The political rise of Donald Trump, first as a proponent of the “birther” conspiracy theory, then as a plausible presidential candidate, and now as the likely Republican nominee, will be seen as a grim episode in American history. It has revealed the dark, authoritarian core of large parts of the conservative movement, brought open bigotry back into the political mainstream in a way many believed had been relegated to our past, and raised serious questions among US allies—indeed, across the international community—about the quality of American democracy. But the Trump phenomenon has also revealed something important about the connection between the Republican-establishment policy community and the conservative grassroots—or more accurately, the lack of connection. This has been particularly stark when it comes to foreign policy, which, in the post-9/11 era, has been dominated by a vision of militaristic global hegemony espoused by its neoconservative faction.
In the days and weeks before the South Carolina primary, Trump seemed to delight in rejecting key elements of the neoconservative agenda. He accused the Bush administration of lying the United States into the Iraq War, which he called a “big fat mistake” that “destabilized the Middle East.” He mocked Jeb Bush’s contention that his brother George W. Bush had “kept us safe,” telling him,“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that.” He pointedly refused to promise to “rip up” the Iran nuclear agreement once in office, as other candidates had. He also pledged to be “sort of a neutral guy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hopes of brokering a peace deal. “I don’t want to say whose fault it is,” he said. “I don’t think it helps.”
After committing these heresies, Trump didn’t just win the South Carolina primary; he won among evangelicals, who have been long seen as a key grassroots constituency for the neocons’ hawkish agenda. It’s hard to say how much of a role Trump’s rejection of that agenda played in this victory, or subsequent ones, though polls have shown that national security is a top concern for GOP voters. At the very least, though, Trump’s success shows that a whole set of positions that Republican hawks have insisted for years are “non-negotiable” are, in fact, quite negotiable, and that a Republican candidate can reject those positions, even mock them, and still win decisively.
And it’s not just Trump. Even his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, who, while he traffics in the same highly problematic “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that animates much of neoconservative foreign policy, rejects the neocons’ preferred prescription of US-backed regime change, instead insisting that backing Middle East dictators is the best way to keep America safe from the threat of Islamist extremism.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, the neocons’ chosen candidate, saw his campaign finally collapse, despite the determination of Washington-based pundits to repeatedly resuscitate it. This is fitting, as Washington experts have always been the neocons’ primary constituency. But while they retain control of the commanding heights of the Washington policy-making apparatus, what the Trump phenomenon has revealed is how disconnected these views are from actual Republican voters. The question is whether Trump’s rise will finally force the reckoning that the neocons have been able to stave off for years.