You may not like Donald Trump, for any one of a number of reasons, but anti-interventionists have to give him some credit for opening up the presidential debate to a critique of US foreign policy that hasn’t been seen or heard since the Ron Paul campaign. On Syria and on Iraq, he challenges the GOP/neoconservative orthodoxy in a way that Sen. Rand Paul hasn’t been able to do: indeed, one could argue that Trump has stolen Rand’s thunder – such as it is – in sounding the anti-interventionist note. And now Trump is upsetting the conventional GOP wisdom in an even more fundamental sense by challenging the “he kept us safe” theme that Jeb Bush has been pushing on behalf of his brother – you know, that former chief executive who left office with a popularity rating lower than any President in recent memory.
The Jeb-Trump contretemps played out over the weekend’s talk shows, with The Donald telling Fox News:
“Look, Jeb said we were safe with my brother – we were safe. Well, the World Trade Center just fell down. Now, am I trying to blame him? I’m not blaming anybody. But the World Trade Center came down. So when he said, we were safe, that’s not safe. We lost 3,000 people, it was one of the greatest – probably the greatest catastrophe ever in this country if you think about it.”
Jeb came back at him on CNN, the cable station nobody watches, protesting that brother George “united the country,” and going on to aver:
“I don’t know why he keeps bringing this up. It doesn’t show that he’s a serious person as it relates to being commander in chief and being the architect of a foreign policy. Across the spectrum of foreign policy, Mr. Trump talks about things that – as though he’s still on The Apprentice.”
I’m sure Jeb has never seen a single episode of “The Apprentice,” and that’s because he’s a Very Serious Person who is fast becoming the architect of his own defeat. This kind of condescending snootiness is a definite turnoff for voters, many of whom have seen “The Apprentice” and don’t appreciate being talked down to. Because in talking down to Trump, voters feel Jeb is talking down to them. That Jeb and his advisors don’t get this is the chief reason why the Bush campaign is sinking like a stone.
And just how serious is Jeb’s critique of Trump? If you parse it, it makes no sense: what does being commander-in-chief have to do with Trump’s criticism of brother Bush that, after all, the twin towers came down on his watch? What does being “the architect of a foreign policy” have to do with Trump’s assertion that the hijackers wouldn’t have even been allowed into the country if he had been President at the time? And what, exactly, does “across the spectrum of foreign policy” mean, anyway?
While Jeb may believe attacking his brother is a mistake Trump will come to regret – he immediately launched a fundraising drive asking his Twitter followers for $5 to “defend my brother” – the reality is that Trump has hit a nerve. And he dug the stiletto in deeper when he tweeted this New York Times op ed piece pointing out that George W. Bush had plenty of warning before 9/11 that something big was in the works.
This is important for two reasons: 1) It reinforces one of the major themes of the Trump campaign, which is the utter incompetence of our supposedly all-wise rulers, and 2) It upends one of the central myths of the post-9/11 era, which is that they attacked us because we’re so wonderful and free. Trump has another view, which he expressed in his book, The America We Deserve, published over a year before the 9/11 attacks. In that book he wrote:
“I really am convinced we’re in danger of the sort of terrorist attacks that will make the bombing of the Trade Center look like kids playing with firecrackers. No sensible analyst rejects this possibility, and plenty of them, like me, are not wondering if but when it will happen.”
Not only that, but he attached a name to the threat:
“One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis.”
And Trump makes the same point made by Ron Paul during that now famous moment in the 2008 GOP debate when Paul described the 9/11 attacks as “blowback” from our foreign wars. Writes Trump:
“I may be making waves, but that’s all right. Making waves is usually what you need to do to rock the boat, and our national-security boat definitely needs rocking. Let’s point fingers. The biggest threat to our security is ourselves, because we’ve become arrogant. Dangerously arrogant. It’s time for a realistic view of the world and our place in it. Do we truly understand the threats we face? ,,,
“Whatever their motives – fanaticism, revenge – suffice it to say that plenty of people would stand in line for a crack at a suicide mission within America. In fact the number of potential attackers grows every day. Our various military adventures – some of which are justified, some not – create new legions of people who would like to avenge the deaths of family members or fellow citizens.”
No, Trump isn’t a consistent noninterventionist:
“It is one cost of peacekeeping we should keep in mind. I am not a hard-core isolationist. While I agree that we stick our noses into too many problems not of our making and that we can’t do much about, I strongly disagree with the idea that we can pull up the drawbridge to hide from rogue nations or individual fanatics.”
Trump takes a Rand Paulian, i.e. ambiguous view of when to intervene abroad. But there’s one big difference between The Donald and Rand: Trump is the frontrunner, while Rand is trailing at the back end of the crowd. Yet more evidence that Trump has absorbed the support Sen. Paul hoped to capture.
In any case, what is truly amazing is that Trump is busy demolishing the post-9/11 consensus on foreign policy within the GOP: a central pillar of the elaborate mythology that went into justifying the Iraq war is falling by the wayside, thanks to him. Not only that, but the neoconservative agenda is being met head on by Trump, who disdains US involvement in Syria – a project the liberal Democrats also support, with Hillary Clinton leading the charge.
No, you don’t have to be a Trump supporter – and I am not – to see the benefits of his campaign for the noninterventionist cause. For lo these many years, the Washington Beltway know-it-alls have disdained ordinary Americans for their “isolationism” – why, those trailer-park types in flyover country don’t even have passports! These same mandarins have celebrated their own dominance of the foreign policy discourse, while politicians of both major parties have given us a “choice” between different varieties of globalism: the crazed “unilateralism” of the neoconservatives and the smugly self-righteous “humanitarian interventionism” of the cruise-missile liberals. Now, at last, their monopoly on the discourse has been broken – by a reality show television star and real-estate mogul who speaks plainly and is outpolling everyone!
Trump embodies the American zeitgeist, circa 2015 – its virtues, its vulgarity, its inchoate mixture of common sense and incoherence. He is, in short, a mixed blessing, but one can’t help but cheer when he gives voice to the stubborn unwillingness of the American people to take on the role of the “world’s savior.” As Trump puts it in his book, cited above: “That job is taken.”
To which one can only add: “Amen, brother!”
NOTES IN THE MARGIN