The 2016 election presents the starkest choice American voters have faced in at least 40 years. On one side is a nominee unlike any the country has seen before: a billionaire businessman and celebrity without a day’s experience in political office. On the other side is the first woman ever to be a major-party’s nominee: a woman with experience as a U.S. senator and secretary of state and who has already lived in the White House as first lady.
Hillary Clinton represents everything the country’s political elite believes in: the perpetuation and exercise of U.S. global power; trade deals and immigration for the sake of the economy; a privileged position for the big banks; and a culture of steady liberal progress that transcends the limits of the nation state and the historic West.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is satan: an old, rich, white man of “isolationist” and nationalistic tendencies who transgresses against every stricture of political correctness (and a good many precepts of common decency). For at least the last 24 years, every election has pitted a Republican globalist against Democratic one, both candidates unblinking in their support for NATO and NAFTA: Bush (I), Clinton (I), Dole, Gore, Bush (II), Kerry, McCain, Obama, Romney. And now Clinton (II). But Trump breaks the mold.
So what—he’ll lose, won’t he? Yes, probably. But if he does, he’ll lose like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern: that is, not in a landslide, but in a way that redefines politics even in defeat. And unless a technologically driven economic miracle similar to the one that took place under Clinton (I) happens under Clinton (II), the public’s appetite for anti-globalist politics will only grow. Pat Buchanan raised the issues of war, trade, and immigration 20 years ago, but they lost salience amid the prosperity of the 1990s. By 2000 even right-wing voters were contented enough to settle for another Bush—especially against the then explicitly progressive John McCain—rather than take a risk on Buchanan. But after the Iraq War and the Great Recession, after killing bin Laden and Gaddafi only led to new waves of terror, voters on the right have proved more willing than ever to reject the post-Cold War consensus. Voters on the left, especially millennials, have begun to do so as well, as Bernie Sanders’s campaign illustrated. The consensus is under siege from the nationalist right and the democratic-socialist left alike—and that’s something Hillary Clinton, the personification of the consensus, is unlikely to know how to fix.
If Trump wins, he will be the most transformative president for his own party since Bill Clinton. Pro-life Democrats, welfarist Democrats, and Southern Democrats were all swept away or willingly left the party during the Clinton years. Would President Trump similarly cause an exodus of Republicans—or would he prove to be the anti-Clinton in more ways than one, bringing new elements into the party and broadening its ideological compass, just as he would seek to reverse Clinton’s trade, immigration, and foreign policies? Could a nationalist politics also be pragmatic and accommodating—and where would this leave conservatives?
All of this is only grist for speculation, but some things can be said with certainty, especially in foreign policy. First, the rise of a nationalist right with Trump and the parallel—but occasionally intersecting—rise of libertarian foreign-policy perspectives with the efforts of Ron and Rand Paul and the tug of non-interventionism even on Gary Johnson (a man who seems to know little and care less about world affairs) poses a standing challenge to primacist internationalism of what can fairly be called the Clinton-Bush consensus. Whether Trump or Clinton is the next president, there will be a struggle over the basic direction of U.S. foreign policy, a struggle pitting primacists on left and right alike against thinkers who prioritize the nation state and the national interest.
Second, Russia will be a flashpoint of strategic contention in the next administration, whether that means President Trump seeking a new relationship with Moscow or President Clinton setting out to confront and chastise Putin for involvement in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. The military risks—up to and including the ultimate risk of nuclear war—are grave. Yet also deserving of serious consideration is a cultural question: what is Russia’s relationship to Western civilization, particularly to its Christian roots, in an age of jihadism, mass migration, and European secularization? The civilizational and the strategic questions are, of course, related—in complex ways that are apt not to be appreciated by the reductionist thinkers of the liberal consensus. (If anything cannot be described in terms of human rights or GDP, liberals don’t believe it exists or can matter—except perhaps as a pathology.)
Third, President Trump or President Clinton will be faced equally with the strict limits of American military power in terms of personnel, materiel, money, and morale. The costs of veterans’ care and new military hardware will only rise, while the “sequester” that has controlled defense spending since 2013 will remain a target for hawks and pork-lovers in both parties. The American people, meanwhile, are alarmed by ISIS and the prospect of Islamist terror yet weary of sending their children to fight and die in foreign lands. Whether President Trump wants to fight ISIS and “take their oil” or President Clinton hopes to engineer regime change in Syria without “boots on the ground” (except for special forces and “advisors,” of course), the American public’s skepticism of further Mideast misadventures may give Congress an opportunity to reassert its constitutional role in war and foreign policy. But does Congress have the guts to live up to its duty?
Fourth, and relatedly, there is the unavoidable fact that American policy in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world—what Andrew Bacevich calls America’s War for the Greater Middle East—has failed. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama was able to wrap-up the Afghan War, now by far America’s longest-lasting conflict, one that has no clear end or goal in sight. Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen bleed, as do the civilian casualties—mere “collateral damage”—of drone strikes throughout the region. Obama has already discovered that simply continuing the policies established by George W. Bush provides no answers, and no matter how much continuity Clinton may wish to see between her administration and Obama’s (assuming she wishes to see any), a new approach to the Middle East and Islamic world appears imperative. And will be all the more so if Trump becomes president. Should America be militarily involved in the region at all?
The struggle to answer these questions and address these challenges will begin the minute the results of the vote on November 8 are known: globalists and interventionists in both parties have their programs ready to go and their personnel ready to fill the ranks of the next administration, no matter who wins. The other side—the coalition of peace, restraint, and realism—is still new and largely ad hoc. But it must be ready, too, and The American Conservative will do its part to make it so. The conference we have been advertising for a few weeks now—set for November 15, one week after the election—will be a first salvo in the war of ideas over the next administration’s foreign policy. We have conservatives and libertarians, current and former office-holders—including James Webb, former senator and former secretary of the Navy—and leading scholars and journalists (such as Andrew Bacevich and James Pinkerton) lined up to discuss these issues (and more).
I hope you can join us for “Foreign Policy in America’s Interest: Realism, Nationalism, and the National Interest.” The event is free, and it takes places at George Washington University’s Jack Morton auditorium from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on November 15. You can register here. And you can help us make this event a success—and keep The American Conservative going strong—by making a secure electronic donation here.
A new era is beginning in American politics, not only one that will see nationalism and globalism contend for the soul of the next administration but one that will give rise to new permutations of conservatism, realism, and libertarian foreign-policy thought. Whether we are to have a world of sovereign nation-states or one in which a single imperial superpower contends with increasingly fragmentary post-national and sub-national threats around the globe will depend on the decisions that are made in the near future: in the next few years. There is peril in either direction, but self-government still depends on the nation-state. TAC has been laying the groundwork for a return to the national interest and America’s republican tradition in foreign policy since its first issue in 2002. And in the next administration, amid the battle to redefine conservatism, TAC aims to make a decisive difference.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.