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.