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Donald Trump’s Nuclear Test

I’ve been a reader of newspaper columns since childhood (i.e., a very long time) and for much of the 1990s was a writer of one. They had far more clout before the internet rendered the supply of readable opinions almost infinite. But a regular column written in a substantial daily paper retains a cachet matched by very little in the blogosphere.

Seldom does one find in a column something especially novel; more frequently one can admire an artistry put into 800 words even while anticipating the points which will be made. But I don’t I recall, ever, being as (pleasantly) surprised by a newspaper column as I was reading Ross Douthat’s comparison of Donald Trump to Franklin D. Roosevelt. [1]

To begin with, there is a considerable groupthink among columnists. They can be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. But if one strays far from either pole of Beltway orthodoxy, one is likely to become the topic of uneasy queries from the publisher to the editorial page editor, wanting to know why the paper is giving space to someone who so arouses the ire of key advertisers and loud advocacy groups. There are, for example, no pro-Palestinian columnists for major American newspapers, though there are dozens and dozens of pro-Israel ones. Unanimity on that issue has been broken by the blogosphere, and overall national opinion has changed considerably. But not enough that there should be single regular pro-Palestinian columnist.

That is hardly the only issue where “serious” and “respectable” opinion is more or less unanimous. A more recent one is Donald Trump’s candidacy, considered equally loathsome by professional Democrats and responsible Republicans. No respectable and career-conscious journalist seems able to analyze Trump’s astonishing march to the top of the polls without palpable distaste, or at least some ponderous references to Richard Hofstadter’s theses on America’s eternal “paranoia” and “anti-intellectualism.”


Then suddenly here comes Douthat, a youngish but not new columnist for the country’s most important newspaper. He likens Trump not to Father Coughlin or Huey Long or Pierre Poujade [2], but—stunningly—to the most important and widely beloved American president of the 20th century.

Douthat’s central point is that Trump—with his torrents of disdain for Republicans who say whatever their rich donors tell them to say—is working on breaking the seals of Conservatism, Inc. and trying to push the Republican Party back from its newly acquired role of representing only the rich. Much as Pat Buchanan did in the 1990s, Trump is running a third-party campaign within the GOP, targeting middle-class but alienated voters. Because he is, like Franklin Roosevelt, rich, he is “a traitor to his class.”

The smart money in Washington still assumes that Trump can’t succeed and that once the field is winnowed he won’t have the organization on the ground to prevail. This may well be true. But Douthat’s point is that Trump—by elevating the issues of trade and immigration inside the GOP—is bringing to the Republican Party something it needs to survive as a significant force.

I’ve been familiar with Donald Trump for a while: I belong to a golf club he purchased after the 2008 crash. I’ve looked on with amusement at the introduction of gaudy fountains and gold-plated fixtures and observed while every bit of wall space not taken up by cool photos of classic golf swings was covered by framed copies of magazine covers featuring Donald Trump—even in the women’s locker room, my wife tells me. And yet, one can’t help but acknowledge that he kept all his promises to the members: improving the golf courses, bettering the food and the clubhouse, while keeping dues more or less manageable for an upper-middle-class membership. He’s been a stellar example of a can-do owner/operator.

During that period, Trump became one of America’s most public proponents of birtherism, pushing hard an idea which any remotely rational person knew to be absurd: that in 1961, an 18-year-old American woman in her third trimester would fly from Hawaii to Nairobi in order to give birth to Barack Obama. Birtherism was viscerally racist in its appeal, designed to undermine the legitimacy of someone I considered a quite good president. Trump’s embrace of this noxious cause (great for “base-building,” claimed his erstwhile consultant Roger Stone) was not enough to make me resign from his golf club, which would have been a costly and self-damaging gesture, but enough to prompt me to say something negative about Trump every time an occasion arose.

In short, little prepared me to like anything about Donald Trump’s campaign. But it has caught me by surprise and grown on me. Rapidly expanding legal and illegal immigration—a pressing concern for tens of millions of Americans—would not have been an issue at all were it not for Donald Trump. Conservative, Inc. had more or less agreed to suppress discussion of the issue ever since Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan were purged from National Review in the mid-1990s. Might I have preferred personally that Trump made points about mass immigration and declining American wages in the wonkish and studiously undemagogic style of the Center for Immigration Studies [3]? Perhaps, but if he had, he and they would almost certainly have been ignored.

Then there is the matter of trade. Is there any good reason why everything Americans now buy is made in China? What about the tradeoffs, cheaper goods but fewer good jobs for Americans? Who benefits, who loses? But like immigration, free trade had become non-issue for Conservatism, Inc. and the Republican Party, ignoring its own history of protecting American business. Today’s mainstream Republicans represent only economic winners and are unlikely to know anyone who might have lost a factory job or who would take one if one was available. Donald Trump announces he would slap large tariffs on foreign-produced Fords and negotiate better trade deals for American workers—what kind of Republican talks like this?

Every inside the Beltway operator for both parties, along with every “mainstream” journalist, knows that free trade is the only way. If the Americans who once manufactured things don’t like it, let them learn to write computer code and develop smartphone apps, or, more likely, work as cashiers and shelf-minders at Walmart. Yet somehow when someone breaks the seal on the discourse and speaks as if the benefits of free trade are not a self-evident part of the Constitution, he shoots to the top of the polls.

Next week, Trump is scheduled to appear at an anti-Iran-agreement rally with Ted Cruz, an event sponsored by the ultra right-wing Zionist Organization of America. This is the problem with Trump—if his pro-American and pro-middle class economic nationalism is packaged along with deference to Netanyahu’s foreign-policy agenda, it will become more or less worthless to thoughtful people. But it is not entirely clear what Donald Trump’s foreign-policy inclinations are, beyond the tactical. In regards to one neoconservative action item—escalating the fight with Russia over Ukraine—he said that he could get along quite well with Vladimir Putin.

The greater neoconservative goal, of course, is the prevention any American rapprochement with Iran, keeping the sanctions going till they have a president willing to start a war on the country. How does Trump fit into that?

His comment on the Iran accord was that Kerry and the people who negotiated with the Iranians were incompetent—which is ridiculous, of course—but that he wouldn’t disavow the deal if he became president. This put him actually to the left of all the rest of the GOP field (except Jeb Bush), who are desperately trying to tailor their answers to please Sheldon Adelson. [4] In another interview, Trump said U.S. diplomats got bested because “the Persians are great negotiators.” Is it plausible to note that Trump’s phraseology here, his use of the term “Persians,” connotes something other than an enemy that must be destroyed, a regime that must be “changed”? Perhaps the most frequently used neoconservative talking point about Iran is that it is a country controlled by crazy Islamic zealots, so full of hatred for the West they will start a nuclear war at first opportunity and care nothing for their own survival. In a casual off-the-cuff remark, Trump instead connects the Iranian government to a venerable 3,000-year-old civilization.

Perhaps Trump will go full neocon at next week’s rally and prove himself to be no more responsible about American foreign policy than Ted Cruz. I’m seldom an optimist, but I am betting otherwise.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Donald Trump’s Nuclear Test"

#1 Comment By MV On September 2, 2015 @ 1:30 am

Kasich also said he would not rip up the agreement on day one, because that’s “inexperience” and “playing to a crowd.”

#2 Comment By Alanya On September 2, 2015 @ 5:55 am

It’s funny that Trump is so worried about foreign countries controlling America then he agrees to appear at a rally of an unregistered foreign agent, ZOA.

#3 Comment By Philip Giraldi On September 2, 2015 @ 6:50 am

Nice one Scott – exactly what I have been thinking about Trump’s appeal. All of the vilification he has been receiving ignores his core messages about the things that have gone very wrong over the past thirty years in our Republic. Reminds me of Pat Buchanan. Bravo! Yeah, but golf still sucks, a mindless diversion for plutocrats. Is it a game or a sport?

#4 Comment By SDS On September 2, 2015 @ 7:55 am

A “Republican” that puts America’s interests above Israel’s…..now THAT would be news!

#5 Comment By Fred Bowman On September 2, 2015 @ 8:28 am

Hard to say how Trump will play this one. My guess is “he’ll play to the crowd” and tell them what they want to hear, whether or not he believes what he saying.

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 2, 2015 @ 8:40 am

“Perhaps Trump will go full neocon at next week’s rally and prove himself to be no more responsible about American foreign policy than Ted Cruz. I’m seldom an optimist, but I am betting otherwise.”

I’m “betting [hoping] otherwise,” too, because if he accepts the Iran deal Trump’s candidacy has enormous potential to change the political equation for the better.

But Mr. Donald John Trump is one bewilderingly difficult guy to follow in an interview.

Where in fact does he come down on the issue of the Iran deal?

Excerpts re the Iran deal from a transcript of Donald Trump’s interview with Chuck Todd for “Meet the Press”:

DONALD TRUMP: …It’s like this horrible deal with Iran. This deal, if you had the right, you’d have the prisoners back years ago.

Iran would still get money. I understand –

Can you believe that deal?…Why is Iran getting the money?

I understand a lot of people are critical of the deal. But could you, what deal can you come up with that wouldn’t give Iran money?

Okay, I would have told them up front, “By the way –”

No sanctions relief?

“We will never give you back your money. We will never give you back your $150 billion. You’re never getting that money back.” That’s number one. Number two, “Before we start negotiations, you have to give us our three prisoners.” Now, it’s four, okay? You know, when it started, it was three. Now, it’s four. “You have to give us back. Without question, you have to give them back.
“And you know what? You don’t want them. But we do. It’s psychologically good. And it’ll help us make a better deal together. That’s good for you.” Okay? But I would have told them up front, “You will never get your $150 billion back.” They are going to be such a wealthy, such a powerful nation.
They are going to have nuclear weapons. They are going to take over parts of the world that you wouldn’t believe. And I think it’s going to lead to nuclear holocaust. And I will say this. The people that negotiated that deal, namely Kerry and his friends, are incompetent.

What do you do on day one though? This is a deal — Secretary Gates basically says didn’t like the deal, thought the U.S. wanted the deal —

Too much…No, they begged for it —

So bad negotiating tactic —

And, by the way, they should have doubled up the sanctions —

And then he said, “Can’t pull out of the deal because of the international ramifications.” What do you say to that?

I would –Okay, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “We’re going to rip up the deal.” It’s very tough to do when you say, “Rip up a deal.” Because I’m a deal person. And when I — When I make deals — Let me tell you. But I will police that deal. You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up and they have bad contracts.

But you have to abide by it.

But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that even if they’re bad. I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.

So the deal lives in a Trump administration —

Well, the deal — It’s very hard to say, “We’re ripping up.” And the problem is by the time I got in there, they will have already received the $150 billion. Do you know if the deal gets rejected they still get the money? Which is something I found out a week ago. I couldn’t believe it. If the deal gets rejected, they still get all of this money. Iran is going to be unbelievably powerful and unbelievably rich. And Israel’s in big trouble. Israel is in big trouble. Obama has really let Israel down.

So you believe the Saudis are going to get a nuclear weapon? You believe Egypt’s going to after nuclear weapons —

I think other people will arm with nuclear weapons, yes, based on this deal. Because if you look at it, Iran will end up being nuclear. Even if it’s not within the next fairly short period of time. And the whole thing about 24 days. First of all, the 24 days doesn’t start immediately. There’s a whole big deal before the clock starts ticking, right? So the 24 days could be much longer than that. In 24 days plus numerous weeks, you can do anything.

If you get evidence they’re working on a nuclear weapon, you order air strikes immediately?

Yeah, I don’t want to really say. I would be so tough you wouldn’t believe. But I don’t want to really say…


#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 2, 2015 @ 8:54 am

From the same “Meet the Press” interview I find it particularly worrisome that Trump cites John Bolton as one of his two or three “go to” guys for military advice.

Who do you talk to for military advice right now?

Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals and — And you have certain people that you like —

But is there a go-to for you? You know — every presidential —

Yeah, probably there are two or three. I mean, I like Bolton. I think he’s, you know, a tough cookie, knows what he’s talking about. Jacobs is a good guy —

Do you mean Ambassador John Bolton —

Yes. I think he’s terrific —


#8 Comment By KD On September 2, 2015 @ 9:01 am

Great column, I think it will be fascinating to see what he does next week. If he comes out against a deal with Iran, then he will discredit himself with foreign policy realists and the non-interventionist crowd. I suspect his support will crater, I don’t think any intelligent person who cares about foreign policy can ever vote for the GOP for the Presidency so long as the Neoconservatives are in charge and the Realists are marginalized. [I sort of miss the Communists, so its too bad the Neocons and Conservative, Inc. weren’t running the GOP in 1950, instead of 2000.]

On the other hand, if does something to pick a fight with ZOA, he has to be very careful, because NRO and others will probably start calling him an anti-Semite and a Nazi. At the same time, it is also clear most actual Jews don’t support the views of ZOA, so a clever media handler might be able to blow up the narrative and turn it on the ZOA, the way Trump has harmed the credibility of Fox. He is very good at public relations.

#9 Comment By Michael N Moore On September 2, 2015 @ 9:31 am

PM Netanyahu is the most American of Israel’s leaders. Via Sheldon Adelson he has become employed by the Republican Party to turn Israel into a wedge issue against the Democrats. Florida is starting to fill up with Puerto Rican Democrats and the Democrat Jewish retirees vote needs to be splintered to hold onto this swingingist of swing states.

The trade off for this will be a Republican administration who looks the other way as the West Bank is ethnically cleansed.

#10 Comment By Johann On September 2, 2015 @ 10:16 am

There are, for example, no pro-Palestinian columnists for major American newspapers There used to be James Zogby, but I haven’t heard or noticed anything from him for many years now.

#11 Comment By Robert T. Jones Fan On September 2, 2015 @ 10:24 am

@Phil Giraldi: “Yeah, but golf still sucks, a mindless diversion for plutocrats. Is it a game or a sport?”

I’m partial to it myself, but even golfers acknowledge its dark side. Churchill described golf as “a good walk – spoiled.”

Scott McConnell is right in saying there’s no knowing which way Trump will jump on Iran. I hope he comes out on the hard-headed, realist side, to which I think he’s naturally inclined, if for no other reasonn than to hearten other candidates to break with the stupefying neocon-policed lock-step on foreign policy. A substantial strand of the Tea Party tendency would cheer him on.

#12 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On September 2, 2015 @ 10:36 am

This has got to be one of the best articles I’ve read on TAC all year. Approximates my own thinking on Trump, and is devoid of the stale drivel most commentators have been pushing for quite some time.

I think alot of the media people, seriously, are either extremely mad at Trump for his Shine and jealous of his style and appeal. Either that, or, they’re peeved that they have to rewrite all the stale articles they wrote months in advance of the 2016 campaign: “Jeb Bush blah blah blah,” “Scott Walker meh meh meh,” “ObamaCare replacement shmesh shmesh,” “Sheldon Adelson primary dud dud dud.” etc.

#13 Comment By JR On September 2, 2015 @ 11:44 am

Trump is no FDR.

FDR was called a “traitor to his class” because of actual policies not because of a bunch of rhetorical hot air.

His campaign appears to be firming up into a “deal” in which he pretends to be Pat Buchanan in exchange for another Middle Eastern War.

What a self-aggrandizing maggot.

#14 Comment By arrScott On September 2, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

I met a new neighbor the other night, and after a spell we both cracked Donald Trump jokes. Then the neighbor turned suddenly serious and said, “But you know, his position on the Iran deal really impressed me.” He was speaking of Trump’s promise to keep the deal but “police” it rigorously. I had to agree.

A few years back, Trump bought one of Virginia’s older and better wineries out of bankruptcy. Yes, he turned all the branding black and gold with giant “TRUMP” lettering everywhere. But he retained the veteran staff, carefully managed the bottling and release of cellared wines rather then selling the juice to other wineries for a quick profit or prematurely bottling and unloading onto the public, and now that he’s bottling wines grown and made under his ownership, the quality is as high as the winery has ever produced. He’s expanded the reach of Virginia wine tremendously by placing it in a number of his properties beyond the Commonwealth. Trump’s blanc de blancs is, in all seriousness, the best sparkling white I’ve ever tasted.

#15 Comment By Junior On September 2, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

“This is the problem with Trump—if his pro-American and pro-middle class economic nationalism is packaged along with deference to Netanyahu’s foreign-policy agenda, it will become more or less worthless to thoughtful people.”

I agree with your analysis Mr. McConnell. I am very worried about Trumps attendance this rally but as with you, I will hold off on judgement until I have heard what Trump says at it. Who knows, maybe instead of full-neocon we could have a “you invited me here but now your going to hear what I have to say whether you like it or not” moment like Ben Carson at the Prayer Breakfast or like O’Malley at the DNC meeting. We’ll see.

My belief is that Trump will play it down the middle and only talk about points where he agrees with the Tea-Party. He’ll talk about “we should have gotten a better deal”(i.e. the release of the four hostages) not necessarily that “we shouldn’t have ANY deal.” He doesn’t want to be labeled as a Tea-Party candidate but he needs their help. Trump is trying to co-opt Cruz’s Tea-party base(did an interview with Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin?!) because he has seen the power that they have in influencing and fighting the establishment(i.e. shutting down the government, ousting Cantor) and he knows that he is going to need their already-in-place grassroots organization in each state if he wants to win the election against the Establishment’s already-in-place RNC organization in each state.

#16 Comment By Trump Strumpets On September 2, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

Well, Trump reminds me of Liberace for some reason (the oleaginous manner? the bizarre self-referential world? the relentless tastelessness and Mammon worship? the hair?), and I can’t take him seriously.

This may seem like the attitude of a 1930s Junker dismissing the little corporal from Linz, but I can’t help it.

#17 Comment By Gary Levine On September 2, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

Just as W’s inability to put together a sentence reflected an intellect deficiency, The Donald’s way with words has me on edge…like a used car salesman. He may be a great salesman…but I want a President.

The Left and Occupy Wall Street has tried to make a point of shipping jobs overseas and the decimation of Union bargaining power, income disparity, a broken tax system…the publics response…nothing.
The Donald says something about China taking jobs…he’s a genius.

Oh, one last thing. Since when has all the stuff I was brought up with as being the essence of being an American…a sense of fair play, watching out for the underdog, nobody is above the law, respect for the beliefs of others, we are ALL Americans…where did that go? The rest of the world was where all these petty differences led to conflicts.

Our problem is not the system…it is the corruption of the system.

#18 Comment By Clint On September 2, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

Trump will verbally tap dance and massage the ZOA rally and once again tell the suckers enough og what they want to hear.

This is the plastic posseur,who switched parties at least five times since the 1980s. Three times since 2001 and the pretender,who was for abortion,gun control,higher taxes and socialized Health care in 2000.

#19 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 2, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

“This is the problem with Trump—if his pro-American and pro-middle class economic nationalism is packaged along with deference to Netanyahu’s foreign-policy agenda, it will become more or less worthless to thoughtful people.”

Bingo. I would expect an America First person to put America first.

#20 Comment By Jeremy On September 2, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

Trump attending an anti-deal rally with Cruz means he’s failed that test.

#21 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 2, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

It just occurred to me that Trump might use this next appearance to sandbag a rival and pick a fight with another piece of the machinery. He does seem to like doing that. Here’s hoping…

#22 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 2, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

Junior wrote this about Trump’s appearance at a Zionist Organization of America anti-Iran-deal rally next week:

“He’ll talk about “we should have gotten a better deal”(i.e. the release of the four hostages) not necessarily that “we shouldn’t have ANY deal.”

With respect to Iran’s detention of three Iranian-Americans on various charges including espionage, Tehran is now pointing out that the US may be detaining as many as 19 Iranians.

(“Tehran Claims U.S. Is Holding 19 Iranians,” Rich Gladstone, New York Times, August 26, 2015
[6] )

Perhaps there is a basis for a swap – the three Iranian-Americans (or four if anyone can locate CIA-contractor Levinson after all these years) in exchange for the nineteen Iranians. Now that the US and Iran are in regular diplomatic contact negotiating an exchange might be much easier than previously. In any event this prisoner issue seems tremendously over-blown by the usual suspects.

Some particularly good news broke today:

“Obama secures enough support from senators for Iran deal”
BBC News, Sept. 2, 2015


#23 Comment By Junior On September 2, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

@Philip Giraldi and Robert T. Jones Fan

Just saw these articles that were put out today and thought you guys might get a kick out of checking them out because I IMMEDIATELY thought of your posts after reading them. Hilariously apropos! Coincidence? I think not. Now THIS, my friends, is TRULY Journalism at its finest! I heard that the Washington Post also has the exclusive scoop on whether or not Trump lifts the toilet seat before going to the bathroom. I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted as all the sordid details come to light 🙂



#24 Comment By An Honorable Schoolboy On September 2, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

@Junior – cheating at golf is prima facie evidence of low character. The last president known to be a golf cheat was Bill Clinton. The Guardians of Golf are not kind to those who break its rules. Then again, they are not kind to those who obey them either:


Regarding Mr. McConnell’s piece, I too am encouraged by Trump’s emphasis on immigration and open anger over the loss of American jobs to China, but his use of the word “Persian” is mighty slender thread on which to found one’s hopes for his Middle East policy.

#25 Comment By LouisM On September 3, 2015 @ 9:04 am

Trumps children are married to very wealthy jewish families so Trump is without understanding to their perspective.

That said, Trump is not a left or right ideologue. My perspective is that Trump wants to know what is the value of the deal to the US. My feelings on why the deal should be supported:
1) it ends the Israeli hegemony over the middle east and AIPAC/neocon lobbying for the US to engage in proxy wars for Israel. The US wont engage a middle east war if that nation is under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.
2) It provides balance to our Saudi ally and their dictates…you remember the Saudis whose wahabi religion bombed NYC and the Pentagon.
3) Isolating Iran accomplished little … integrating Iran may yield more fruits than less. The US alliances are shifting with a rising China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany.

No the US doesnt gain much directly but putting a little diplomatic distance between the US and Israel is worth its weight in gold (and human life).

#26 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 4, 2015 @ 11:38 am

Blaming Trump for switching parties is like blaming the voters for switching which party they elect. Only rabid partisans care. Probably Trump himself was acting according to which he considered the lesser evil, as so many conservative commenters themselves say they do. There are a number who voted for Obama over McCain or Romney, so for them also that ‘trumped’ party.

In truth, the system has become a democratically unaccountable duopoly with candidates for either party vetted by Wall Street and plutocrats who decide who the voters are allowed to elect by their donations.

Clearly, the status quo is pernicious. If the only way for the public to kick this democratically unaccountable system in the nuts is to support Trump, then it will be because in a contest perceived to be between the donorists and Trump, they are considered the greater evil.