to secure the GOP’s nomination. He has not found a new way to secure the White House, and his nomination will mean almost certain defeat for Republicans this fall — linked to congressional, state, and local GOP losses all the way down the line.
There’s been a lot of talk about how anti-establishment Donald Trump is, how this is central to his appeal. Of course, everyone in American politics claims to be anti-establishment. It’s the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone. Obviously, no political party can function without elected officials, activists, donors, and opinion leaders. That’s your establishment, and by the way, “opinion leaders” include talk radio hosts who reach millions of listeners every day and influential billionaires like Donald Trump. So get over it.
The real question is, what does the party stand for? Traditionally, and particularly because of the legacy of conservative nominees like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Republicans have stood for limited government, established moral traditions, and a strong foreign policy. Donald Trump neither stands for nor embodies any of these things. Trump is comparable to Goldwater only in that he is likely to suffer a crushing defeat. In every other way, Trump is Goldwater’s opposite: in your heart, you know he’s wrong. If the GOP had a party establishment half as powerful as generally suggested, it would have long since rallied against Donald Trump in an effective and unified way, because the man is well on track to wreck the Republican Party along with that legacy. We’ll see if members of the supposed GOP establishment start to line up behind him if he truly appears to be winning the nomination several weeks or months from now. If they do, this would confirm Trump’s suspicions: Above all, they seek access, and are no more conservative than he is.
Because Trump is such a polarizing figure, his continued success in the GOP primaries is still not inevitable. Plenty of Republicans continue to support a sane, principled, conservative vision of their party that deserves to win and is ready to govern. Since two-thirds of GOP voters polled do not support the current front-runner, the issue is no longer establishment versus anti-establishment; it’s conservatives versus Trump. But of course, the anti-Trump forces cannot succeed as long as they are divided. The obvious alternative now is Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz will struggle to expand beyond his core support. Candidates such as John Kasich, who continue to poll in single digits nationwide even after multiple primaries, are not going to win the nomination this time around. Their main impact will be to prevent the consolidation of mainstream conservative voters against Donald Trump, in which case he really could win the nomination. This is no reflection on the credentials, solidity, or good intentions of these other candidates. It’s just the brutal mathematics of this primary season. Jeb Bush ran an honorable campaign, but did the right thing by dropping out.
The founders of this country fully expected that from time to time, loud-mouthed demagogues of demonstrably low character and inflammatory skill would try to capture the country’s highest office. In other words, they expected someone like Trump. That’s exactly why they built so many institutional checks and safeguards into the American political system. But they also hoped the electorate would have the wisdom and good judgment to see through such charlatans beforehand.
In the end, the party establishment won’t deny Donald Trump the presidency. The voters will. And if Republican primary voters don’t do it, the American public will in November. The entire Trump campaign represents a kind of colossal bet that he alone can not only fool some of the people some of the time, but all of the people all of the time. Since he can’t, that gamble will fail.
Republicans would be well-advised to jump off this would-be train-wreck or take over the controls, before Trump inevitably crashes it. Because one way or another, before this year is over, Donald Trump is going to end up as the very thing he hates most. A loser.