The neocon meltdown over Donald Trump’s astonishing success in the Republican presidential primaries has been one of the more delightful aspects of the 2016 presidential contest. And yet the temptation to indulge in schadenfreude should be tempered by a foreboding for what might happen—not to the Republican Party, but to the Democratic party, should Trump succeed in securing the nomination, as now looks more and more likely.
Writing in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol denounced Trump as “a proud defender of greed, an unabashed indulger in adultery, a wanton mocker of the meek (the “losers”) of this world.” Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan took to the pages of The Washington Post on Sunday and likened Trump’s imminent takeover of the GOP to when “the plague descended on Thebes.” Noted neoconservative scholar Max Boot also got his shots in, telling Vox that he is “literally losing sleep over Donald Trump,” and that he believes Hillary Clinton “would be vastly preferable to Trump.” And Boot is far from alone. On Wednesday he, along with dozens of neocon scholars, lobbyists, and former government officials, signed an open letter denouncing Trump’s foreign policy as “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” Trump, they charged, “would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.”
Progressive commentators have opined that Trump is simply the natural consequence of the Republican Party’s intolerance, which some believe, not without reason, reached a fever pitch during the Obama years. In the Daily Kos, Laurence Lewis writes that the Republican establishment has
no one to blame but themselves. For decades, they have played to racism, misogyny, bigotry, and thuggishness, and having loosed the American id, it’s now theirs to live with…it’s a monster of their own making.
In his Post column, Robert Kagan echoed these sentiments almost exactly: “Trump is no fluke. He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein monster…” Perhaps so, but readers might find themselves at a loss to recall the widespread neocon revulsion that swept the op-ed pages when Ronald Reagan blew the dog whistle and denounced “welfare queens”; or when George H.W. Bush teamed up with Lee Atwater in order to introduce Willie Horton to America; nor was there a rising tide of establishment outrage when Mitt Romney politely suggested that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.” Then, of course, there is the case of Sarah Palin, who, during her brief but memorable stint as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, routinely claimed that Barack Obama liked to pal around with terrorists while attendees at her rallies would shout “Treason!” and “Kill him!”
Is Trump guilty of employing dog-whistle rhetoric (and worse)? Yes. Is doing so at all unusual in the context of Republican presidential campaigns? No. So what is it, then, about Donald J. Trump that drives the neocons to distraction?
Here’s a hint: It isn’t the racism.
What drives them up the wall is his apostasy, particularly with regard to foreign policy. And to the astonishment of Kagan, Kristol, Boot, et al., the more Trump indulges in it, the more popular he gets.
Consider the following Trump-sampler from a recent rally he gave in Huntsville, Alabama:
On Iraq: “If we listen to some of these guys [he had just segued from his set piece on Lindsey Graham] on the military, we’re going to be there for another 20 years! We can’t do it! Look, we’ve spent 2 trillion dollars in Iraq. We have absolutely nothing.”
On Russia: “What’s wrong with having Russia work with us instead of always fighting, fighting? What’s wrong with having Russia drop bombs all the hell over ISIS? What’s wrong with that?”
Well, if you are a neocon who has spent the greater part of 15 years itching to fight a new cold war with Russia over countries of scant strategic, economic, or historic importance to the United States, there’s quite a lot wrong with it.
Robert Kagan would have us believe that Trumpism is a natural outgrowth of Tea Party politics. Kagan asks: “was it not the party’s wild obstructionism—the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements…. Was it not Ted Cruz, among many others, who set this tone and thereby cleared the way for someone even more irreverent…?”
The relevant history that Dr. Kagan leaves out is that the neocons were more than happy to facilitate the Tea Party’s ascendancy during the 2010 midterms. As The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn observed at the time:
…the midterm elections will not produce change in foreign policy, at least on the right. It won’t be more of the same. It will be a lot more of the same. Which is why the neocons, who have astutely supported the Tea Party movement, will retain their supremacy in the GOP when it comes to foreign affairs.
Tea Partiers are simply neocon ultras. Given Trump’s foreign-policy pronouncements, inarticulate and bombastic though they might be, Trumpism could hardly be said to resemble the Tea Party ideology, such as it is. They are two different animals.
Consider the politics of the Iran deal.
Last summer, the Tea Party sponsored an anti-Iran deal rally on Capitol Hill. The featured speakers were none other than Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Cruz ranted that if the deal went through, “Americans will die, Israelis will die, Europeans will die.” And on and on. Trump’s criticism, on the other hand, rested on his belief that it’s a lousy deal because “our leaders are stupid.”
This is very much in line with Trump’s more recent comments on the nuclear deal. At the aforementioned rally in Huntsville, he bellowed: “The Persians! The Persians are great negotiators! They all read The Art of the Deal too, by the way, I can tell you! Our people didn’t read it.” His complaint isn’t that it was done, it’s that it was done badly.
On Israel, he parts ways with the Tea Party/neocon consensus as well. Appearing on MSNBC in mid-February, Trump, in his own convoluted way, said that as president he would try to act as an honest broker between Israel and Palestine. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy…. You understand a lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal So I don’t want to say whose fault it is. I don’t think that helps.”
And so, given Trump’s heterodox foreign-policy positions and the popular support he clearly enjoys among the Republican primary base, neocon stalwarts Kagan and Boot have proclaimed that they are Ready for Hillary, while dozens of other leading neocons have denounced Trump in the aftermath of his strong showing on Super Tuesday. The Republican Party may fracture in the coming months. Yet Democrats, particularly realist and antiwar Democrats, should see this for what it is: an ominous development.
One of the great ironies of recent American political history is that while today’s neocons are ideologues nonpareil, their forebears were nothing of the kind. As E.J. Dionne explains in his classic Why Americans Hate Politics, the original neocons were deeply suspicious of ideology. As Dionne recounts, the first issue of The Public Interest, cofounded by Irving Kristol in 1965, flatly stated that “it is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality; and that it is exactly such preconceptions that are the worst hindrances to knowing-what-one-is-talking-about.” (Sometimes the apple really does fall far from the tree.)
Over time, the first generation of neocons moved right, driven by, among other things, a revulsion to the campus uprisings of the late 1960s and, according to Dionne, “the tendency of many in the New Left to add the Palestine Liberation Organization to the canon of revolutionary organizations worthy of leftist homage.” By 1980, disillusioned by the Carter presidency, the neocons found their champion in California Governor Ronald Reagan. From then on, it was their party. Reagan appointed several of their number to high-level positions, Jeane Kirkpatrick (UN ambassador) and William Bennett (secretary of education) being among the most prominent. But that was just the start. Under Reagan and the decidedly non-neocon President George H.W. Bush, the neocons gained footholds within the national security establishment from which they (in concert with their liberal interventionist allies) continue to exercise a pernicious influence on American foreign policy.
The danger in Kagan and Boot’s professed support for Hillary Clinton is this: Should even a few influential neocons return to their party of origin, the marginalization of progressive-realist foreign-policy voices within the Democratic Party would continue apace. How could that not be the case, in a party that plays host to both liberal interventionists and neocons?
Far-fetched? Be forewarned: In his 1995 collection, Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol wrote that the movement that he helped found “is issue oriented. It will happily meld with the Republican Party if the party is ‘right’ on the issues; if not, it will walk away.”
It would be a tragedy—for their party and for the country—if Democrats welcomed the neocons to their party.