Twenty-one years ago I was assigned by Commentary to write about Jared Taylor—today known as one of the eminences of the “alt-right.” Taylor had written a grim book on American race relations, Paved With Good Intentions, which had been published by a mainstream house and was widely, if critically, reviewed. Though unusually skeptical about the prospect of blacks and whites living together harmoniously in the United States, it stopped well short of any systematically racist argument. The book had several fans among New Yorkers I knew prominent in journalism and city politics.
When I referred to it in passing in a New York Post column, we quickly received a fax from Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League stating that Taylor was far more extremist than I had let on. Curious to explore further, I queried Commentary—where I then did most of my non-newspaper writing—and they were interested.
I interviewed Taylor, read back issues of his monthly newsletter, American Renaissance (AR), and drafted a piece. AR was devoted primarily to demonstrating that in American history racism was as accepted as apple pie and that this was by no means a bad thing. It contained large doses of the evolutionary and biological racial thought fairly commonplace amongst American elites in the ’20s and ’30s. A central contention was that the United States could not thrive as an increasingly multiracial and multicultural country and that American whites were facing a kind of cultural dispossession.
I summarized this, quoting liberally, and concluded that the endgame vision of the AR crowd was potentially horrific, leading to national dissolution or civil war, while adding that continued mass immigration really would put the common culture of America under grave stress. If immigration rates went down, Taylor and AR would remain fringe players. If they rose, white racial anxieties would bubble to the surface, and Taylor might one day have his moment.
The piece was never published: Neal Kozodoy, Commentary’s editor, told me I had indulged Taylor too much and asked for a shorter, tighter rewrite. By then my brief summer vacation had ended, other tasks intervened, and I eventually lost interest.
Jared Taylor’s moment has not arrived, but clearly he has edged into the national conversation. He has been pictured and quoted in an anti-Trump attack ad produced by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he has been a guest on Diane Rehm’s show on NPR, and his core ideas have been broadcast—and excoriated—in magazines and websites great and small. He is now touted as one of the intellectual leaders of the alt-right, a diffuse movement of uncertain significance, but one deemed sufficiently important by the Clinton campaign for Hillary to devote a large portion of an August campaign speech to it. Donald Trump—who has almost surely never read a single article by an alt-right figure—is claimed by Clinton and other liberals to be under its influence and propagating its doctrines.
The truth is quite different: parts of the alt-right have raised their own visibility by attaching themselves to Trump. At the same time, Trump and his unanticipated success in winning the Republican nomination are symptoms of the same political and civilizational crisis that makes alt-rightish themes—at least in a more or less bowdlerized and soft-core form—compelling to a growing number of people.
Taylor, 65, is old by alt-right standards, and is an atypical representative, though just how much so is difficult to discern, for much of the alt-right is anonymous. The movement fields no candidates, publishes few books or pamphlets. It is a creature of the web, strongest on Twitter. Pepe, an internet cartoon frog, is an alt-right character—and has actually been formally denounced by the Clinton campaign. Alt-right internet trolling, sometimes ugly, blatantly racist and anti-Semitic, is also part of the movement. There is some debate whether it should be taken as an offensive and unfunny joke—merry keyboard pranksters who enjoy pretending to be internet neo-Nazis, rather like punk rock bands of the late ’70s deploying Nazi imagery for shock effect—or is something more sinister, a genuine resurgence of hardcore racism and anti-Semitism. Likely it’s more the former, but it’s also likely that the alt-right banner has given the minute number of genuine neo-Nazis in the country a kind of protective shield.
Richard Spencer may serve as a bridge between older white nationalists such as Taylor and a younger alt-right internet crowd. It’s mistaken to call him or anyone else a leader—the movement has no procedure for choosing leaders—but he is clearly a pole of influence. He’s an intellectual entrepreneur who arrived in DC roughly ten years ago from a Duke graduate program. He worked at TAC for seven or eight months, where he was kind of a square peg in a round hole. Sometime thereafter his ideology began to crystallize. He started a website called AlternativeRight.com and later revitalized a white-nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, and launched a journal, Radix.
Spencer can be engaging and amusing, but his core doctrine is likely to remain, barring some sort of Mad Max-type Armageddon, well outside what most Americans would consider plausible or desirable.
What is the doctrine? At a recent press conference in DC, Spencer explained that the core of alt-right thought is race. Race is real, race matters, race is foundational to human identity. You cannot understand who you are without race. Many people would agree—at least privately or partially—with the first two assertions, but the third is the critical one, and has never been true historically or sociologically. (Not that there haven’t been groups of self-proclaimed pan-Asian or pan-African intellectuals who sought to make it true. Spencer fits into their tradition.) In any case, Spencer hopes somehow to spur whites into a kind of pan-white racial consciousness and galvanize them to become “aware of who we are,” and to prepare themselves, one day somehow, to form a white ethnostate. He refers to Theodore Herzl’s propagation of Zionism as a model for how such an ethnostate, seemingly a distant dream, could be eventually achieved. He fails to add that it took a Holocaust to make a Jewish State a reality.
An argument Jared Taylor and other white nationalists make is that whites choose to live amongst their own given the opportunity. Church congregations self-segregate by race, whites flee black-dominated cities to white suburbs, etc. There is something to this, but an equally important part of reality is that, left to their own devices, people intermarry. Roughly 15 percent of American marriages are now between people of different races, the greatest portion between whites and Latinos and whites and Asians. Offspring of the racially intermarried may soon constitute the country’s largest “minority” group. So too with Jews, usually treated by white nationalists as an irredeemably separate entity: their rising intermarriage rates have for decades been an anxious obsession for Jewish communal leaders. Americans sometimes self-segregate, sometimes intermarry, sometimes neither. Spencer likes to present himself as a bearer of profound and inescapable sociobiological truths, realities that political correctness denies and seeks to suppress, but the evidence for his core assertions is ambiguous or non-existent. Real estate prices rise in multicultural Brooklyn, stagnate in white rural Connecticut.
Prior to last fall, and before Hillary introduced the alt-right to a national audience, Spencer and Taylor held periodic conferences that could gather perhaps 200 people. (These were often held under shameful harassment by the leftist anti-First Amendment crowd, but that’s a different issue.) Spencer says he sees the alt-right as a vehicle that will influence politicians and intellectuals, taking as its model neoconservatism. But the differences with neoconservatism are vast. In terms of intellectual accomplishment and range of expertise, the roster of contributors to Commentary and The Public Interest in the 1970s compares to the alt-right like a contemporary version of the ’27 Yankees to, at most, a decent college team. This gap could probably be narrowed somewhat, and in Europe there are alt-rightish figures of genuine intellectual eminence. But in contrast to its post-Cold War advocacy of aggressive and militaristic foreign policies, brought to disastrous fruition in the George W. Bush administration, neoconservatism’s domestic views were center-right and not especially radical. They were more often a commonsense reaction to the excesses of a seemingly pervasive ’60s-era left liberalism. The hardcore alt-right, on the other hand, has genuinely radical aims, which would be overwhelmingly rejected if its core perspectives were more widely known.
Yet Hillary Clinton and her campaign would not devote an entire speech to linking Trump to a shibboleth. When Steve Bannon, former head of the popular website Breitbart who now co-chairs the Trump campaign, describes Breitbart as an “alt-right” platform, he certainly isn’t thinking of advocacy for a white ethnostate. Milo Yiannopoulos—a popular campus speaker and political provocateur (British, flamboyantly gay, funny) who coauthored one of the first and most complimentary long-form articles about the alt-right—did not bother to mention a white state as a goal. For many who consider themselves alt-rightish, or alt-right sympathizers, who participate actively or passively in alt-right Twitter, this is not a significant omission. The surge in curiosity about the alt-right—Clinton claimed in her speech that some alt-right websites had seen their traffic increase a thousand fold—has virtually nothing to do with a rise in hardcore white nationalism. Which raises the question of what does drive the rise, and why is it happening now?
The alt-right was obscure until the summer of 2015. The first mention of the term in the New York Times came at the end of last year, around the same time as a long piece in BuzzFeed. The BuzzFeed article explored such aspects of alt-right culture as the Pepe the Frog character and the emergence of the resonant term “cuckservative.” With its etymological links to “cuckold” and “cuckoo bird,” “cuck” was a term for that kind of establishment conservative who, wittingly or not, devotes his resources and energy to nurturing other people’s children at the expense of his own. By December “cuckservative” had become sufficiently mainstream for Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan to use the term on the air.
What spurred this sudden emergence? It was not white-nationalist conferences or doctrine, which had been around forever, but events. Last year the West received a nasty high-voltage shock of political reality. The first jolt was the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. France had experienced jihadist murders before, but this time, the strike came in the center of Paris, and France was alarmed to find no small amount of support for the killing among its five million Muslim residents, many of them second- and third-generation citizens.
That spring and summer, European newspapers began to fill with reports of intensifying migrant and refugee flows, driven partially by the Syrian civil war and partially by the expansion and streamlining of people-smuggling routes from Africa. The rescue of boats overflowing with African and North African migrants in the Mediterranean became a regular feature of European news. Finally, in the last week of August, Angela Merkel announced that Germany was open to migrants and refugees, and soon television viewers the world over saw long columns of mostly young men—from Syria, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan—marching into Europe. Because of Merkel and generous social benefits, the liberal northern social democracies were the preferred destination, and they were initially welcoming.
By 2016 the welcome had grown cold. Hundreds of migrants sexually assaulted German women in and around the central train station of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, a mass assault that German authorities initially tried to cover up. It was subsequently reported that a similar assault had taken place at a music festival in Sweden in 2014. It became evident that Angela Merkel’s welcoming policies had thrown into sharp relief a cultural clash between European and Muslim social norms. Over a million new migrants entered Germany in 2015, and an equal number has done so this year—exceeding the number of German births by several hundred thousand.
If the sexual assaults could be seen as the cultural edge of the migrant surge, it was more difficult for even liberal “anti-racist” European leaders to ignore or explain away the terrorism aspect. The Charlie Hebdo attack was followed by the mass slaughters at the Bataclan theater in Paris, at the Brussels Airport, then on a seaside promenade in Nice, culminating in the execution by knife of an aging French priest by two “assimilated” Muslim migrants in his church outside of Rouen. In many of these cases it was reported that though the perpetrators were already on various terrorism watch lists, the French security service—a tough-minded and far from liberal organization—simply lacked sufficient manpower to monitor those who had shown signs of potentially being terrorists. There were too many of them.
One could interpret this alarming new reality in various ways: The Economist, probably the preeminent English-language voice of the European Davos class and political establishment, put Merkel on its cover as “the Indispensable European,” praising her for “boldly upholding European values” with her migrant policies in the fall of 2015. Voters, gradually shifting allegiance to the anti-immigrant parties of the far right, did not agree. Gilles Kepel—a highly respected, politically centrist French expert on Islam—raised the possibility that terrorism and the new migration would send the country into civil war. An aborted civil war formed the background to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, a number-one bestseller in France. Richard Spencer may be incorrect about America, but one remark from his press conference in DC last month was arresting:
The refugee crisis in Europe is something like a world war. It is in many ways a race war. In terms of direct violence it does not resemble World War I or II. It is a demographic struggle, a struggle for identity, a struggle of who is going to define the continent, period. It is a new kind of war, a postmodern war, a war through immigration. There are no trenches, no guns. But it is a world war.
Of course, it is not primarily a race war. Religion, or religious culture, plays a major and perhaps decisive role in the conflict, and conflict between Christendom and Islam is not new by any means. Still, there is something in the bluntness of Spencer’s depiction that rings more true than 90 percent of what appears in the American media, which invariably depicts the refugee crisis in humanitarian terms and terrorism as a barely related law-enforcement issue. It is surely not a coincidence that the alt-right began making strides into American consciousness precisely at the moment Muslims were surging into Europe as refugees, while others were blowing up Parisian rock concerts or mounting mass sexual assaults on European women.
In Europe, at least, such stark descriptions of what is taking place are no longer found only on the far right. Consider the response of Pierre Manent, one of France’s most renowned liberal intellectuals, formerly an associate of Raymond Aron, to the slaughter last July of 85-year-old Catholic priest Jacques Hamel outside Rouen:
The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way. … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet. … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity.
Whatever one might say about the alt-right, it is not perplexed. Few other political factions in America had a vocabulary ready for—or even made an effort to interpret seriously—what was going on in Europe, at a time when many people were seeking one.
One can ask, of course, what do rapes in Cologne or terror in France have to do with “exceptional” America? Yet for more than a century, most educated Americans have been conscious of their cultural and civilizational ties to Europe. In some cases that may be a residue of past immigrant ties, but there is more. The American establishment—virtually none of it of French ethnic origin—reacted viscerally to Hitler’s occupation of Paris in 1940 in ways it did not to the Rape of Nanking. President Roosevelt found increasing leeway in public opinion and in Congress to inch a previously isolationist country toward an intervention to free Europe from Nazism. European civilization is the fount of our own. These are themes that alt-rightish Twitter understands and uses. Donald Trump understands it too: he is the only American politician who has openly criticized Angela Merkel and regularly evokes European problems with immigration.
American developments in the fall of last year, while less critical than those in Europe, also spurred the alt-right. The rise of Black Lives Matter put into question one of the outstanding domestic-policy advances of the past generation, the dramatic reduction in urban crime rates, which has made possible the revitalization of many cities. The lie which held that America’s police forces were chock full of marauding racist murderers suddenly became mainstream, repeated endlessly on television and pushed in only slightly more subtle fashion by Obama’s own attorney general. Meanwhile, some urban neighborhoods were looted by rioters, and others saw dramatic spikes in their murder rates.
At the same time, one American college campus after another was roiled by demonstrations over issues that seemed largely incomprehensible to most Americans. Video circulated of dozens of black Yale students surrounding a professor and demanding his firing because his wife had written an email suggesting Yale had better things to do than police student Halloween costumes. (He and his wife both subsequently resigned their positions.) Virtually every American politician responded to these disruptions by heading for the tall grass. One hardly needed to be a white nationalist to sense that something at once absurd and menacing was afoot.
On some issues, establishment liberal opinion had moved so far to the left as to be unrecognizable. As blogger Steve Sailer noted, in 2000 the New York Times editorial page opposed amnesty for illegal aliens both because it would encourage more illegal immigration and because it would have deleterious effects on the employment and wages of lower-income native-born Americans. Sixteen years later, when Trump suggested that the core of immigration policy should be concern for its impact on the well-being of Americans, he was denounced as a raving bigot by the same New York Times.
It was predictable that such developments, touching on visceral areas of personal security, national sovereignty, and freedom of expression, would stir desire for a muscular response. Donald Trump filled the bill, if not always eloquently. So too, occasionally, did segments of the more established conservative media. But there was a market for a pushback as scathing and polemically unafraid as the left’s own polemicists, which might not have been the case four years earlier. This, as much as anything, accounts for the emergence of the alt-right, at least in its less ideologically extreme iterations.
There is ample reason to interpret Trump’s success as a nationalist pushback against globalism, as part of a political pattern one sees in Europe as well. But there is another structural dynamic to Trumpism, as deeply rooted as nationalism and far more significant than the controversies that drive daily campaign coverage. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, published 20 years ago, is that rare book that seems more obviously correct and relevant today than when it first came out. Clash was often mistakenly interpreted as a call to arms against Islam, but it was not: it was an effort to map the structure of world politics in the wake of the Cold War, an attempt which saw that the major fault lines were no longer between nation-states nor between alliances of states based on ideology. They were between civilizations—Islam, the West, East Asia, and so on. Huntington’s book was a guide advising the United States how to navigate this new kind of world, where civilizations rubbed up against each other all the time as never before in history.
Huntington warned about getting involved in other civilizations’ internal conflicts, and he opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He also disdained the West’s, and especially America’s, pretention to be the bearer of universal values. Other civilizations may have envied and hoped to emulate and acquire the West’s material success, its science, its gadgets, its weaponry. But in the main, they have never aspired to become Western and to embrace such qualities as the West’s pluralism, its separation of church and state, its Christianity, its rule of law, its celebration of individualism.
About certain aspects of his analysis Huntington was honestly uncertain: Latin America, for instance, could be seen as part of Western civilization or as separate, affiliated with the West but not of it. Latin Americans, Huntington noted, are themselves divided on the question. The answer to that question, however nuanced, has weighty consequences: it is obviously easier for the United States to assimilate—that is, make into Westerners—Mexican immigrants than it is for Europe to assimilate Muslims in any serious numbers.
Because Trump has embraced immigration restriction; because Europe is clearly floundering under the weight of terrorism and a massive and potentially unending migrant surge; because a previous American president destabilized the Middle East by launching an invasion justified, in part, by claiming that the region would welcome having American values imposed upon it at gunpoint—because of all this, the 2016 election, unlike any before, is being held on Huntington’s turf.
And though Huntington was a famous and deeply respected Harvard political scientist and a life-long Democrat, the concerns of Clash are those raised implicitly by Trump and explicitly by what I call the soft-core elements of the alt-right. There is, of course, much racism in American history, and there are enormous crimes for which Europe continues to strive to atone. But neither anti-racism nor respect for other cultures should be turned into a national or civilizational suicide pact. Here what Irving Kristol famously wrote about Sen. Joseph McCarthy comes to mind: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he like them is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”
In the now global faceoff between Western civilization versus mass immigration fused with multiculturalism, Kristol’s words describe with uncanny accuracy the dichotomy between Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and those most feverishly denouncing him on the other. Among the former, for all their faults, are those who want, unequivocally, Western civilization to survive. About the latter, no such thing is certain.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.
Donald Trump spoke well last week in Cleveland, even if he went on too long. Hillary was less interesting, less pointed. Even when one agrees with her—inevitably often, because everything she says is carefully focus-grouped—she is tiresome to listen to for any length of time. But her acceptance speech did what it had to do, highlighting the advantages she has as leader of a relatively united Democratic Party. Trump had to vanquish or subdue much of the existing Republican Party establishment to secure the nomination. Hillary did not: she is her party’s establishment. Trump had to take rhetorical risks throughout the campaign, and it’s surprising that he got away with them for so long. Hillary did not, and now reaps considerable benefit. No one remembers a single one of her campaign lines, leaving her free to reposition herself any way she wishes.
The Democratic Party is united only in comparison to the GOP, but that is a significant advantage. Hillary was praised extravagantly by a number of fairly popular national figures—President Obama, the First Lady, Bill Clinton, the much loved Joe Biden. Trump, by comparison, despite Gingrich, Christie, and Giuliani, is out there on his own. When he said “I alone can fix it,” it was rhetoric—meaning “I who vanquished an out-of-touch party establishment can keep this insurgent movement going in the White House and give it political form.” But it’s a line vulnerable to the most obvious of Hillary “it takes a village” retorts, and when Hillary dwelt on it, she was effective in making Trump sound egotistical or ignorant about governing.
The Democratic convention could thus be positioned stylistically in the middle: flags, chants of “USA” (wielded continuously against recalcitrant Sanders chanters), generals, continuous praise of John McCain. Trump’s victory has left a broken GOP in its wake, and it will take him (or someone) a while to reconstitute it. Hillary has the backing of the national media more emphatically than any presidential candidate has since LBJ in 1964. She didn’t need to give an interesting speech.
Nevertheless, the speech Hillary did give revealed much about where the race is. She devoted a fair amount of time addressing Trump voters, white working-class folks whose wages and position in the country have been gradually squeezed. She promised good jobs for everyone, to punish Wall Street, to reject bad trade deals, to protect steel and auto workers, to stand up to China. This was essentially an effort to steal the Trump platform and adopt part of Trump’s message, and these words would never have been uttered by Goldman Sachs’ favorite speaker if the GOP had nominated Jeb Bush or if Trump weren’t actually leading in some national polls. This is new territory for Hillary, a concession to Trump she didn’t make to Bernie Sanders. Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe’s blurting out that Hillary didn’t really mean it (her opposition to the TPP in particular) is probably a reliable assertion that she doesn’t. But the fact that she had to proclaim that she heard the complaints of working-class voters and would seek to address them is a kind of tribute to the Trump and Sanders movements.
In Hillary’s world, America’s diversity is its strength, and she probably does believe this. We will not build a wall, she said, but build an economy where “everyone who wants a good paying job” can have one. In years past, a presidential candidate might have said, more or less unconsciously, “every American” instead of “everyone,” but Hillary has already embraced a comprehensive immigration reform with amnesty as its centerpiece, and the Democratic Party is increasingly aligned to that part (now vanquished) of the GOP that prefers relatively open borders. If any kind of future border enforcement is part of that comprehensive package, Hillary certainly didn’t mention it. Left-wing activists now tout a “right to immigrate,” and this may implicitly have become part of the Democratic platform. Probably, somewhere in the back of her mind, Hillary knows that there is a fundamental contradiction between good-paying jobs and open borders, but denying that inescapable economic fact of supply and demand is now part of her party’s message.
In contrast to Trump’s strong law-and-order message, Hillary sought to split the difference between cops and Black Lives Matter. Blacks and Latinos are the victims of “systemic racism.” In a country where affirmative action, or in Nathan Glazer’s acute phrase “affirmative discrimination,” often governs hiring and college admissions, this is one of the more bizarre leftist codewords to adopt. But Hillary is now on record as believing in it. Yet she also spoke words of compassion to the cop who fears for his life, doing his “dangerous and necessary” job. The now widely pervasive anti-cop rhetoric and respect for police officers are fundamentally unreconcilable; Hillary’s acknowledgement of the fears of a cop saying goodbye to his wife and kids before going to work was an attempt to reconcile it, and a political necessity. She must hope dearly that the Black Lives Matter part of the Democratic coalition is not perceived as contributing to more urban violence in the weeks before November.
On foreign policy, she remains a liberal hawk, giving a warning that we are prepared to go war over Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, while giving a one-sentence endorsement of the centerpiece of Obama’s diplomatic legacy, the Iran deal. Again, this is a kind of rhetorical box-checking that doesn’t predict much about her future orientation: clearly either the neocons or Obama supporters will be roundly disappointed in a Hillary foreign policy. We just don’t know which it will be.
Hillary speech did what it had to do—effectively highlighting Trump’s weaknesses, splitting the differences among the diverse and conflicting factions of her coalition, reaching out to Trump’s working-class supporters by adopting much of his (and Sanders’) platform. In reality, of course, a President Hillary would have to choose between these conflicting visions, but a candidate does not. The advantages she possesses as the standard bearer of a relatively united party are enormous and were on full display in Philadelphia; whether they are sufficient to prevail in a time when there is tremendous and justified dismay over America’s direction remains to be seen.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
CLEVELAND—More important than Melania’s speech, more important than why Ted Cruz didn’t endorse Donald Trump, and more important than the myriad stories coming from the convention, are the questions of what kind of president Trump would be, and if he loses what impact his nomination will have on the Republican Party. Here in Cleveland, some are talking about this.
There remains genuine agnosticism even among Trump supporters about what Trump actually believes. Did the populist nexus of positions on trade, immigration, and foreign policy come to Trump from a kind of conviction, or did sophisticated polling tell him this was the underserved market of voters most easily tapped? I don’t doubt Trump’s skepticism about the Iraq war—even the tepid tone of his “Yeah I guess so” answer to Howard Stern’s question about support of the war in the fall of 2002 speaks volumes to those who lived in New York in that era. It is plainly the voice of a man deeply skeptical of what, in New York at least, was a virtually unanimous bellicose establishment consensus.
But does Trump believe in the foolishness of the war sufficiently to seek out and promote people who would not make the same mistake all over again? His effort to reconcile with the Republican Party establishment was inevitable if he wanted to win. The Republican Party is still hawkish, almost reflexively neocon, without even thinking about it. Its voters may have understood quite well the tragic and bloody foolishness of the Iraq war, but its elected officials have not.
I have not heard a word from the convention podium about the misguidedness of that war, but there have been plenty of bellicose statements directed at Russia and Iran, important states whose interests do not necessarily clash with America’s at all. Tom Pauken, delegate and former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, told me wistfully that his delegation invited John Bolton, the most unrepentant of neocons, to address it on foreign policy.
Many observers think that if even if Trump’s foreign policy instincts are more or less realist, he doesn’t have the background or the patience to staff his administration. Forming a government is not something he’s thought seriously about. Whether or not his reported tender of the vice presidency to John Kasich really did come with an offer to let his veep take charge of both domestic and foreign policy (a Trump spokesman has denied this claim made by a Kasich aide), it’s almost certain that Trump is not going to get into the weeds of policy. He knows—as much of his party does not—that the Iraq war was a mistake, and that the United States has nothing to gain and literally everything to lose by fomenting military challenges to Russia in Russia’s backyard. But would he know how to ensure his administration follows those sensible instincts? That’s the mystery.
Nevertheless, if Trump wins—altogether possible if the Democrats continue their quest to become the anti-cop party—there will be an administration staffed by someone. Will Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, husband of Ivanka, star in her own right, make the key foreign policy staffing decisions? Kushner, for all his loyalty to Trump and obvious abilities, is also a fairly fervent Zionist, with perspectives that would probably clash with realist, non-interventionist policies (though they don’t have to). What does Kushner think about the overthrow of Assad in Syria, for instance? Does he think an ISIS-associated rebel takeover in Syria is okay? Does he think, as Netanyahu does and the Israeli military does not, that the Iran deal is a disaster for Israel?
And the other Trump children—what are their foreign policy views? If they disapproved of the Iraq war, have they any concept of the intellectual factions and attitudes which pushed that war, rendering it almost inevitable? To ask that question is to move into the baroque realm of family and court politics, of “Who has the King’s ear?” It can happen in republics too. In some ways the situation would resemble the subtle battles for Reagan’s favor, the “Let Reagan be Reagan” faction versus the GOP establishment, and the courting of Nancy’s influence. Whether President Reagan was more or less engaged in policy details than a President Trump would be is not obvious.
Texan Tom Pauken, a veteran of Reagan years and first hand observer of the neocon ascendance in the GOP, hopes that Jeff Sessions can play an important role in the administration. The Alabama senator could push more generally to “let Trump be Trump,” giving a Washington political shape to the Trump movement. But I wonder how much a legislator pushing 70 can do. And there really isn’t anyone else who obviously fits the bill.
Trump’s instincts on immigration (less of it, and we should choose more carefully who comes) and trade (we should take into account the impact on American workers) have penetrated somewhat more deeply into the Republican Party apparat of elected officials. Under a Trump presidency there almost certainly wouldn’t be an immigration reform deal without strongly enhanced border control, and there just as surely would be far greater scrutiny of Muslim immigrants, if not a moratorium. But the Iraq catastrophe and its lessons—costing trillions, displacing millions, destabilizing the Mideast—has been flushed down the party’s memory hole. Again recall that Trump dealt clearly and forcefully with the Iraq war as a candidate. He did it in the hawkish state of South Carolina, and the voters didn’t mind. But at the convention, Iraq might as well have been the War of the Roses.
One would like to be able to imagine clearly the way that Trump could alter the GOP’s foreign policy direction as effectively as he vanquished 16 establishment candidates. But how he might do this remains a mystery.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports this week from Cleveland.
CLEVELAND—Much of the morning of the second day of the Republican Convention was taken up by the Melania speech flap. It’s an odd world. One can understand how it was news: there are thousands of reporters chasing any news, especially news embarrassing to Trump. One can imagine that if Jackie Kennedy inadvertently mouthed some earnest and eloquent platitudes that another speechwriter had previously prepared for a different celebrity, few would have noticed, and certainly few would have made a case of it. It might have been mentioned in an aside in a column.
Melania’s reading of secondhand words is not entirely insignificant. Of course the “plagiarism” case was the result of poor staff work, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it’s symptomatic of a more general confusion at the heart of the Trump campaign. If they can’t get Melania’s speech right, and they didn’t, who is going be in charge of implementing the Iran deal, or dealing with the Turkish coup aftermath, or trying to be a good friend to a Europe undergoing worse crises than we are? You can look at the Donald Trump operation and not come away with obviously reassuring answers.
And yet. Trump has won the Republican nomination. He has partially unified the party, but when one recalls the nearly universal predictions of the fractured chaotic convention made three months ago, you can see how far Trump has come. He has, at least partially, vanquished an out of touch GOP establishment, in thrall to Beltway lobbies and deeply influenced by neocons, out of touch with the Republican electorate and the country. And for the moment that establishment, has, however grudgingly, for the most part accepted its defeat.
They don’t like it, and surely half of the Republican officeholders here wish they had just nominated someone else. But in the hall, there is perhaps in equal measure both Trump enthusiasm and Trump acceptance. To have gotten that far, with no political experience, with the party establishment and much of the important media completely aligned against you, is an extraordinary accomplishment.
There is of course the question of how much Trump can actually transform the GOP. That remains the biggest unknown. On the eve of the convention, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam—respected, young, mainstream conservative intellectuals—published an essay in the New York Times that was largely Trumpian in its prescriptions, calling for less immigration, less foreign military intervention, more tax policy favoring the middle and working classes. Designed to appeal to the real interests of Trump voters. Yet the two cast their piece as “anti-Trump,” calling Trump a demagogue, and assuming that he couldn’t possibly implement their agenda. It’s a loss to Trump that he hasn’t won over people who so largely agree with him, but a sign too of the remaining power of the Republican establishment, which can make even people who mostly agree with Trump unable—so far—to see themselves as potential Trump backers.
In the GOP platform, there are mixed signs of Trump’s influence. As some neoconservatives have lamented, the party has retreated from knee jerk support of trade deals. But the speeches at the convention have been almost uniformly hawkish—the sentiment that prompted Donald Trump to call the Iraq war a disaster is hardly visible. The Israel platform segment is more obsequious toward Israel’s occupation than any major American party ever has been. There is not much sign of the Donald Trump who said that negotiating a fair deal between Israelis and Palestinians would be the greatest of diplomatic accomplishments.
In short, if he wins, Trump will still have to govern with the Republican Party. Transforming the party to govern in any sort of Trumpian fashion might be even more unlikely than what he has managed so far.
I want to shift gears and speak briefly about the scenes outside the convention. As has been reported, there are scores of cops here, units from Texas and California, Indiana and nearby Akron. There are squads of dozens of well-trained Cleveland cops with sturdy mountain bikes, which can be wielded as crowd control barriers.
Last week’s cop killings may have diminished any enthusiasm of the hard left to take to Cleveland’s streets. In the main public square, a few blocks from the convention, you can see demonstrators of all sorts—the “Revolutionary Communist Party” mounted an anti-cop protest this afternoon, but there was also Code Pink, various white anarchists, and some right wingers associated with radio host Alex Jones. But the communists numbered only about thirty, heavily outnumbered by journalists, onlookers, and cops. There were even fewer anarchists, who were told in no uncertain terms to keep their masks off.
Public Square in Cleveland is large, about 10 acres, but the demonstrators, journalists, and cops were sequestered in about a fourth of that—so that on Tuesday afternoon, it was filled with a big scrum of demonstrators, cops and journalists, perhaps a thousand or 2,000 people at most. When Cornel West descended into the crowd he was surrounded instantly by camera wielding journalists. On the edge of the square stood four members of the “Ohio Minutemen,” bearded white guys carrying loaded assault rifles. One senses, in all these groups, a lot of anger in America, more than existed a decade ago.
It must be strange being a police officer when people far more heavily armed than you are standing at the edge of the crowd.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports this week from Cleveland.
CLEVELAND—On Monday afternoon, dozens of people were on TV proclaiming that this convention is unlike any other they’ve ever seen. It’s partially true, even as at every convention it seems a bit bizarre to see delegates, for the most part grown-up and conventional middle-aged people in real life, roaming about in large groups, wearing matching costumes—cowboy hats and colorful vests in the case of the huge Texas delegation.
The most salient thing about Cleveland is the police presence. A large section of downtown Cleveland near the “Q” arena is blocked off to automobiles, with the kind of truck stopping barriers that now proliferate on Capitol Hill. Cage-like lanes have been put in place to provide channels for permitted vehicles. It’s a vast infrastructure of barriers that must have taken weeks to plan and construct. There was of course nothing like this in the conventions I’ve attended before, both in New York.
On the streets outside you see groups of, for instance, California Highway Patrol officers, on loan from the Golden State, walking about in groups of four or six. They are fish out of water, but the delegates and locals both welcome them ostentatiously and warmly. There are TVs everywhere, in every bar near the venue, and large screens jut out from the restaurants. And the headlines are of course unavoidable—cops being murdered in Baton Rouge, one day after the last of the funerals for the cops murdered in Dallas, and all in the aftermath of the horror in Nice, France. One is hard put to even imagine a single person who thinks there is too much security.
As of yet, there doesn’t seem need for it; thus far the anti-Trump agitation has been from the right, inside the convention hall. Establishment Republicans well represented in the states which held caucuses and not primaries mounted their own last gasp of the Never Trump movement, and got ample media play for the idea that the delegates be allowed to “vote their consciences” and ignore the wishes of voters who elected them. This bid was thwarted by the chair of the convention, but the GOP establishment “rebels” got air time.
But of course no one knows how great the threat of violent left-wing disruption in the streets will be—what form it will take, and whether the cops can handle it. The physical attacks on Trump supporters by leftists in the streets of Chicago and San Jose and other places were without recent precedent in American politics, though that’s not what media talking heads mean when they go on about how unusual Cleveland is.
It’s not clear how far Trump’s choice of Mike Pence will go to mitigate the hostility. Pence is a balance on the ticket, a social conservative in contrast to Trump’s “New York values,” a mouther of neoconservative foreign policy bromides while a member of Congress, the type of Republican respected by party insiders. Trump almost certainly needed to reach out to the heart of the party, whose main establishment figures he had summarily vanquished.
The social conservatism of course Trump can live with easily: He reached out to Evangelicals comfortably during the primaries, and his turnabout on abortion sounded sincere to many pro-life people. To what extent, and with how much fervor, does Pence still embrace the neoconservatism of Bush and Cheney in foreign policy? It’s an unknown of course; one would hope that Pence went along with the hawkish GOP mainstream out of a political sense that thwarting it would be political death. Only one of the seven GOP members of Congress who voted against the war in 2002 are still in electoral politics. Of course one could conclude pessimistically that Trump has brought on board a knowledgeable political insider who will steer a Trump administration away from Trumpism, especially on the foreign policy issues that made Trump the least hawkish candidate (along with Bernie Sanders) running for president.
Watching the Monday speeches, the convention seemed normalized. They are always like this. The unexpectedly good were some of the relatively unknown who were victims of the Obama era. Giuliani, who save for an unfortunately ignorant detour about the Iran deal, was amazing: smart and tough, and rousing the convention as no one else has and, perhaps, some of the country. Then Melania Trump was pretty and charming. I actually have heard someone (a smart, hardworking, top-level manager) tell me, “I may be shallow, but I’d rather look at Melania for the next four years than Bill and Hillary.”
After day one, it’s clear that the convention is so far quite a success: not too bizarre (B-list celebrities are usually better speakers than B-list politicians); Giuliani still a star and historic figure; Melania, a bit odd to have her speaking, but she is attractive and appealing. And the establishment GOP rebellion against Trump seems to have been quelled. To hear Melania in her Zsa Zsa Gabor voice say “We must all come together in a campaign like no other”—well, it’s not bad, not bad at all.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports this week from Cleveland.
When he descended the Trump Tower escalator on June 15 last year to announce his run for the presidency, Donald Trump polled near the bottom of the Republican field. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken from June 14 to 18 reported Trump was the first choice of 1 percent of Republican voters, behind Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, and eight others. A RealClearPolitics graphic tracking an average of several polls illustrates the stunning speed of Trump’s rise. For most of June, Trump’s line slithered along the bottom of the 17-person field, then headed by Jeb Bush. Two weeks after his announcement, Trump stood at 6 percent. After that his support line began to shoot up vertically, pulling even with Bush by mid-July. Trump finished the month at 21 percent, comfortably ahead of Bush and Scott Walker at 12 and 13 percent respectively, a lead he would never relinquish.
His announcement was at first treated by the press as something of a curiosity. Many focused on his assertions of wealth. “I’m really rich,” he said at one point. Few focused initially on the notorious remarks about Mexico—“When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending their best … they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” While factual, if one conceded that Trump was not speaking of all Mexican migrants, the words were clearly incendiary.
Still, it took several days for outrage to build. The first major move came from the Spanish-language TV channel Univision, which 10 days later announced it would sever ties to the Trump-owned Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. NBC followed suit, dropping The Apprentice, and then Macy’s, which dropped a line of Trump-brand accessories. Soon liberal organizations Change.org and MoveOn.org were gathering signatures in support of boycotting Trump’s business interests. The PGA was pressured to drop scheduled tournaments at Trump golf courses. Within two to three weeks, Trump’s “calling Mexicans rapists and murderers” had become part of the national conversation.
But just as a political scandal is often governed more by the cover-up than by the crime, more significant than Trump’s words was the fact that he didn’t apologize for them, which he could easily have done. Instead, Trump held a large rally in Phoenix, where he was introduced by Arizona’s tough-on-the-border sheriff, Joe Arpaio, drawing a crowd far larger than any other candidate had mustered. Shortly after, in Las Vegas, he brought on stage the father of a young man who had been murdered by an illegal alien. He mocked NBC for dropping him while standing by Brian Williams, who had been caught lying on the air. This was the backdrop to Trump’s surge: a tough immigration and border-control message reinforced by a refusal to bend before what had become a massive barrage of liberal denunciation.
Within weeks, every prestige newspaper in America had published columns written by Republican neoconservative figures anathematizing Trump and warning that his success would “stain” the Republican Party. Republican voters, from that July through the following May, ignored them.
Trump’s victory in the primaries has elicited a great deal of establishment hand-wringing and wondering what more could have been done to stop him. Many blamed the press for giving Trump “free media”—which of course he benefited from only because he was unafraid of reporters, and viewers wanted to see and hear him. Some pointed to the unwieldy size of the initial GOP field or the failure of well-funded establishment super PACs to attack Trump early on. In fact, the GOP establishment campaign against Trump was massive: the pages and websites of National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, the New York Times, and the Washington Post overflowed with anti-Trump polemics throughout the campaign season, and Trump was eventually bombarded with more than $70 million of negative TV advertising, three times more than he spent in his own campaign. Yet it seemed to make little difference.
Trump clearly has some gifts as a candidate—a good public performer, enormously energetic, courageous. His business success allows him the much appreciated talking point that he is independent of the D.C.-establishment lobbyists. But his weaknesses are obvious as well—a shallow grasp of policy, a tendency frequently to say things that are probably not true, an impulse to personalize conflicts and create unnecessary antagonisms. Few would describe his character as “presidential.”
Yet he managed to prevail—to mount the most astonishingly successful insurgent campaign against a party establishment in our lifetimes. For all of Trump’s talents, his victory probably owed as much to underlying political currents as to his brilliance as a leader and political tactician.
Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee because he won the GOP’s untapped residue of nationalist voters, in a system where the elites of both parties are, as if by rote, extreme globalists. He won the support of those who favored changing trade and immigration policies, which, it is increasingly obvious, do not favor the tangible interests of the average American. He won the backing of those alarmed by a new surge of political correctness, an informal national speech code that seeks to render many legitimate political opinions unsayable. He won the support of white working-class voters whose social and economic position had been declining for a generation. He won many who consciously or unconsciously identified with the pre-multicultural America that existed for most of the last century. And he won with backing from the growing group of Republicans who understand that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster.
When one examines Trump’s main opponents— Bush and Rubio then, Hillary Clinton now—on the critical issues of immigration (legal and illegal), trade, and Iraq and other military interventions, one finds no substantial differences between them. In foreign policy, the liberal interventionists who would staff a Hillary administration line up seamlessly with neoconservatives in support of continued American “hegemony.” A recently published Center for a New American Security report, produced by charter members of both groups, makes this unambiguously clear. With some tweaking on social issues and the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton could have run interchangeably with Bush and Rubio in the Republican field, and vice versa.
Opposition to this establishment consensus has been advancing, by fits and starts, and is now too large to be ignored. Michael Lind of the New America Foundation argues that the 2016 election ratifies a party realignment that began in 1968, when white working-class voters started moving towards the GOP. The core of Trump’s supporters are the political descendants of what had been the backbone of the Democratic New Deal coalition: working-class whites, politically strongest in the South and flyover states. On the triad of trade, immigration, and foreign policy these voters are nationalist, not globalist—they would limit America’s intervention in foreign conflicts and subject the importation of products and people from the rest of the world to a more rigorous is-it-good-for-us test. (And by “us” they mean themselves, not the Fortune 500.) By nominating Trump, the Republican Party has finally been forced to come to terms with these sentiments, choosing a candidate who is largely disdainful of the globalist consensus of GOP donors, pundits, and think-tank experts. For Trump and his voters, the “Reaganite” basket of so-called “conservative” issues—free trade, high immigration, tax cuts for those with high incomes and entitlement cuts for the middle class—was irrelevant or actually undesirable.
Meanwhile the Democrats under Hillary Clinton have solidified their identity as a party of America’s top and bottom, revolving around the dual axis of urban coastal elites who benefit from their ties to a global economy and poorer ethnic minorities. The Clinton wing of the Democrats defends the free trade deals and has now joined much of the hard left in opposing meaningful enforcement of America’s immigration laws. (Before his campaign started, Bernie Sanders assailed open-borders advocacy as a right-wing “Koch Brothers” argument, but the logic of his party’s politics drove him to embrace amnesty and non-enforcement.) On the left, the argument that national boundaries are themselves, like racism or sexism, an arbitrary and unjust form of discrimination is made with growing frequency. During their debates, both Clinton and Sanders expressed support for an amnesty-based immigration reform and opposed the deportation of migrants who had not committed crimes here.
While neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have fully jelled as nationalist or globalist parties, that is the clear direction of their evolution. Lind suggests that “border wars” have replaced “culture wars” as the critical dividing line between the parties. That the most violent of recent anti-Trump rallies have featured Mexican flags would seem to confirm his analysis.
In one form or another, this nationalist-versus-globalist division is being reproduced in almost every country in the West facing the pressure of working-class decline and mass immigration. Given the opportunity, most European voters have consistently resisted ceding greater powers to the EU, but their votes have had little impact. Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader who now heads most French presidential polls, mocks France’s President Hollande by referring to him as Angela Merkel’s vice chancellor, a functionary permitted to administer “the province of France.” Throughout Europe, right-wing nationalist parties are rising in the polls against establishment coalitions unable to preserve either the economic gains won by past generations or public safety in migrant-dominated urban areas.
Trump is obviously part of this pan-Western nationalist/populist wave, and may be the first to break through in a major Western country. But even if he loses, he will have transformed the Republican Party. Because the Democratic coalition, perhaps now best exemplified by the twin poles of Goldman Sachs and Black Lives Matter, is inherently unstable, there is every likelihood that a more conventional politician, making use of Trump’s basket of issues, will again win the GOP nomination and eventually the presidency.
Rereading the first two essays of Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, published just after his death 22 years ago, confirms that the issues that have elevated Trump are not particularly new. Lasch described an American establishment increasingly contemptuous of Middle America, a “new aristocracy of brains [who] tend to congregate on the coast, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as American at all.” For Lasch, this “global bazaar” of multiculturalism, which could be savored without meaningful social obligation or commitment, suited the new elites to perfection.
Pat Buchanan’s two Republican campaigns in the 1990s, as well as Ross Perot’s bids, emerged in reaction to this globalist-oriented elite. But Buchanan, though far better versed on the issues than Trump, did not ever come close to capturing the GOP nomination, and some of the differences between the two are instructive. Support for traditionalist views on abortion and gay rights were critical to Buchanan’s efforts, which placed as much emphasis on the “culture war” as the “border war.” But by the 1990s, the culture war may have already have been lost to the right.
Trump, while embracing nationalist positions on trade and immigration, has remained subdued on social issues. During the campaign Ted Cruz hoped to take advantage of this, assailing Trump for holding “New York values,” but failed to profit. Trump succeeded in business as a minority WASP in the heavily Jewish milieu of New York real estate, and his daughter Ivanka, his closest advisor by most accounts, has married and converted into Orthodox Judaism. This diffuse connection with “New York values”—attitudinal and ethnic—may well have given Trump some inoculation against the kind of It Can’t Happen Here abuse heaped upon Buchanan, and thus more political room to run as an unapologetic America First nationalist than a conservative Catholic like Buchanan could muster.
At every level of American life, the elite versus Middle America split is more pronounced than in Lasch’s time. The funneling of an ever greater share of national income to the top 1 percent has gone beyond anything imagined in Revolt of the Elites. Political correctness existed in the 1990s; speech codes were a growing, if often mocked, phenomenon on campuses. But no one could have anticipated its explosion in the last few years. The concept of “white privilege”—whose emergence has taken the education world by storm—seeks essentially to hold responsible all whites, whatever their own views or personal conduct, for the legacy of racism. But of course this has double-edged effects. Writing in The Federalist, David Marcus goes so far as to claim that the growing use of anti-“white privilege” pedagogical techniques—such as films, teaching exercises, mandatory confession, and other measures—has had the unintended result of making many white students, and their appalled parents, more conscious of having an inescapable and defining white identity. Trump is probably quite sincere in his assertion that he himself is “the least racist person” in politics, but there is little doubt his campaign has benefited from a white reaction to an emerging liberal cultural and educational discourse that depicts whites, and especially white males, as more dangerous and immoral than any other people.
In the 1990s, Americans had not yet experienced the downside of having a foreign-policy elite that faced no rival superpower. The first Gulf War was perceived as a glowing success, the five-day victory with precision air strikes and few American casualties heralding what neoconservatives rushed to herald as “the unipolar moment,” or “benevolent global hegemony.” It was followed by a relatively costless (to Americans) conflict with Serbia. For the past 15 years, however, the United States has engaged in seemingly permanent and unwinnable wars—the ground troops supplied largely by the white working class—in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Trump’s sallies against the folly of military intervention thus resonate far more than Buchanan’s ever could. Trump’s foreign-policy assertions may have been all over the map, but he is plainly less biased in favor of military intervention than Hillary Clinton. Recent American policies—the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi, for instance—reinforce another of Trump’s arguments: intervention unleashes waves of non-Western refugees. As Trump advisor Stephen Miller put it, “Hillary’s platform is, I want to start wars in the Middle East, and then import all the refugees into the United States without knowing who they are.” In the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the Cologne sexual assaults, with the endless columns of refugees now trying to enter Europe perhaps the most dramatic visual news story of the past year, this is a powerful argument.
It is unlikely that Donald Trump believes with certainty that negotiating better trade deals, or slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, will be a panacea for the American economy or that building a wall will ensure an immigration policy that broadly benefits our citizens. But variants of these two policies, protectionism and immigration restriction, have been tried before and succeeded. America experienced its greatest era of industrial growth behind protective tariffs; its extraordinary success in assimilating a huge and diverse group of immigrants was accomplished only after the restrictive legislation of the 1920s. It would be peculiar indeed, after a generation of middle- and working-class income stagnation and growing inequality, if such tried-and-true remedies could not even be considered because a bipartisan establishment opposed them. However surprising it might be that real-estate tycoon and promoter Donald Trump was the man who figured this out and acted successfully upon it, the truth remains that he did.
Everything that has happened in the past 20 years has widened the opportunity for the nationalist persuasion in American politics. Pat Buchanan cracked open the door in the GOP; Perot widened it further, as did, in idiosyncratic ways, Ron Paul. But Trump, with a unique blend of showmanship, independent means, and sheer nerve, has blown this door wide open. It remains open because globalist policies have failed a growing number of Americans. Trump’s weaknesses as a candidate, well known to everyone, may keep him from winning. But his run will change the nature of the GOP, and it is very hard to see how the old GOP elites and neoconservative establishment will put the lid on the aspirations Trump has unleashed, in this election cycle or those to come.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
After Indiana, American politics have entered a new period.
For eight months, Donald Trump’s electoral strength has astounded, shocked, and dismayed the political class and terrified the inner circles of the GOP. The outer-borough New Yorker, pushy WASP (Russell Baker’s phrase of some thirty years ago), developer and TV star with flamboyant personality, bold and bombastic, a militant centrist, an Eisenhower Republican with a Berlusconi temperament, has managed to carry out what amounts to a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, or at least its presidential process.
Republican voters, told for months that Trump was not a real Republican, not a real conservative, not whatever National Review, the Wall Street Journal, or the Weekly Standard thought a Republican nominee ought to be, have said they didn’t care. Every important national pundit predicted Trump would, eventually, lose. The voters disagreed. Record Republican turnout in one state after another. Trump wins. Last night, a long resistant GOP establishment acknowledged the fact.
The first point to make is that the Republican establishment deserved to lose. Honestly, it is impossible to point to one single thing that the national Republican party has done this century for the mostly middle class voters who regularly support it. It has no legislative accomplishments, nor shown evidence of successful pushback on social issues. A large segment of its regular voters have experienced a massive sociological decline in wages, life chances, and life expectancy. The only significant thing the national GOP has accomplished since the millennium is starting the Iraq war. If ever a defeat was richly deserved, it was this one.
At this stage no one really knows what kind of candidate or president Donald Trump might be. He is of course a distinct underdog at this point. Like many, I can point to GOP intellectuals, not neocons, who despise him. Not because of his anti-war or anti-interventionist or anti-immigrationist stances. These are people who more or less agree with those positions. But because Trump seems to have ADD, because of his sometimes vulgarity, because they don’t trust him pay sufficient attention to the process of government to follow through. Because he too easily slips into demagoguery. And no one knows how Trump will do in this new stage. It’s likely that a year ago, Donald Trump contemplated a future of ten good years managing his golf empire and enjoying his family.
Now Trump has become a tribune for white working class patriotism, spokesman for a core group of this country, the one most neglected and dismissed by the Washington political class. For Trump personally, this must be a strange and largely unexpected challenge. To begin a campaign as what was perhaps a lark, or as a bid to be taken seriously, and to find oneself somehow thrust into the crucible of history. It is never clear which particular elections are historically decisive, but it is obvious that in this general period the entire West is facing the question of whether its basic identity will survive under the challenges of globalism and mass migration.
Of course these issues, all those related to globalism and immigration, was critical to Trump’s success. The campaign conveyed implicitly a loyalty to the Americans who are here now, not to some ineffable universalist idea of America, not to the hundreds of millions who might come if the the immigration laws were—as so many in the establishment wish—loosened further. For this, of course, he was denounced as racist.
Ditto of course with trade. Of course we’ve all read our Ricardo, and many in some ways appreciate the seemingly infinite supply of cheap Chinese manufactured goods in our stores. But these come at a price beyond the actual cost; that price, increasingly, is that larger and larger segments of the American population lack the prospects of ever finding secure employment. To those who remember, as Donald Trump does, that one of the things that made America special was that it was a country with many good working class jobs, this is a coruscating loss.
Republican talking heads are already speculating about the looming defection of GOP foreign policy hawks io the Hillary campaign, and the formation of some sort of Neocons for Hillary group is as inevitable as eventual rain showers. It is a genuinely curious thing that Clinton will run to the right of Trump on foreign policy. This could be a potential advantage for Trump, but it is far from clear that Trump will figure out how to make it so. His foreign policy talk last week showed he was still trying to figure out how to appeal to national security hawks while pushing for a less interventionist, more America First, foreign policy. But even some variant of the Obama-Kerry foreign policy would be better for America than the reflexive hawkishness Clinton represents.
Trump claims, without a great deal of tangible evidence, to have been an early Iraq War opponent. Hillary, of course, supported the war. It can only help Trump in the general election to draw out this distinction, and pound away at its continuing relevance.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
One of the curious aspects of the GOP campaign is that John Kasich has not done better, especially in the northeastern or mid-Atlantic states where “moderate Republicanism” still has a political resonance. David Drucker contemplated the surprising Kasich weakness and cited one strategist who concluded “Kasich has proven there is no market for a defiant left of center Republican.”
Perhaps it was Kasich’s relatively soft edge on social issues (though he was always and consistently pro-life), his readiness to accommodate Obamacare, and a general style which touted “I can work across the aisle to get things done and am not like these other bomb-throwers” which did him in. But I’m not so sure. There is an argument to be made that Kasich’s “moderation” was inconsistent, that he vacillated too readily towards hardline positions that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, especially on foreign policy. One of the surprising things about the primary election cycle is that neither Trump nor Sanders were punished at all by voters for challenging the bipartisan hawkish consensus which now governs Washington. In Kasich’s bid to be the reasonable guy in the room, he ignored foreign policy, or actually showed himself to be just as ready to strike belligerent poses as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. Given the chance to be “defiant left of center,” he passed.
Months ago, it looked as if it might be different. In a January town hall in northwest New Hampshire, Kasich was asked who seemed like an exemplary secretary of state who might guide his thinking. He mentioned Jim Baker. I thought this might have been simply the reflex of a tired candidate coming out with the name of the secretary of state he actually knew; and that Kasich was somehow unaware that Baker was a kind of demon figure for the neoconservatives for trying to push Israel towards peace with the Palestinians. But no, it seemed the remark was fairly intentional. I hoped that the remark might arise later in the campaign—perhaps become a vehicle for a Kasich defense of George H.W. Bush’s “realist” foreign policy, and show Kasich in healthy contrast to Graham, Cruz, and Rubio who spout only neocon-approved positions.
But Kasich didn’t see it that way. Instead, on the debate stage, surprising belligerence came from Kasich: “punch Putin in the nose” and “arm the Ukrainians” were his most notable utterances. In other words, risk war with Russia over Ukraine. One wonders what Baker would have thought of this.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of George H.W. Bush was to oversee the end of the Cold War and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. And one of the factors which made it possible was that Washington was not overly triumphant about it: the end of communism was good for Russia, and so was letting Eastern Europe go. But there were implicit understandings that the U.S. wouldn’t try push its advantage by, for instance, expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders. Perhaps these should have been codified, but they weren’t.
In what John Mearsheimer rightly describes as a “boneheaded play,” Washington and the EU have been trying to peel Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit through NATO and EU expansion and democracy promotion, and have effectively installed through a combined rebellion/coup d’état a “pro-Western” government in Ukraine. The result has been a bloody civil war, with great possibilities of escalation. It is probably not too much to say that these policies were the exact opposite of what George H.W. Bush and James Baker conceived in the early 1990s, when they envisioned Russia emerging as a non-hostile partner in the international system. And yet here is John Kasich, apparently believing there aren’t enough hot spots in the world, suggesting—as basically his signature foreign-policy contribution—that we should add more fuel to the fire by “arming the Ukrainians” in order to punch Putin in the nose.
In last night’s “Acela primary” moderate Republicans voted for Trump over Kasich. Trump’s campaign style is certainly not moderate, but those looking for a realist foreign-policy sensibility may have felt they had nowhere else to go. For this, Kasich has only himself to blame.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
On Sunday’s “Face the Nation,” host John Dickerson asked his press panel what the Democrats’ reaction would have been to large-scale efforts to block roads and disrupt traffic for those attending a Barack Obama rally during the 2008 campaign. While no one replied directly, Ruth Marcus said, “We know what it would be.” The understood answer was the road-blockers would encounter a nationwide crescendo of denunciation, and would be shamed as despicable racists seeking to disrupt the American democratic process.
By contrast, those seeking to disrupt Trump rallies face nothing of the sort. Instead, Trump and his supporters are denounced over and over again for their verbal, or in two or three instances physical, lashings out against those who have repeatedly sought to wreak havoc on their events.
The possibility of widespread violence, instead of the now-routine disruptions, prompted Trump to cancel a Chicago rally on the evening of March 10. The cancellation, and the TV coverage of altercations outside the arena which followed, sparked debates between liberals and leftists over whether creating mayhem around Trump events is politically prudent, morally justified, and tactically effective. No one who scans these debates is likely to come away greatly reassured about the bedrock solidity of the shared commitment to the democratic rules of the game in American politics; one could easily conclude that America is beginning to veer towards a state where political disruption and civil violence will become a kind of norm, as it is in much of the Third World.
After the cancellation, the news networks played in continuing loops footage of confrontations between outnumbered Trump supporters and anti-Trump demonstrators outside the University of Illinois at Chicago venue. The latter sometimes waved Mexican flags or banners flouting their undocumented status, defiantly expressing the belief, newly ascendant on the left, that the United States has no right to enforce its immigration laws.
The essayist Michael Tomasky tweeted, “It’s surreal, but if you think this hurts Trump and not the protesters, I fear you are mistaken.” This seemingly innocuous tweet was quickly set upon by some of Tomasky’s Twitter followers, one of whom labeled him a “tone-policing white liberal.” In a podcast debate between millennial writer-activists Ali Gharib and Jesse Myerson over whether it was a good idea for the left to shut down Trump rallies, Tomasky was singled out for disdain along with Damon Linker, who had written the left’s proper response to Trump’s events was not to disrupt them. Myerson used the word “cowardice” before adding he didn’t actually know Linker personally. The former Occupy Wall Street activist, who had created a small splash by publishing a kind of communist manifesto for millennials in 2014, argued that almost any action which prevented Trump from speaking was justified, so long as it succeeded. The important thing was to show strength, not weakness. Forcing Trump to cancel a rally showed the demonstrators’ strength. Chicago was thus an unambiguous victory.
For his part, Gharib—who took the part of “liberal” in the “liberal-leftist” dialogue—managed to remind one of nothing so much as the hapless liberals of the 1960s, invariably ready to concede the moral high ground to the far left, while seeking to defend, almost apologetically, the “process” rules of liberal democracy. We agree completely with your aims, they would say to radicals which wanted not civil rights or the end of the Vietnam War but “revolution” on some sort of Maoist or Castroite model. Gharib did note that leftists or liberals might one day have some use for the right to rent a hall and hold a political meeting, so it was perhaps not a wise precedent to deny it to Donald Trump. The mounting of continuous disruptions of the rallies of a “racist fascist” was perfectly alright with him however.
One could see similar modes of thinking elsewhere in the ranks of well placed mainstream commentators: Jonathan Chait claims that Trump poses an “unprecedented threat” to American democracy, “spreading poisons” though its system, but says that the “whole premise of democracy is that rules need to be applied in every case without regard to the merit” of the cause benefitting from them. Chait expressed dismay that most of his Twitter followers disagreed with this last point.
One of the rare anti-Trump commentators who managed not to embarrass himself by fawning over the good intentions of those who wanted shut Trump down was the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson, who wrote unambiguously,
If Side A rents a hall for a rally and Side B comes in and shouts down A’s speaker, what has happened is better described as “mob rule” than as “free speech.”
As several observers noted, the culture of shouting people down or denying them the right to speak has been growing rapidly on the left in recent years. Bernie Sanders himself had his microphone seized and a rally disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists, an incident to which Trump has sometimes referred in his own speeches. Olson noted that many who engaged in recent shutdowns, such as one against Federalist Society speaker Orrin Hatch, are not young or black but actually staffers of an exceedingly well-funded liberal think-tank. The lack of respect for the free speech of those one disagrees with was a noticeable feature of last fall’s wave of campus protests, from Yale to Claremont, which had no connection to Donald Trump. Ali Gharib’s concerns notwithstanding, respect for free speech does not rank highly on the progressive hierarchy of values.
Yet the sanctity of the rules of the democratic process, and right of one’s opponents to express themselves freely may not be the most important issue to arise from these incidents. If Donald Trump were really a dangerous fascist, rather than a 69-year-old businessman who holds fairly populist (and popular) attitudes towards American immigration law, one could more readily empathize with the soul-searching of progressives wondering how to counter him. The communist Jesse Myerson (I am not red-baiting, this is how he describes himself) has a point when he asserts that no one is a free-speech absolutist.
But to concede, with a kind of lazy or passive credulity, the left-wing definition of Trump as a “racist fascist” is in its way as alarmingly wrongheaded as proclaiming he and his supporters should be denied their opportunity to hire a venue and hold a peaceful rally. This kind of smearing has many parallels, but one it evokes most clearly the left-wing rhetoric of the 1960s, where the United States was presented as irredeemably fascist, racist, and imperialist—“Amerika” or “Amerikkka” in the rhetoric of the day.
About Trump, there are several more or less indisputable facts. Trump is a self-promoting businessman who is running for president on a platform which appeals most strongly to a white working class which has lost economic security and social stature to economic globalization and immigrant wage competition. Their kids have disproportionately served in the armed forces, subject to repeated deployments for pointless wars plotted by their more educated countrymen. I have attended nearly a half-dozen Trump events and stood in lines for hours chatting with these people. A fascist mob they are not.
What is a Trump speech like? Typically the tone is conversational. Much of it is about polls, or joking about other candidates. Ted Cruz is “the Canadian.” The audience is with Trump on the jokes, they know the lines in advance. The media—as with its recent credulous reporting about Trump’s “questioning of Romney’s faith”—seems determinedly unable to discern when Trump is joking.
In policy terms, most of the content of Trump’s talk is about trade and trade deals, along with special-interest financing of politicians. I’m not sure Trump’s supporters fully believe he will renegotiate America’s trade arrangements successfully, or bring any factories back. I am certain they appreciate being part of a movement which gives the president a mandate to do that. They might well have preferred to support a more normal politician—for Trump’s trade policy positions seems to me fairly similar to what Richard Gephardt was saying in the late ’80s and ’90s. But Trump is what they have. Things for them are now mostly far worse than they were in Gephardt’s time. And a Trump rally is more fun than a Gephardt rally.
You actually don’t hear much talk about immigrants at a Trump rally, beyond the occasional reference to “beautiful Kate” who was murdered in San Francisco by a criminal illegal alien who was free to roam because San Francisco is a “sanctuary city.” References to The Wall, both a concrete and symbolic promise to enforce—to actually enforce—America’s existing immigration laws, are however a big part of any Trump rally. Deporting 11 million illegals (which would be a public relations and logistical nightmare) is not. If any of the bien pensants lamenting the fascist aura surrounding Trump events want to correct me, it’s possible I’ve missed something: as I’ve said, I’ve been only to five Trump events, all in New Hampshire. But nothing I’ve heard from the Trump stage is racist or fascist. Not even close.
About violence, what can one say? I believe there have been three incidents in which disruptive protesters have been punched or manhandled. One can’t excuse this, though in most of the instances the circumstances were somewhat unusual. In one case, an old man sucker-punched a much younger one who was giving him the finger while being escorted out. In another, an African-American Trump supporter took offense at two protesters, one wearing Ku Klux Klan garb, the other waving a placard with a Confederate flag imposed on Trump’s face (and yelling what we can only imagine). These are the incidents which are discussed again and again on TV, out of a data set involving dozens of Trump rallies, hundreds of disruptions, and hundreds of thousands of people. Even the Washington Post has felt obliged to report upon the pure hatred which seems to infest the Trump protesters.
Honestly, in what universe does an individual feel entirely safe going to someone else’s political rally in order to disrupt it? For example, if people (as someone on Twitter suggested to me) descended upon on a Hillary event, whipped out placards with photos of late-term aborted fetuses, and started shouting about baby-killing, would they be treated with overwhelming civility? One would hope so, of course, but one can’t be sure they would be. And if this happened repeatedly, again and again and again?
It is true that Trump plays the tough guy on stage—“Get him out of here,” or in some cases, “In the old days he’d get a punch in the nose” or be “carried out on a stretcher.” I’m sure this is unwise, and fairly certain Trump will stop doing it if the violence at his rallies persists. But those words seem to me most of all a way of diffusing tension, giving people something to think about while the disrupters are removed. Trump’s campaign is, after all, about giving voice to the aspirations of largely powerless people. Trump can’t very well show that he can be pushed around by the dorm-room Marxists and professional protesters who come to disrupt his rallies.
Donald Trump is of course a candidate with many obvious flaws: he is crass, egotistical, and seemingly not well versed in policy. If he is elected, there is a considerable chance he would be unable to do anything to improve the lives of his supporters, or that he would sell them out by acting like a more or less normal Republican. This is what Michael Brendan Dougherty, a shrewd observer of the Trump phenomenon, feels is the most likely scenario. But there is also a chance that, once in office, he would try, with some success, to carry out a nationalist populist program, particularly in regards to trade. The result would be a subtle reshuffling of winners and losers, a shift in who gains from federal policies and who does not. We all know who has gained the most in the past 30 years. Perhaps under Trump the national-income shifts would go in the other direction.
My sentiments about Trump are mixed, but I certainly hope the people who have waited for hours outside gymnasiums to hear him can, for once, win some partial political victories.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Since the Romney attack, it’s clear that much of the GOP establishment will fight your nomination tooth-and-nail, won’t support you after you win, would prefer Hillary. One guy who advises Marco on foreign policy took that further and said he’d prefer mass murderer Joseph Stalin to you. This attitude speaks volumes about GOP neoconservatives: most don’t think the Iraq War was a symptom of failure in moral and strategic judgment; most don’t know anyone who served in a combat unit, or anyone whose children who face repeated deployments. Most of them still hope to start another war in the Middle East, with Iran. Or escalate in Ukraine, in order to “bleed” Russia.
But there are many rooms in the GOP establishment, and the party includes millions who realize something’s gone very wrong. Most wouldn’t have chosen you to fix it, and many are still alarmed by your success. But anyone not explicitly against you can eventually be with you. Once you make it to the White House, you will need good people to manage and direct State and Defense.
Let’s start with foreign-policy intellectuals. A couple of weeks ago, some neoconservatives got press attention with one of those letters they are known for. It was organized by Eliot Cohen, an academic tub-thumper for the Iraq War, and its signers included most of those who had long yearned for that war and sold it to Bush and Cheney and through them to the country. These people hate you for all kinds of reasons, but the biggest is that they’ve been expecting to return to power for a long time, attached to Marco or Jeb or someone else, and now you’ve blocked them.
Still, most international relations experts are not neoconservatives, and none of the best ones are. They realize America is protected by two large oceans, can’t be expected to solve every problem in the world, and shouldn’t bankrupt itself by trying. Many of them are not liberals of any sort; they are instead the sort of men and women who might in the past have worked for Ike, or Nixon, or Reagan. For lack of a better word, they are realists.
One good place to find them is in this advertisement, published in the New York Times in the fall of 2002. It’s signed by international-affairs experts who opposed the Iraq War as a quagmire and a strategic distraction from defeating al-Qaeda. Many professors might have agreed privately but preferred to hide in the tall grass—Bush’s neocon hawks then dominated public opinion. The most famous of the signers are Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, who are brilliant, if controversial because of that Israel book they wrote a few years later. (Which, I should add, is widely—if quietly—admired by people with experience in foreign-policy circles.) There are many other important international-relations people on the list: Mike Desch, now at Notre Dame; Barry Posen, at MIT; Robert Pape, at University of Chicago; and many others. I’m not sure who among them would want to work in an administration, but they would be worth getting in for meetings, to see what they have to say. It’s important to remember that on the most critical foreign-policy decision America has faced in the past 50 years, they were right and all those now attacking you were wrong.
Two others to reach out to are Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. Both held important posts in the National Security Council during the Bush administration and negotiated with the Iranians right after 9/11. (For a while, Iran was on our side against the Taliban, until the neocons forced a shift in policy.) Since they left government, they’ve been arguing that we can build a new relationship with Iran, a mutually beneficial one. You have been trashing Obama’s deal with Iran, of course, but your shift to complaining that we aren’t getting enough out of the deal, like opportunities to sell goods to Iran, sets the stage for a pivot once in office. The Leveretts may be too optimistic about Iran—time will tell. But they might be right.
Another person, closer to the center, is Jacob Heilbrunn, who has been editing the center-right foreign-affairs magazine The National Interest for the past several years. He knows everyone and all the issues, and he could be a good bridge between the realists—a lot of whom are pretty pissed off and disaffected—and what remains of the GOP establishment.
Also worth reaching out to is Andy Bacevich, a former Army officer, who went back to school and became a top international-relations professor and author after the first Iraq War. Andy is critical of the entire military-interventionist sweep of American foreign policy, perhaps more than is politically smart to be, but he’s full of ideas that your administration (and the country) can benefit from.
Of course, keeping in touch with the more establishment types, who are actually correct some of the time, is smart. Being in regular contact with Richard Haass is always a wise move; he’s experienced and sensible, though his ambition for an important post with whomever is elected makes him less interesting than he might be. Richard Allen, an old Reagan hand, has signed on with John Kasich for the campaign, but I’d bet he’d be willing to advise President Trump come January.
My larger point is that your administration needs effective people. Voters have been willing to take your word for it that you will choose “the best people”—to go along with Carl Icahn. But once elected you will have to fill the picture in. A number of figures in the GOP establishment are looking for concrete signs of how this will happen.
You should always keep in mind that you have a strong mandate to break from the neocons who wrecked George W. Bush’s administration and much of the Middle East. In that sense the hostile letter organized by Eliot Cohen is a blessing in disguise—it means that as president you will have to approach foreign affairs with a clean slate, and no one will expect you to reach out to or “mend fences” with the neocons who have entrenched themselves in the main conservative think-tanks. Most of these warmongers would rather serve in a Hillary Clinton administration.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
The ebb and flow of campaigns is something political insiders and professionals try to master, but it is usually mysterious. Timing is everything. It is clear that Ted Cruz and especially Marco Rubio have generated some momentum by attacking Donald Trump more personally and viscerally, but far from clear that it will change the course of the contest. What if Rubio had started two weeks earlier with personal attacks: Trump as “con man’; Trump should sue “whoever did that to his face”; Trump as an elderly man who had to check during the debate that “his pants weren’t wet”? But it wouldn’t have been possible then, for Rubio himself was still too shaken by his February 6 debate bruising at the hands of Chris Christie to pull it off.
It’s not clear which of the attacks will stick. “Trump University,” a scam which must be an embarrassment to its founder, is surely the most effective, for it does involve Trump profiting from the gullibility and aspirations of people who were clearly not very well informed. That Trump seems uncertain whether to explicitly disavow or just feign ignorance when asked about David Duke’s support seems less likely to resonate: Klan endorsements and getting baited about them are almost a perennial in American politics. Jimmy Carter tried to make an issue of the Klan endorsement of Reagan, without much success. Trump—who to my knowledge has no racist past or associations to disavow—has certainly been less deft than Reagan in handling the matter, but that’s hardly surprising. That Trump has manufacturing ties in China and Mexico, meh. Anyone could say the whole point of his campaign is to change the incentives that make such offshoring arrangements attractive.
What is clear from attending a Rubio rally is that there is now an audience for this kind of thing; there are thousands of Republicans who really don’t like Trump and enjoy seeing him mocked. The press has responded to it too, and it may have catapulted Rubio into the number-two challenger status he has long sought.
Rubio seems to have hit his stride in the attacks, reveling in them and putting them on effectively. I saw him in Purcellville, Virginia (an exurb about an hour west of Washington) on Sunday—2000 people in a college gym, and the crowd was stoked. Rubio was not nearly as robotic and programmed as he was in New Hampshire. He began his rally with the attacks on Trump before pivoting to older material about America the exceptional nation and himself as a child of immigrants who best understands and represents this. But the candidate is now animated, and so was the crowd. Rubio was scheduled to make four stops on Sunday, so perhaps 8,000 people will have seen him. That’s roughly three percent of the Virginia primary electorate. An anti-Trump super PAC is doing a national buy of TV ads slamming Trump on the Trump University issue, but they apparently won’t air before Super Tuesday. In short, I’m not sure this new wave of anti-Trumpiness by Rubio is going to impact anything.
Yes, more people did see the debate on Thursday, where Rubio and Cruz performed tag team attacks on Trump, but the one pollster who re-phoned previous respondents after the debate found no change in voter sentiment. Corey Stewart, who heads Trump’s Virginia campaign, thought there was little chance that the debate had much of an impact: most of what people see, he said, is non verbal: “people see two little guys flailing, throwing punch after punch at a big dude.” In one recently published Virginia poll, Trump exceeded 40 percent, coming in first: Stewart thought that score might be “unrealistic.” But Trump is strong in the southwestern part of the state, the Hampton Roads area, the rural I-81 corridor—and weakest in the Washington suburbs. It’s a state Trump could still lose, but the prospect of that might have have been greater if the anti-Trump campaign had begun in earnest two weeks earlier.
One thing about personal attacks is that they draw responses in kind. Trump had been tough going after Cruz, but his only response to Rubio thus far had been to label him a lightweight choker on Twitter (without paying attention to the correct spelling). But one shudders to imagine what it would be like if the mudslinging got serious. Was the Trump campaign sending a warning shot when Diamond and Silk (two black women performers who have made widely shared pro-Trump “viral” videos and performed on stage at Trump rallies) brought up Rubio “rumors” to CNN? A campaign that just turned personal in the past week could quickly escalate into the ugliest in living memory.
Beyond the personal attacks, and the prospect of their escalation, there has been important intellectual shadow boxing behind the scenes. The escalation of personal rhetoric has meant that there is now no chance that Rubio would be selected as Trump veep, which would be one way in which neoconservatives could enter the foreign-policy apparatus of the next administration. It has long been clear that Rubio represented the neoconservatives’ best chance for restoration: his campaign was overlaid with a kind of neocon signaling, from the core “New American Century” slogan (evocative of PNAC) to the prominence of certain advisors, to the hawkish positions on every conceivable foreign policy issue, to the the lockstep adherence to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s positions.
Cruz and Christie and Jeb Bush have all made hawkish sounds too—but they were occasionally tempered. Cruz for instance suggested that the overthrow of Assad was a bad idea for the U.S. and is skeptical of nation-building. I had noticed that Chris Christie was very hawkish in his New Hampshire town halls, both about American defense spending and the Iran deal, and it puzzled me: it seemed slightly out of tune with his more moderate worldview.
This all came into sharper focus after Christie endorsed Trump—not a huge surprise if one had watched the interplay between the two men. But it was certainly a surprise to the neocons, who apparently believed they had effectively “tutored” the New Jersey governor. The tone of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin’s attack on Christie hinted at the neocon shock of the turnabout:
after months and months of careful coaching by outside foreign policy experts, his initial gaffes (e.g. “occupied territories” was how he referred to the West Bank) stopped and he became proficient on national security. One former adviser told me he “absolutely” would never have helped Christie had he known he would endorse Trump. He said of Christie’s endorsement, “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
There is much to chew on here: the neoconservative effort to pressure politicians to say the right (pro-Israeli right wing) things on Israel issues, the patronizing tone of it all (“careful coaching”), and the sheer unrelentingness of their effort to control the national dialogue; the fact that an intellectually highly capable man like Christie felt it politically expedient, even necessary, to accept such tutoring and to mouth the resultant paragraphs. And the obvious insecurity of the neoconservatives: they can never really be certain that even if the politicians mouth the phrases they are told to that they will actually believe them, or whether, when circumstances change, they will go back to, for instance, thinking of the Palestinian territories as occupied territories, the way they are considered by practically every government in the world. One is reminded of David Frum’s lament about writing speeches for George W. Bush, delivered after Bush had begun his retreat from the neoconservative policies of his first term:
I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.
In any case, the Trump victories in South Carolina and Nevada, and the apparent endurance of his leads in the Super Tuesday race, have produced a swirl of neoconservative anxiety—maybe they will support Hillary (Robert Kagan has) or maybe they will try to get a third party going.
The resulting electoral sociology could be breathtaking. Whether he deserves it in any meaningful sense or not, Trump is clearly reliant on working-class support in his bid for the GOP nomination. That is his base, people who have voted Republican for two generations now and received nothing in return but seeing their kids sent to war, the loss of good jobs, and declining living standards. They want, as Corey Stewart says, to “shake things up” and don’t care if it’s done in a politically correct way. If that push continues, and the neoconservatives continue their migration towards Hillary, the end result will a race in which the Republican candidate is running to the left of the Democratic candidate, at least in terms of the social base of his coalition and on foreign policy. This would amount to a major realignment in American politics, certainly one more dramatic than anything we’ve seen in the postwar era.
None of this is even more than slightly probable: Trump could easily falter; there are ample indications that his standard stump message is getting tiresome, and it is not clear he is willing or capable of effectively renewing it. It may be that he will face opponents more compelling than Cruz or Rubio, perhaps at the convention. Or that the coming zillion-dollar Super PAC ad barrage, even if too late for Super Tuesday, will somehow do him in. Or that (and this is the fervent belief of Trump’s GOP establishment Twitter opponents) the attacks themselves will throw Trump off his game, and he will make more serious mistakes than he has made thus far. All could happen, singly or in combination. Politics in America right now is a big and exciting mystery.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
In a development which brought to an abrupt and screeching halt the momentum that Rubio supporters were touting (on Twitter at least) after Thursday night’s debate, Chris Christie has endorsed Donald Trump for president. No one who saw much of the two up in New Hampshire will be surprised.
Christie plainly never disliked Trump, whom he’s known for a decade. His attacks on him were those that an experienced governor would make naturally—“I tell everybody who goes to a Donald Trump event, if you get to ask a question, just ask him ‘how?'” Christie said. “I don’t care which of the things he talks about just ask him, ‘How? How?'” At town halls, he would refer to him as “Donald” and you could read a certain friendliness into the tone.
You don’t necessarily see it in soundbites, or even in the debates, but Christie is an enormously gifted politician. He knows how to talk, how to tell a story, has a strong grasp of policy, can connect with voters in a town hall more effectively than anyone I’ve seen. It wasn’t enough to overcome the legacy of Bridgegate, or the fact that the moderate-governor lane was crowded, or that the leadership of today’s GOP may be out of the grasp of any Northeastern moderate Republican not named Donald Trump. But he was noticed as a talent immediately after winning the governorship, and he was encouraged to run for president in 2012, and people of wildly different ideological perspectives (me, Jennifer Rubin) saw him as someone they could conceivably support for president. In one revealing Christie moment, he told New Hampshire voters that Rubio could have solved his “Gang of 8” immigration problem by simply telling voters he had looked more closely at the problem and changed his mind. I thought of that when, twenty minutes later, Christie launched into an absurdly hawkish interpretation of Iran and the nuclear deal.
I would guess that Christie felt his chosen profession was somehow diminished by the likes of Rubio. A man who could banter off the cuff endlessly with reporters and citizens was clearly irritated by being surpassed by someone possessing none of those abilities. Well apart from what he stood for, there was something fake about Rubio—the scripted answers, the avoidance of press gaggles. Christie had begun to talk about it in public a week before the final New Hampshire debate, making repeated references to “the boy in the bubble. ” He lowered the boom on the night of February 6, three days before the New Hampshire vote, denying Rubio a showing which might well have—given the party establishment’s wariness of Trump—catapulted him into a South Carolina lead. Now he’s done Trump another solid, providing far and away the most significant endorsement in the campaign season, coming at a critical time. I’m not sure a Trump-Christie ticket would be balanced effectively in any meaningful sense, but Trump really owes Chris Christie.
The liberal media (reinforced by the voices of Republican establishment) has been so busy seeking reasons to display shock and horror at Trump’s rise that they have largely missed that he is essentially a moderate Republican. Trump is relatively tough on the one issue that simply did not exist in the era of Rockefeller, Nixon, and Ford: mass immigration. Apart from that, he is politically of a piece with the latter three—supporter of substantial public works, not eager to take a knife to New Deal era entitlements, a law-and-order guy but certainly ready to accommodate both minority political aspiration and affirmative action.
In foreign policy, Nixon and Rockefeller were hawkish but not nuts about it. While Trump overstates his “antiwar” credentials, he clearly has learned something from the Iraq and Libya failures, which the Cheney-Kristol-Rubio wing of the party has not. Trump’s sense that the United States ought to at least try to present itself as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well in line with mainstream Republican thinking until roughly 1992. A meeting with Henry Kissinger ought to appear soon on Trump’s public calendar; each would gain from it.
Christie’s endorsement obviously helps Trump in a tactical sense, days before the critical Super Tuesday primaries. It should do more in helping to define who Trump is and what his rise means. Populist, yes, kind of. Pro-working class? Well, certainly working class voters have been extraordinarily responsive to his campaign. But with what politicians, in what category, should he be grouped? On that score, we’ve seen an extraordinary amount of heavy breathing fright-mongering. But as the evidence mounts, the category that includes Rockefeller, Nixon, Ford, and now Chris Christie is easily the best fit.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
At the entrance to a John Kasich event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia Monday morning, I was asked by a radio reporter why I was attending. I didn’t say “journalist” (my usual answer) but replied instead, “I’m not satisfied with a three candidate race of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.” I’m aware that Kasich barely participated in Iowa and South Carolina, but in the one state he, Cruz and Rubio all spent a lot of time in, he bested them both. Plus, as he tells audiences, he beat Donald Trump in Dixville Notch.
To demonstrate that it’s not a three (or two) candidate race, Kasich has to somehow hang on till the campaign moves to Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio in March. Then there is a clear rationale for him if Donald Trump falters: polls say he is the most electable Republican in the race, with the most appeal to centrist voters. Once the terrain shifts in April to major central and northern states, both east and west, he is a more natural fit than Cruz or Rubio. By that time, Trump will either have shown himself to be more broadly presidential (filling out his policy positions with greater detail, hiring respected policy advisors) or will be exhibiting clear signs of losing interest in the entire enterprise.
But to move north, Kasich has to at least make an impression in places like northern Virginia, still an electorally purple area, filled with high tech, a diverse array (in both social class and ethnically) of new immigrants, and a seldom acknowledged dependence on the federal government based across the river in Washington.
We are no longer in New Hampshire. At 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, the student center was filled with about 800 people, few of them students. Kasich was running late due to airport problems. Tom Davis, a former congressman who represented this district for 10 years and now the rector of George Mason, introduced him. Most of Kasich’s more established endorsers are people who knew him in Congress, when he rose to chair the budget committee during the 1990s, and they seem genuinely enthusiastic, though with politicians it is always difficult to tell. (A week ago, Nikki Haley was reportedly saying privately she didn’t think Rubio was qualified to be president). The audience was led in the pledge of allegiance by a Muslim cleric—clearly a bit of a risky move, a way of saying “We are not those nativists.” Kasich’s immigration position is more or less centrist: rhetorically pro-immigrant, insistent that just as if you have a house, you have to be able to choose who to let in. Putting aside the symbolism, he is more distant from Clinton and Sanders than from Trump on the issue.
John Kasich is still trying to introduce himself to voters. He is the son of a small-town Pennsylvania mailman, the grandson of coal miners, of Slavic background. He talks about his budget record in Congress a lot (there was a “Kasich budget” at one point), he talks about the waste in Pentagon procurement, he is friendly towards Gingrich. He moves quickly past his uneventful but lucrative eight years out of office (on Fox, a job with the Lehman brothers) to Ohio. Getting elected in 2010, he may have hit the timing right, but his governorship coincided with a robust economic revival in the state—he got the budget in the black, and is now a very popular governor.
He moves on to audience questions. There was a moment when he described his first race for the Ohio state senate and mentioned that many of his early supporters were women who came “out of the kitchen.” Aha! Within the hour, this remark was being parsed on MSNBC—a sexist gaffe! Reviewing the tape, it was revealed Kasich had said that things were different in the early ’80s, that there were far more women at home, and now things had changed. But the minor storm was a reminder: there are people in the press determined to see Kasich tripped up, for whatever reason.
At town halls here as in New Hampshire, the questions are different than what journalists will ask. He handled an immigration question by the answer above (the owner of a house has to be able to lock its doors, to choose whom to let enter) but the tricky ones come unscripted. A woman in early middle age asked about the future for her autistic son, now living in her basement and approaching the end of schooling. I thought Kasich hit the answer out of the park, mentioning that the disabled have no real advocates for them, that many should be able to participate in the workforce, that they deserve the chance to acquire as much autonomy as possible. And that doing this might require a considerable rethinking about what the role of government should be. The whole question is a reminder that the world is quite different: how many people with mild or moderate disabilities might, in years past, have done chores on the family farm, with no one sensing that this was a grave crisis. But now clearly it is, for a great many people. He received sustained applause for his answer.
I have yet to hear a pure foreign-policy question come up in any town hall, but this is where the next president has the most autonomy, and where the differences between the remaining Republicans are most pronounced. It seem truly bizarre that there should be pressure to winnow the field without more serious attention to these issues. There is now considerable pressure being exacted on Kasich to give way so the party can coalesce around Marco Rubio. Rubio is clearly the hawk in the race: he seeks to roll back the normalization towards Cuba, cancel the nuclear deal with Iran on Day One (a position he shares with Cruz), deploy more troops to Syria and Iraq, monitor and perhaps attack ships and aircraft bound for North Korea, toughen measures against China to encourage human rights, send more weapons to Ukraine, increase sanctions on Russia, and ensure the departure of Bashar al-Assad. This is, as has been noted, the return of George W. Bush’s first-term policies, before Bush replaced Rumsfeld and demoted Cheney in stature.
Hypothetically (though I very much doubt it), such policies might be exactly what the Republican party and the country want and need. But doesn’t it seem peculiar that Conservatism Inc. is pushing these policies without the pretense of national debate? That would seem to be the major motivation behind the efforts to shove Kasich and Cruz out of the race and anoint Marco Rubio as the party-insider choice. It’s almost as if the conservative establishment feared that if foreign policy were actually debated in the campaign, their favored candidate wouldn’t fare so well.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
I spent election night in New Hampshire with the Kasich campaign. Obviously this was an important night for the country, with more decisive victories than I had anticipated for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Taken together, their wins signal a dramatic rejection of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the shared ideology of the current American establishment.
It’s not an anti-government message—both Sanders and Trump very much believe in government. It’s an anti-what-the-government-has-been-doing-for-the-past-20-years message. It’s a rejection of the Iraq war, opposed by both the winning candidates, (and supported by all the others), and of a Wall Street-dominated economic system. For the Trump voters, it’s also a rejection of high levels of immigration and a free trade regime that has decimated America’s manufacturing base. Sanders harkens to an older radical tradition, deeply rooted in the country, supposedly vanquished once and for all by the neoliberalism embodied by the Clintons.
I like both of the winning candidates, and relish how much they discomfit the current establishment. Everyone seems to like Bernie Sanders at least a little, but boy does Trump ever worry them. Driving back from the Kasich election night party in Concord I heard Rachel Maddow on the radio. She is totally freaked out that a large number of Americans want to reestablish control of their nation’s borders. I wonder why she has such difficulty understanding this, I really do. Xenophobic nativism she labels it. Generally a cool customer, she is unable to hide her hatred.
I’m far from persuaded that either Trump or Sanders will be elected president—Sanders because his views are too far left for the country, Trump because of his temperament and relative lack of political experience.
I’ve seen John Kasich five times now, including tonight. He campaigns as a moderate conservative who can work with Democrats across the aisle, as a governor who knows how to balance budgets. He’s occasionally said some hawkish stuff, but essentially he is the only other non-neoconservative remaining in the GOP race. I’ve written before that I believe his endorsement of James Baker as a model secretary of state is significant as an indication of his foreign policy inclinations, realist and not neocon.
But the unexpected thing at a Kasich event is his sweet side, which seems so unlike the other Republicans. In his celebration of his second-place finish, he used his time before the national cameras to describe moments from his town hall meeting which sounded evangelical, though without any references to scripture. He recalled people in pain who came to him during a town hall, suffering from illness or grief, and how he responded, with words, or embraces. It might easily have seemed treacly, and was unusual for an election night speech. But with Kasich it seemed authentic, and it worked.
The Kasich party was full of Ohioans, cheerful volunteers who came out to canvass over the weekend. When the TV showed a graphic saying that Kasich had beaten Trump (by one percent) among late deciding voters, the Ohioans started chanting “ground game, ground game.” While waiting for the candidate to appear (waiting actually for Clinton and Sanders to finish their very long speeches), the Ohioans chanted “Unite Not Divide,” perhaps the least catchy political slogan ever. I don’t believe any serious analysis of what Kasich has in terms of money and organization in the ensuing states has been published, and it is assumed that Jeb and Rubio have infinite amounts of establishment or neocon money to continue.
But I have little doubt that Kasich is superior to those two as a politician, in terms of judgement, experience, and intelligence. I suspect that will emerge in the weeks and months to come.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.
It has been snowing since Monday morning, and I’ve learned from experience my car can’t handle it. Next time in New Hampshire, rent a Jeep. But I did go to a Bernie Sanders rally at a small college in Nashua yesterday morning. From the perspective of a campaign effectively using its resources, the event wasn’t particularly well conceived.
There were a few hundred people there, mostly young. And more guys than girls; that part of the “Berniebros” thing is true. The gender imbalance at Clinton events is more pronounced. Two dozen young people, staffers or volunteers with Bernie placards, sit behind the stage. For the size of the rally (maybe 500) and the staff effort involved, with journalists and TV crews from all over the world, I thought the Sanders camp would have done better to have had his workers out canvassing, making sure that they contact every marginal or irregular voter in the state, and get them all to the polls.
I’ve heard before that Sanders is a one-issue guy—he talks about inequality, and he’s done little else for 40 years in politics. Everything comes back to that. But the stopped clock is sometimes right.
Like most college educated people my age, somewhat touched by the 1960s, I’m familiar with arguments about socialism. In the mid 70s I took a poli-sci class with Columbia’s most active Marxist, Mark Kesselman, a good scholar and teacher and a nice guy. And like Sanders, he would draw on statistics about American income inequality, wage stagnation, and the lack of class mobility in “late capitalism.” And he presented these arguments well.
But we had in our class a Polish emigre, a fiery young woman named Irena who had been active in Warsaw student dissident politics. Irene, finally in a position to challenge Marxist arguments without fear of legal sanction—went for it. She called bullshit on Professor Kesselman. It was all pretty civil; this was grad school after all. But Irena emboldened the rest of us. For the inequality Kesselman described in 1976 America just wasn’t that severe. Yes, professionals made more than workers, and business execs far more. And yes, the children of doctors and lawyers were more likely to succeed than working class kids. But there was, as I think Kesselman was forced to concede, quite a bit of upward mobility from one class to another. And if a vice president of U.S. Steel made a lot of money (working in the “productive sector” as Irena called it, deploying the Marxian term with a kind of self-mocking irony, because she had no desire for a career there), was that really a crime?
I wonder how that class would go today. For Sanders, like Kesselman, talks a great deal about how much wealth is controlled by the one percent, or the one tenth of one percent, compared to the rest. He talks about how much students go into debt to attend college, in an era when a college education is as necessary as a high school diploma was fifty years ago.
And now, there really are very few U.S. Steels. The wealth of the one tenth of one percent is now concentrated in the financial industry. The money of the middle class has been redistributed upwards to Wall Street. No one calls it the “productive sector,” even ironically. Wall Street pays for the political campaigns, and pays for the politicians. It pays for Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s message is as simple as that. And there is a great deal of truth in it. If Kesselman taught his class today, what could grad student Irena possibly say to deflate him?
Snowed into my hotel room, I’m watching a Trump event on a video feed. It’s a town hall, not a rally. The first or second subject he chooses to address is the cost of prescription drugs. He says it’s a problem he would solve by negotiating better deals with the drug companies, and the other politicians don’t do it because they are in the pay of the drug companies. “Woody Johnson, I know him, nice guy.” But I’m not taking any of his money.
It’s not of course a Marxist message—Trump basically says he is independent of the donors because he’s rich, while Sanders says he is independent of them because he raised tens of millions of dollars in small donations. But both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite. Something to contemplate.
Predictions: Trump 28, Kasich 18, Cruz 14, Rubio 13, Bush 13, Christie 10, Fiorina 3, Carson 1.
Sanders 53, Clinton 47.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.
A few moments on a New Hampshire debate stage last Saturday will likely go down as an historic moment in American politics. For the previous week there had been a palpable sense that the GOP establishment, desperate to coalesce behind someone to stop Donald Trump, was going to break very quickly towards Marco Rubio. Immediately after Iowa, Rubio began began scooping up endorsements from senators. There were many press reports that key players in Jeb Bush’s financial team were ready to jump—and pull their funds, and their friends, from Jeb’s flailing candidacy to Rubio. No doubt Cruz and of course Trump would continue. But there was a sense that the “party had decided” or was about to—to borrow the name of a well regarded book that describes the process of a party establishment coming to a decision.
Rubio had convinced many that he was eminently electable in a general election. On paper, the Gen-Xer with a Latino immigrant background seemed like the magic bullet designed to instantly boost the GOP out of its stale pale male rut. He seemed more or less conservative, and on foreign policy (to those who bothered to notice) was a full-fledged neocon, whose views seemed a reflection of the right-wing, very pro-Zionist Cuban émigré Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, under whose tutelage Rubio’s career began. Against Clinton or Sanders, he seemed formidable on paper.
In early debates he did well, and generally impressed voters. It might have seemed a bit too slick a package, but it was an attractive package. It was a hurdle to finesse his “Gang of Eight” sponsorship of an unpopular-with-the-GOP-base amnesty bill, but the legislative process is complex enough that the issue could be muddled. And he learned to talk “right” about immigration with impressive fluency, to give the impression he was very serious about controlling the border. An added bonus consisted of slams at some Cuban immigrants (his own ethnic group) for gaming the system by tapping into the state and federal social benefits and diverting them to Cuba. Many would leave a Rubio event saying “This guy is an American who gets it.”
Those most familiar with Rubio may have thought him an appealing politician, but pointed to problems. Some noted that the nicely crafted answers he delivered to various questions were always scripted or that he avoided spontaneous exchanges with the press. Then there was the undeniable fact that he had few legislative accomplishments in the Senate, and, remarkably, his campaign couldn’t even manage to put a positive gloss on the record. He hadn’t really led anything, ever. But snarky descriptions by New York Times columnist Gail Collins (“a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points”) or Chris Christie (“boy in the bubble”) or (at a considerably less influential level) myself (“Chatty Cathy“) were hardly going to stop the GOP rush to anointing Rubio.
Jeb Bush’s mordant ads quoting Rubio endorser Rick Santorum saying that Rubio had “no accomplishments” in the Senate might slow things a bit, but nothing Jeb has done in this election cycle has really succeeded. And if Rubio, buoyed by a surge of positive press and rising in the national polls after Iowa, finished a strong second in New Hampshire, the “party would decide” and not that much would stand in the way of a Rubio presidency. To be precise, Ted Cruz and three others, each pushing, or surpassing, 70 years of age: Trump, Clinton and Sanders, all who have their strengths, but also obvious weaknesses—against a well-funded, very polished, Gen-X candidate.
No one thinks that Chris Christie aided his own chances by attacking Rubio. But there are other things in politics besides winning. Rubio’s super PAC had been slamming Christie on the New Hampshire airwaves since last fall, making mountains out of molehills (Christie’s “support” of a Senate vote to confirm or reject Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor). Plus, they are human. How do you think Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and two-term governor who can talk administrative nuts and bolts till the cows come home and mesmerize a room with off-the-cuff digressions, feels about getting swamped by someone with no record to speak of, whose every campaign utterance seems to have been written by someone else, focus-grouped, and memorized before delivery?
So Christie was going to try to lower the boom on Saturday night. He has been talking all week about the “boy in the bubble.” No one knew if he would have an opportunity. And everyone also assumed Rubio would be prepared. Yet as Christie put it in a Sunday afternoon town hall, quoting former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, “everyone is prepared until you get a punch in the mouth.”
I don’t think there is any observer of the race who expected Rubio to collapse as quickly as he did. He tried to retort to Christie with jibes at his New Jersey record, but Christie had it covered. Then Rubio reached for his Obama script trying to tap into the contradictory Republican trope: Obama is a lightweight with no accomplishments (the same charge sometimes leveled at Rubio); Obama is the malevolent semi-dictator who knows exactly what he is doing in a scheme to despoil America. He said it not once, but four times. Four. People were shocked. Chris Matthews wondered, during the post-debate interviews, whether Rubio was exhibiting symptoms of some sort of brain damage, and in one of the more hilarious moments of the election cycle, asked brain surgeon Ben Carson for his evaluation. The Twitter storm, indicative of what Rubio will endure so long as he remains the race, was both hysterical and brutal.
It should be acknowledged that Rubio recovered, and gave several coherent answers on different questions later in the nearly three-hour debate, including a moving pro-life argument. His campaign is not over, and he remains what he was, a gifted young politician whose views match up well with the neocons. But no amount of neocon spin can make those debate moments go away. And, to be fair, Bill Kristol and other Weekly Standard writers were forthright in acknowledging how terrible the debate was for Rubio.
It wasn’t simply that the answers were bad. It is that they were bad in a way that emphasizes Rubio’s organic weaknesses, that he lacks the credentials or leadership gravitas and experience that people associate with the presidency. If he is scripted, who writes the scripts? Who would call the shots, and who would be his Cheney? This isn’t the kind of thing that any sort of campaign reset could solve; it is, by its nature, something that would take years of political experience to overcome.
And it almost didn’t happen. Jeb’s lack-of-accomplishment ads and the boy-in-the-bubble talk may have been stalling Rubio’s momentum. But before the debate, there was at least a 50 percent chance that Rubio would have finished in second place in New Hampshire and the GOP establishment rallying towards him, in the form of endorsements and cash, would have accelerated. I would be surprised if that happens now. And if you think that a Rubio presidency would have meant a full neoconservative restoration, a terrible thing for America and the world, you owe a big thank-you to Governor Christie.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire. Follow @ScottMcConnell9
Whether he has a real campaign structure or not, Donald Trump is a draw in New Hampshire.
This morning in Exeter, 300 people who arrived two hours before his town hall (as I did) didn’t get in before the venue was full. The line of disappointed ticket holders snaked out two hundred yards down the sidewalk. Trump didn’t come out to at least wave and say a few words to those who didn’t get in; a better politician would have. I listened to the speech in a coffee house where some Philips Exeter students were streaming it. The prep school students favor Bernie, by and large (what would you expect?), and have the expected attitudes of their social class towards Trump and his supporters. I was pleased at least to hear that Trump had stopped talking about getting cheated in the Iowa caucus, as he did yesterday, because, honestly, no one here cares.
Do Trump’s crowds transfer into actual votes? Certainly fewer than those who attend other candidate events: near me in line were a Mom and her teenage son who had come from Maine to see him, another Mom and her kid who came from Massachusetts, and three Danish journalists. Politico yesterday ran an important article about how Trump’s political operation was amateurish, and the candidate himself acknowledged that he wasn’t really familiar with the term “ground game” until a few weeks ago. It’s a learning on the job thing, and can’t help but make people wonder how he would do as president.
In any case, clearly the parts that came easily and naturally for him—garnering media attention, filling the unfilled non-neocon American nationalist ideological slot—Trump has done already, turning himself into a contender. Now comes the harder part: to elevate himself as a serious candidate, who can talk more specifically about policy, speak more concretely about who would fill a Trump administration, and—equally important—can adopt and utilize up-to-date campaign techniques. The science of winning elections has evolved a good deal since the 1950s, and while rallies are important, so are data mining and targeted get-out-the-vote operations. Trump seems never to have heard of either. He will have to learn quickly if he is to compete effectively against Cruz or Rubio or someone else, and certainly would be required to win victory in the fall. I’d put the odds that he is willing to commit to that effort at about 50 percent. Hearing his soundbites yesterday whining that Ted Cruz “stole” the Iowa vote made me think they were less than that.
So who are the competitors? There is Jeb, whose self-deprecating “please clap” line, when his audience failed to notice he had reached a crescendo in describing his own commander-in-chief qualifications, seems to sum up his campaign. He would probably make an excellent secretary of education, but he will excite no one.
Seemingly the weakest of those with some chance is Chris Christie, who now runs at about 6 or 7 percent in the polls, after spending a lot of time here. I’m surprised he’s not doing better: I saw Christie last night, and there is no one who is a more compelling speaker, and no one you’d rather “have a beer with” to adopt that storied standard. He is unscripted, he goes into digressions, he tells stories, he has a great politician’s voice, deep and full of range. Last night at a Milford fire house, he held an audience of 200 or so nearly mesmerized for two hours; he spoke of drugs, a law school friend’s fall into addiction and death, school loans, rock climbing, his wife being mistaken for a young staff aide. He gave a routinely hawkish answer on Iran, but (without hard evidence) made me believe he was a man capable of changing his mind. He’s terribly overweight, but if you are looking for someone who can hold the attention of a room, he’s your guy.
My sense is that he actually is a polite man, but he is searching desperately for political oxygen, and so looks for vulgar and quotable soundbites—against Obama, against Hillary Clinton—which do get quoted. I was hoping that he would say something sharp about the apparently party-anointed Marco Rubio, but candidates save those for media interviews. But Christie’s rap about the carefully scripted “boy in the bubble” is starting to become a thing. I think everyone has known this for a while, but didn’t feel compelled to talk about it because Rubio wasn’t that important. But now he’s the designated anti-Trump and anti-Cruz candidate of the neocons and a growing number of the party establishment. I doubt that any of them could do better than Rick Santorum at naming Rubio’s actual accomplishments, but he seems electable, the perfect and malleable vehicle for the ambitions of more substantial men.
Rubio is getting a bump out of Iowa. I saw him yesterday at noon, in a converted mill in Laconia, a small town in the middle of the state. The room was tightly packed with 200-plus people—more of an accomplishment than drawing 200 people in the more populated southern end of the state. There was an efficient young staff, brandishing laptops. I overheard an aide tell someone the campaign was bringing in 180 canvassing volunteers from Iowa. You had the sense of a tightly run, efficient organization. The event came before Santorum’s now famous inability to name a Rubio accomplishment had circulated. Despite his boyish demeanor, Rubio is not actually all that young, when you consider that John F. Kennedy had captained a PT boat and served eight years as a fairly important senator. But he is, in a way, a perfect communicator, able to talk about immigration without being treacly (as Jeb cannot), and to be as hawkish as Bill Kristol wants. You can go to his events and never see him drawn out of his comfort zone, a perfectly programmed Chatty Cathy doll. The programmed answers are good, and Rubio delivers them well. No one fails to notice where the applause lines are supposed to be. The major question about Rubio as president is who would be the Cheney.
There is an assumption that there are three tickets out of New Hampshire, or four if you include Jeb, who has money to hang around as long as he wants. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where Trump finds himself in a battle with Cruz and Rubio and decides that this politics business isn’t really for him. Suddenly the race would be down to two, a carpet bomber and a neoconservative. I hope there is room for a genuine fourth ticket—for Kasich or Christie. They are centrist Republicans, self-made men, intelligent figures who have governed states and genuinely like the profession they are in. Watching them I have the feeling they could do town halls forever—they like the attention, like talking about policy, and basically like people. From what I’ve seen, voters like them too. But most American voters haven’t seen too much of them yet.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
No post-Iowa polls have appeared at this writing, but everyone wants to know whether Donald Trump’s New Hampshire lead will survive his supposedly surprising defeat in Iowa. Of course, finishing second in Iowa wasn’t really astonishing: the New York Times pointed out two weeks ago that his ground organization in the state was more or less pathetic. NBC’s Chuck Todd observed, correctly I think, that Trump might have finished third or fourth if he hadn’t made a desperate push there in the last two weeks—like cramming for a final after not going to classes all semester. Meanwhile, Rubio and especially Cruz had been working the state for the entire semester. In any case, I doubt the meme you may have heard a lot of in the last two days: that this single setback will collapse Trump’s followers’ magical belief in his apparent invincibility and “burst his bubble,” so that they will all decide sensibly to stay home next Tuesday.
Some evidence was provided by the turnout for the Trump rally in Milford, New Hampshire on Tuesday evening, one night after Iowa. Roughly five thousand people were packed to standing-room-only capacity into two buildings in an athletic facility with indoor tennis courts.
Many people go to sports events or concerts all the time where there are more than 5,000 people. But they are likely in major cities. It’s worth relating what you have to go through to attend a large Trump event. For the Milford rally, you had to drive your car to a designated nearby parking lot sometime between 4 and 5 p.m. Then you had to wait outside for 15 or 20 minutes for a shuttle bus to collect you and take you to the rally site. Then you waited outside in line for maybe an hour, went through airport-style security, entered the building, and waited once more—standing up, surrounded by the crowd, and wearing all your winter clothes—for an hour for Donald Trump to appear. It might have been cold outside, but inside, it is warm, too warm. No one fainted, to my surprise. I haven’t seen another political event in New Hampshire draw more than 600.
Trump was endorsed by Scott Brown, the handsome Massachusetts-turned-New Hampshire figure who narrowly lost a Senate bid to popular incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in 2014. Brown is an appealing and somewhat populist politician. He doesn’t say much that is especially brilliant, but people like seeing and hearing him. It’s an endorsement that certainly helps Trump.
Before Brown introduced Trump, Ann Coulter spoke for ten minutes. I knew Ann slightly in the late ’80s and ’90s when she was a smart lawyer and aspiring journalist, long before she was her own brand. It’s really quite a show, this woman with a luxuriant mane of blonde hair and a flamboyantly broad-A accent letting out a long series of subtle, ironic right-wing nationalist jibes. In a different era, 30 or 40 years ago, her class affect might have irritated a Trump crowd. What’s that debutante got to say that could possibly interest us? But times have changed. People who on ethnic, class, and cultural bases might once have been at each other’s throats are all threatened, if not equally, by the elite program to get rid of America’s borders. Ann was received warmly. “She’s really funny” was the phrase I most overheard in the crowd around me.
I’m not sure what more to say about Trump. This is the fourth time I’ve heard him in a month. He doesn’t talk about policy in any serious way, he just riffs. Much of what he says I very much disagree with. (I think climate change is a major problem; I support the Iran deal). But that really isn’t the main point. The main point is, if I were to put it in a way Trump never would, much of the bipartisan establishment believes that borders are an outdated concept (except for Israel’s borders, which are sacrosanct), and that human progress requires higher levels of immigration and no real barriers to international trade. If Americans are hurt by these policies, so what? Their residual nationalism is outdated, if not actually bigoted. Anyway, that’s what much of the establishment, left and right, apparently believes.
No one knows whether Trump would actually do anything to slow or stop these processes. But he might. He is, after all, not paid for by the special interests pushing these agendas. And the only other candidate who might is a socialist, less appealing for myriad other reasons.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Who in the so-called GOP establishment lane is going to try to challenge the elite anointment of Marco Rubio? Possibility number one was Jeb Bush, who surely has the money and organization to do it. He had shown some relative strength in New Hampshire, coming in second in one poll, and seemed to make a good impression on people in two previous events I’ve seen him in.
But the morning after Iowa, there wasn’t much evidence of Jeb making a fight of it in New Hampshire. His first event was at Franklin Pierce College, a small, out-of-the-way school in the southwest corner of the state. Students are always good to help fill an audience, and of course some came. So did maybe 120 other, mostly elderly, voters. Lindsey Graham was traveling with Jeb today, and introduced him warmly. Lindsey took some shots at Trump for not spending any nights in the state, but he didn’t mention anyone else.
Jeb didn’t start off with his standard tale of working out with the cadets from the Citadel, who ask him afterwards to promise to “have their back.” Instead, he mentioned three Iowa winners who are not qualified to lead on Day One, but went into specifics only about Trump’s vulgarity. It’s almost as if he has given up on pushing down Rubio as a not-ready-for-primetime upstart, and wants only to hurt Trump. It can’t possibly be a calculation that any Trump’s votes will go to him. It is quite obviously personal. Trump’s insults wrecked his campaign. He is seeking revenge.
Jeb has many qualities you would like to see in a public servant. He is seriously wonkish: there are far too many statistics in his talk for it to be effective as a let’s-excite-people-to-go-to-the-polls vehicle, but he knows them. I don’t think he has to fake being a compassionate, bleeding-heart conservative. And he is quite driven to figure out ways in which a more streamlined, cost-efficient government could serve the less fortunate. His sincerity on this score is palpable.
He is also, I am convinced, after pondering the question for much of the past year, a sincere neocon. He gushed over how much he had learned from Lindsey Graham on foreign policy. Asked a good question about Sunnis and Shi’ites in an anti-ISIS coalition, he gave what amounted to the Netanyahu-approved answer, using tough language to deride first Hezbollah and then Iran for apparently provoking the poor Saudis to bomb Yemen. Unprompted, he promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to “send a signal.” Someone who often displays a subtle ability to weigh competing arguments in domestic-policy disputes seems completely unable or unwilling to do this in foreign-policy questions. So whatever wounds he might have suffered from Rubio having vaulted over him from Florida, it is plain that disagreement with Rubio’s neoconservative foreign-policy positions is not an issue for him.
It may be unfair to call Jeb “low energy.” Few men his age could travel around and give two or three town halls every day, each one loaded with statistics and laden with answers to policy questions. But it is obvious that no political energy comes out of his rallies. People may like Jeb, and think he is capable and good-hearted. But there is no excitement there. Could he hold a lead if he had one? Sure. But he doesn’t have one.
Driving back from Franklin Pierce, I heard MSNBC commentators going in and out of a Hillary speech. I know she’s smart and capable, but people are getting tired of her. This morning, I saw Ezra Klein say that while he didn’t used to think so, he is now pretty sure Elizabeth Warren could have beaten her. I agree.
During the breaks, they played some quick soundbites from Chris Christie, whom everyone has almost forgotten about. Boy is he ever not conceding the establishment lane to Rubio. “Boy in the bubble … terrified to be away from his script … not ready to answer questions on his own … bubble boy.” My quotes are remembered and perhaps not exact, but their spirit is true. It was relentless. Christie’s best political tool is his voice, when he’s not flying off the handle at some question he doesn’t like. But from what I heard from the soundbites, he was eviscerating. I will go to a Christie event ASAP to see how crowds respond to this line of attack.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Since I first came to New Hampshire 19 days ago, the polls have been fairly steady. Donald Trump has held a two digit lead, in some surveys as much as 20 points. Ted Cruz has often been in second, and the four candidates in the so-called “establishment” lane—Bush, Kasich, Rubio, and Christie—have bunched together at between 8 and 14 percent. There are two outlier results: In the ARG survey about two weeks ago John Kasich surged to a clear second place, with about 20 percent, and fell back to 17 last week. In the Emerson poll released last Wednesday, Jeb Bush rose to second, at 18 percent. Kasich has certainly had a good couple of weeks, scoring a slew of local newspaper endorsements, plus those of the Boston Globe and New York Times, which could serve him well if he is still competitive when the campaigns go more national. Expectations for Jeb Bush had gotten so low that his rise in one poll had a bit of a surprise factor: I would say, having attended two of his events, that people tend to like him better after hearing him.
But none of the five Trump challengers could develop any sustainable momentum, and Cruz and Christie both seem on a downward trajectory in New Hampshire. One day of the news cycle last week was dominated by audio of Christie sarcastically berating a young woman at a town hall who was worried about storm flooding in New Jersey, where she had gone to college. It can’t have helped him. Cruz meanwhile has been taking heavy flak from everyone, and there simply are not that many hard-right people New Hampshire. His strategy was based on a win in Iowa giving him momentum for a strong second place here. But he’s now dropping in Iowa, and could conceivably finish third there behind Rubio and Trump. That would doom his chances for a successful New Hampshire finish, I think.
The thing to remember is that the Iowa results will probably shake up New Hampshire dramatically, and that far more change is likely in the next ten days than in the previous sixty. In that sense, politics is a little like NBA basketball: not that much is decided before the last seven minutes. For an historical illustration, here are snippets and polls quoted directly from Josh Marshall, covering the Democratic primary struggle in 2004:
Jan. 14th: One of the campaigns has tracking numbers out of Iowa which shows each of the top three — Dean, Gephardt and Kerry — clumped to within a point or two. And today’s Zogby poll seems to point in the same direction Dean 24%, Gephardt 21%, Kerry 21%. Meanwhile, the ARG tracking poll in New Hampshire shows some more movement after several days when everyone seemed to stay in place. Dean 32%, Clark 22%, Kerry 13%.
Jan. 15th: Surprising numbers out today. Zogby has Kerry not simply surging but actually in the lead in Iowa: Kerry 22%, Dean 21%, Gephardt 21%. Especially in a daily tracking poll a point difference means less than nothing (note to statisticians: don’t even say it). But this does square with what a lot of people have been saying about Kerry’s move in the state. Meanwhile ARG’s New Hampshire tracking poll has Dean 29%, Clark 24%, Kerry 15%.
Jan. 16th: Today Zogby has John Kerry opening up a five point lead over Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt in Iowa. The numbers: Kerry 24%, Dean 19%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 17%. Even more interesting however are the ARG numbers out of New Hampshire. Today’s numbers there are Dean 28%, Clark 23%, Kerry 16%.
Jan. 17th: The Zogby poll out of Iowa continues to have Dean, Gephardt and Kerry grouped in pretty much a tie (Numbers: Kerry 23%, Dean 22%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 18%). But the bigger news is out of ARG’s New Hampshire poll (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 22%, Kerry 18%) Clark remains a half dozen points behind Dean. But look at Kerry — back at 18%. A week ago he was at 10%.
Jan. 18th The new ARG New Hampshire poll out late this evening has Clark and Kerry in a virtual tie (Numbers: Dean 28%, Clark 20%, Kerry 19%).
Jan. 20th Iowa result: Kerry ends up getting more than twice Dean’s number, according to the late numbers. And of course Edwards too with more than Dean and Gephardt combined (Tonight’s ARG poll has Kerry ever so slightly in second place again (Numbers: Dean 28%, Kerry 20%, Clark 19%.)
Then after the famous “Dean scream” and Dean’s unexpectedly weak third place Iowa showing:
Jan. 21st: Not unexpectedly, John Kerry has made a big jump in this morning’s ARG tracking poll. The Numbers: Dean 26%, Kerry 24%, Clark 18%.
Jan. 22nd: ARG’s Dick Bennett seems to think that Dean is falling quickly into third place in New Hampshire. Today’s numbers are Kerry 27%, Dean 22%, Clark 19%. But a further breakdown of the numbers, provided on ARG’s site, shows steeper deterioration for Dean and some uptick for Clark.
Jan. 23rd: ARG’s latest daily tracking poll has Kerry 31%, Clark 20%, Dean 18%. That means that from January 19th to January 22nd Dean fell from 28% to 18%. In fact, from yesterday to today he fell 4 percentage points.
Jam. 24th: Some of the late polls show Dean stopping his slide going into the weekend, but having lost a lot of support since Iowa. This morning’s ARG poll says the deterioration of his support has ended. But they also have him down at 15% support.
Jan. 26th: All the tracking polls yesterday showed Dean, at a minimum, stopping his decline and in most cases making up some lost ground. Now the movement seems clear. Tonight’s ARG poll has Kerry 38%, Dean 20%, Edwards 16%, Clark 15%.
Following his Iowa win, Kerry won New Hampshire’s January 28th primary decisively: Kerry 38 percent, Dean 26 percent, with Clark and Edwards each at 12 percent.
How could the GOP race turn within the next nine days? As mentioned above, Kasich and Bush have each made upward feints in the polls in New Hampshire, and Rubio has been trending upward in Iowa. The latest Des Moines Register poll puts him in third with 15 percent, but if he outperforms that even slightly he comes back to New Hampshire with a bounce that Kasich and Bush certainly won’t have.
Rubio’s appeal is lost on me, except that he is of Latino heritage and could supposedly solve the GOP’s problems with the nation’s changing demographics. At his events, he speaks of immigration movingly, from an immigrant’s perspective, and that is of course valuable. It appeals especially to members of the GOP donor class, who personally experience no downside from mass immigration at all. In his TV ads, he touts himself as a “national security expert”—though its not clear what that means, besides that he can recite with uncanny fluency neoconservative talking points. I doubt it’s accidental that his campaign’s slogan “New American Century” evokes the name of Bill Kristols’s PNAC group which agitated for war against Iraq from the mid 1990s onward.
McKay Coppins’s useful book on the Republican field contains nearly a chapter on the life of various Rubio “rumors” that began circulating in Florida political circles well before his 2012 Senate campaign. Some rumors involve financial malfeasance—many of which have been reported—while others involved reports of a “love child” or of various mistresses. None of the latter have been substantiated. Coppins describes the efforts by Rubio’s PAC to hire a private investigator in 2012 to see if there were any real skeletons that needed to be known about before his campaign begun. Nothing apparently was found. Thus far in this race, no one has gone negative on Rubio for his unusual use of government credit cards and the like. But that could come.
A possible wrinkle in the rumor field was raised by a Washington Post story, published last month. It recounts Rubio being arrested in a Miami public park when he was 18. It seems a banal incident, and the actual records of the arrest have been destroyed. One first wonders how the event—not recounted in Rubio’s biography—ever came to the Post‘s attention: it’s not like newsrooms these days are overstaffed with reporters eager to chase down minor peccadillos. I would conjecture that someone near Jeb’s campaign thought it worthwhile to inject the details of the arrest into the news cycle. The Rubio campaign responded, almost instantly, with an ad saying in so many words “Marco Rubio also once got in the express line with too many items” and “once tore the tag off a mattress.”
But the details of the arrest—because of the park, because of the subsequent career of the friend he was arrested with—have instigated glimmers of speculation in the Miami press, and also the gay press. My one twittersphere friend from Miami, a lawyer, Cuban-American, and Trump supporter, says she is certain that the speculation is groundless, and that the arrest was a random event in the life of a teenager, signifying nothing at all. And, I would add, even if it did signify something, its political meaning would probably be next to nothing. We live in a new era from the 1950s, or even the 1980s, and in most realms (several of my children have told me) sexual experimentation is normal and commonplace. It’s unlikely that the park arrest could be the silver bullet that could allow Jeb to surge in the polls past his ungrateful protege. But of course, if the two are close coming out of New Hampshire, one doesn’t really know how the South Carolina electorate feels about such matters.
In any case, a significant Rubio bump out of Iowa is possible, and Kasich and Bush are clearly hoping that does not happen. One thing that will probably happen after Iowa is that several candidates will drop out if they don’t do well. Santorum, Huckabee, and Rand Paul all are likely Iowa casualties, and it is worth exploring to whom their voters will go. My sense is that the sizeable Ron Paul vote from previous elections has gone to Cruz, who has scooped up many libertarians and small government activists, and to Trump, for his anti-establishment and non-interventionist positions. Rand Paul now polls at roughly 3 percent in New Hampshire (Huckabee and Santorum are lower) so there isn’t much to chew over. But if that 3 percent percent were to go mostly to one candidate, it would be significant. Trump, it should be noted, does poorly in response to “who’s your second choice?” questions, coming in sixth (!) with 6 percent in one recent New Hampshire poll. (Rubio and Cruz are tied at 17 percent.) That’s the kind of statistic which gives all his rivals ample reasons for hope, if only they could narrow the field.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.