You cannot begrudge Democrats a little schadenfreude. There is something undeniably delicious about an erstwhile member of their own fold successfully infiltrating the opposition, making hypocrites of its leaders, elevating its cranks to positions of undue prominence, and discrediting its cherished principles andbedrock assumptions; and all of this to wild applause. If you wanted to destroy the conservative movement from within, it is hard to think of a more effective course of action than the one taken by Donald Trump. Amid what looks suspiciously like the earliest meteors portending a destructive Republican civil war, Democrats are in an understandably celebratory mood.
“In an election that Republicans have long seen as a chance to put forward new stars with a fresh and broadly appealing conservative vision, the GOP is instead at risk of tearing itself apart over its past as it heads into the thick of the primary season,” the Washington Post reported on Saturday night. There is a subtle note of astonishment in this observation. It’s justified bewilderment. The ascension of Donald Trump among Republican primary voters has proven so remarkably durable because there is no apostasy he can embrace, no level of heterodoxy he can espouse, no conservative ethos he can spit upon that is not forgiven both by the right’s most influential figures and a substantial subset of GOP primary voters.
“As confident as the Republican establishment is that voters will eventually turn against Trump for his apostasies and controversies, there is little evidence that they will,” the Post noted. That seems a safe bet. The latest to endure the wrath of Trump’s uninhibited 140-character ire seems an odd choice: the last Republican to (twice) win the White House, George W. Bush.
With the reemergence of the 43rd President of the United States on the campaign trail on Monday in the hopes of boosting his brother’s ailing bid for his party’s nomination, Trump has trained his focus on the former president. While it’s perhaps counter-intuitive, a suspect conservative like Trump might be in a better position to discredit the former Republican president than anyone else. It is a curious quirk of history that the reality television star’s rise coincided with the evolution of the Republican Party into something far more conservative than the vehicle that nominated George W. Bush in 2000. Both political parties have become more partisan over the course of the last decade, and, while George W. Bush is still admired and respected among GOP voters, his presidency is also viewed by conservatives as a time of missed opportunities.
That trepidation about President Bush’s legacy has created some fertile ground in which dissent might be sown by a figure like Trump, although he has chosen some odd seeds. In October, the New York City-based businessman began embracing wild-eyed leftist conspiracy theories about Bush’s complicity ahead of the September 11 attacks. His defensibly passive if crude contention, that those deadly terrorist attacks occurred on his watch, and, therefore, George W. Bush did not keep us safe, soon began to take on a more accusatory note. “Do I blame George Bush?” Trump asked himself. “I only say that he was the president at the time, and you know, you could say the buck stops here.”
That crass hypothesizing has led to the re-litigation of the Iraq War. During Saturday’s debate, the celebrity candidate tore into the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as a proxy means of criticizing the former president’s brother. “The war in Iraq has been a disaster,” Trump told CBS News on Sunday morning. “It started the chain of events that leads now to the migration, maybe the destruction of Europe.” In contending that it was a decision that led to the development of radical Islamist extremist organizations and the destabilization of the region, Trump has adopted and rehabilitated liberal orthodoxy on the Iraq War that was rendered suspect by the rise of ISIS.
Trump’s is sloppy history, but there is a critical minority within the Republican coalition that agrees with his assessment of the Iraq War’s legacy. We cannot know how the region would look today if Barack Obama had not ill-advisedly withdrawn all U.S. forces from Iraq prematurely or opted to contain the Syrian civil war when that was still an option. If the Iraq War’s merits are still debated today even among conservatives, though, Trump is the worst candidate to make the case against it.
He has argued against nation building and foreign interventionism in general, but Trump is the only Republican candidate with a foreign policy platform that adopts militaristic adventurism. Trump’s contradictory “attack and take the oil” proposal, to the extent it can be taken seriously – which I doubt even his supporters do – is a proposal that submits the United States should invade, occupy, and virtually annex vast swaths of sovereign territory in order to exploit and export its resources. What’s more, Trump’s dubious contention that “there were no weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq is undermined by his own work. Like most of the Western world, Trump contended in his 2000 book that Iraq was in possession of fissile material, as well as stockpiles of other weapons of mass destruction. He has also in the past also admitted that, far from having a stabilizing effect on the region, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a nation with which the United States was in a state of perpetual conflict for over a decade prior to 2003.
“Nothing matters” has become the rallying cry of 2016. This phrase is a flip reflection of resignation afflicting conservative stalwarts. They concede that no amount of evidence against him will dissuade Trump supporters from rallying to his side. Surely, though, in the debate over whether a righteous, upstanding, wartime president to whom America owes a debt of gratitude will be discredited by his polar opposite, character and facts do matter a great deal. The truth is that vastly more conservatives and Republicans are turned off by Trump than are attracted to his bombast and evangelism for victimhood. That’s not visible in the polls because, unlike the Democrats, the GOP entered 2016 with a large slate of talented candidates, all of whom were qualified for the presidency. It is telling that Trump’s instincts are almost always to make the liberal’s case when he finds himself boxed in by his Republican opponents. From social security reform to ISIS, the celebrity candidate frequently lets the veil slip. If you believe the Republican Party is no longer a conservative party, that’s not a liability. If, however, you survey the political landscape and review the makeup of the U.S. Senate, the House, the governors, and majority GOP-led state legislatures, it is hard to conclude honestly the Republican Party is not a conservative party. This should give Republicans some hope that the Trump ascendancy remains a feature of the crowded field of 2016 candidates and not of a rejection of the party’s decades-old guiding beliefs. At least, not yet