Dan Drezner tries to make sense of Trump’s deference to the GOP legal establishment compared with his disdain for the party’s foreign policy establishment:
Still, this only raises the question of why those petitions had such minimal effects, whereas Trump was quite solicitous of the Federalist Society throughout the campaign and his presidency. And I think the answer here is a variation of an argument I have made repeatedly in the past. The Federalist Society matters because a large segment of GOP voters care way more about the Supreme Court than they do about foreign policy.
Drezner’s explanation is plausible. There are certainly many more voters motivated to vote Republican because of social issues and judges than there are foreign policy-driven voters. Very few voters care about foreign policy, and even fewer base their votes on foreign policy above everything else. Having said that, I think there is more to it than this.
Many Republican foreign policy analysts and pundits rejected Trump from the start because they misunderstood him to be an “isolationist” and therefore judged him to be completely unacceptable to them. They also wrongly assumed that a reheated version of Bush-era hawkish interventionism was the broad consensus view of most people in the party, but they overestimated how much support that view had among rank-and-file Republicans and mistook the lack of intra-party debate under Bush for deep agreement with the Bush-era agenda. Crucially, they failed to grasp how badly the credibility of the party’s foreign policy establishment had been damaged by the Iraq war debacle because they refused to accept that the Iraq war was a debacle. They had spent so many years lying to themselves and their Republican supporters that the war had been “won” by the “surge” that they were wholly unprepared when Trump exploited that weakness despite his own lack of credibility as a war opponent. Put simply, the many petitions failed to have much of an effect because many of the signatories were tarred to one degree or another by the greatest foreign policy failure of the last generation, and the worst part was that they still hadn’t acknowledged the failure. When they attacked Trump as dangerous and unqualified, their criticisms were accurate enough but their collective record of failure made them the worst messengers possible.
Republicans that cared about judges and social issues more than anything else never made a concerted effort to thwart Trump or denounce him despite ample evidence that he wasn’t a serious social conservative and couldn’t care less about judicial philosophy. At the same time, Republican voters don’t perceive leaders of the conservative legal movement as failures responsible for a major debacle. These Republicans assumed that it didn’t matter what Trump believed or what values he had as long as he was willing to appoint the right people. They were happy to provide him with the names of those people, and Trump was happy to accept those names as long as it got him the support he needed. Trump’s hawkish critics were much more ideological and inflexible than the party’s social conservatives, and they were much more disparaging personally about Trump than any other faction. As a result, the former have been mostly frozen out of the administration while the latter have gained considerable influence. Regrettably, hawkish opposition hasn’t made the administration’s foreign policy any less hawkish or destructive, and it has created an opening for fringe hard-liners and lunatics to take over.