LAS VEGAS — The 2016 Republican presidential candidates are debating for the last time in 2015, this time in Las Vegas, as they race for advantage seven weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa.
Here are the latest developments (all times local):
Donald Trump says he’s now “totally committed to the Republican party” and won’t run as an independent if he’s not the GOP nominee.
Trump is responding to concerns that he would stay in the race as an independent if another Republican wins the nomination, and send Hillary Clinton to the White House by splitting the conservative vote.
The business mogul says he’s gained great respect for the people he’s met during his candidacy and is honored to be the front-runner.
He says he’d “do everything in my power to beat Hillary Clinton.”
Noticed a growing rivalry between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? They say there’s nothing to see here.
Asked about recent statements they’ve made on the 2016 campaign trail, Trump and Cruz both played nice on the Republican debate stage Tuesday night.
Trump says Cruz has a “wonderful temperament” and “he’s just fine.”
Cruz says the public will decide if Trump is capable to serve, adding that any of the GOP candidates are better options than Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump isn’t able to list which aspects of the country’s nuclear arsenal he’d put a priority on modernizing, only saying he’d employ someone “totally responsible who really knows what he or she is doing” to handle it.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is jumping in to help him, explaining that the country’s nuclear triad, which includes silos, submarines and bombers, needs a “serious modernization” program.
Trump says the country must be “extremely vigilant and extremely careful” when it comes to nuclear power.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says America’s security should be the top priority in setting refugee policies, even if the Bible says to embrace those in need.
Christie is responding to a Texas Facebook user’s question about how to reconcile the Bible with his position that America should not admit any Syrian refugees.
He says he’s not backing away at all from that position, and says “the end of the conversation” for him was when the FBI director told Congress refugees can’t be vetted effectively.
Christie also references the Bible’s guidance on caring for widows and orphans, and says the San Bernardino attacks show “women can commit heinous, heinous acts against humanity, just the same as men.”
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz continue to clash over immigration during the Republican presidential debate.
In a heated exchange, the senators repeated attacks they have been making on the campaign trail. Texas Sen. Cruz criticized Florida Sen. Rubio for his work on a 2013 Senate bill that provided a path to citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally. Rubio argued that Cruz has also supported a legal status for some of those in the country illegally.
Pushed by Rubio on whether he would rule out ever legalizing people who are in the country illegally, Cruz said, “I have never supported legalization and I do not intend to support legalization.”
Cruz and Rubio are both sons of Cuban immigrants.
Marco Rubio says he’d be open to allowing immigrants who entered the country illegally to obtain a green card after they have a work permit for at least 10 years, a position he says may not be in line with the majority of Republicans.
But Rubio says the process for giving people work permits can’t even begin until the United States adequately secures the border and eases Americans’ concerns about illegal immigration.
Immigration is a difficult issue for Rubio in the GOP primary. He co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that included a path to citizenship and has been widely panned by his Republican rivals.
He says securing the border requires 20,000 new border agents, 700 miles of additional fencing and a mandatory e-verify system for employers.
It’s Jeb vs. Donald: Round 3.
At the Republican debate in Las Vegas, Jeb Bush again is slamming Donald Trump as unfit for the Oval Office. And this time Trump is blaming CNN for setting him up. The former reality show star says it’s “sad that CNN leads Gov. Bush down a road by starting all of the questions, ‘Mr. Trump this.’… I think it’s very sad.”
The two candidates ended up in a terse exchange far from the foreign policy questions at issue.
Bush retorted to Trump, “If you think this is tough and you’re not being treated fairly, imagine dealing with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
Trump fired back, “Oh, you’re a tough guy, Jeb.”
Trump is reminding Bush of the wide gulf that separates them in presidential preference polls. He notes that at earlier debates, Bush stood near Trump at center stage because both were leading in the polls.
“You’re started off here,” Trump says, referring to the center. “You’re moving further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says, “if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.”
Paul directed the barb at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after he said he would shoot down Russian planes if they violated a no-fly zone over Syria.
Paul says that is a “recipe for disaster” and shows poor judgment. He also jabbed Christie over the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, saying that also showed bad judgment. Christie hasn’t been charged in the bridge scandal, but others close to him have.
Christie ignored the bridge reference. He says he would shoot down Russian planes if “they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now.”
Carly Fiorina says now is not the time to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO says during the GOP debate that Putin respects strength, and she wouldn’t engage him until she set up a no-fly zone in Syria, brokered a new deal with Iran and rebuilt the missile defense system in Poland “right under his nose,” among other things.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he would be talking with Vladimir Putin plenty. Christie says he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane if one entered a Syria no-fly zone. Christie is also taking the opportunity to call President Barack Obama a “feckless weakling.”
Donald Trump says the U.S. needs to focus on one thing at a time, and should take out Islamic State militants before fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The business mogul is responding to a question at the GOP debate about how he could support leaving Assad in power and still say he likes winning. The debate moderator says leaving Assad in place means Iran and Hezbollah are winning.
Trump says Assad is a “very bad guy” but also says the U.S. has no idea about the identity of the anti-Assad rebels it’s arming. He says the Islamic State must be dealt with first.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie counters that America should focus its attention on Iran, and says the Islamic State came about because of Assad and his Iranian sponsors.
Jeb Bush says he still believes getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was a good deal. Rand Paul’s not so sure.
Bush says the lesson from the Iraq war is that the United States must have a “strategy to get in and get out.” But Paul is questioning whether the United States should be toppling regimes in the first place.
Paul says, “out of regime change you get chaos,” creating a place for radical Islam to thrive. Paul calls the discussion of whether the United States should pursue regime changes one of the “fundamental questions of our time.”
Ben Carson is offering an air travel analogy to explain why he thinks the United States should focus on domestic needs.
Asked if the Middle East is better with dictators in charge, Carson says no one is better off with dictators, but the United States should “start thinking about the needs of the American people.”
Carson likened the situation to putting on an oxygen mask on in a plane during an emergency, before helping a neighbor.
“The fact of the matter is the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years,” said the former pediatric neurosurgeon. “For us to think that we’re going to go in there and fix that with a couple of little bombs and a few little decorations is relatively foolish.”
Bashar al-Assad is a popular subject in the Republican presidential debate.
Ted Cruz repeated his position that he’d prefer Assad remain president of war-torn Syria. John Kasich is mocking that the answer, saying Assad “must go.”
Donald Trump is jumping in in with his argument that the U.S. spends too much blood and treasure in the Middle East.
Trump also says the Syrian civil war is a complicated distraction from the effort to combat the Islamic State.
“I think Assad is a bad guy,” Trump says. “I think we’re backing guys who we have no idea who they are.”
Trump says, “We have to get rid of ISIS first.”
Ted Cruz is defending his position that the U.S. is more secure with Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
The Texas senator says in Tuesday’s Republican debate that President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and “far too many Republicans want to topple Assad.”
He says if Assad is removed, the Islamic State will “take over Syria.”
Cruz says the U.S. should “hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS” rather than create opportunities for them to grow.
His position puts him at odds with other Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has clashed with Cruz on numerous issues raised in the debate.
Rubio says he “will not shed a tear” if Middle Eastern dictators are removed.
Carly Fiorina says the country needs “someone who’s made tough calls in tough times” as a commander-in-chief instead of first-term senators “who never made executive decisions in their life.”
The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard says talking tough is not the same as being strong.
She also says she wants to bring back a “warrior class” of generals, including David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who she says retired early because they told President Barack Obama things he didn’t want to hear.
Boos from the crowd inside the presidential debate hall are befuddling Donald Trump, who has said he wants to kill the families of terrorists and close parts of the Internet in places such as Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State exists. He say he doesn’t understand why the crowd would object to infiltrating terrorists’ conversations.
He tells the crowd “these are people that want to kill us folks.”
Trump’s reaction comes after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul reminded debate watchers that closing the Internet would require getting rid of the First Amendment and killing the families of terrorists would defy the Geneva Conventions.
Trump replies with a rhetorical question: “So they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
Ben Carson says his experience as a pediatric neurosurgeon prepared him to make tough choices as a leader.
Asked if he could be “ruthless” as a commander in chief and order airstrikes that could kill children, Carson says that when he told children he’d have to take out a brain tumor “they don’t like me very much, at that point. But later on they love me.”
Pressed on whether he could order airstrikes that would kill children and civilians, Carson said he was prepared to be “tough, resolute, understanding what the problems are and understanding that the job of the president of the United States is to protect the people of this country.”
Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are at it again in the Republican debate.
With Trump defending his proposal to target the families of terrorists, Bush is dismissing him as not a “serious” candidate.
Trump retorts that “Jeb is a very nice person.” He says, “We need toughness” or else the U.S. will get “weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.”
Bush answers: “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That’s not going to happen.”
Bush says: “Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time.”
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are clashing over how best to combat the Islamic State.
Rubio says in Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate that Cruz’s plan “is not to lead at all.”
But Cruz says the Islamic State and radical Islamic terrorism “will face no more determined foe than I will be.”
Cruz says he wants to use “overwhelming air power to utterly and completely destroy ISIS,” but that would not involve leveling cities where innocent civilians could be killed. Cruz says the goal “isn’t to level a city,” it’s to “kill the ISIS terrorists.”
But Rubio says terrorists can’t be defeated only through air strikes. He says a ground force against the Islamic State should be made up “primarily” of “Sunni Arabs that reject them ideologicaly and confront them militarily.”
Donald Trump says he wants to keep members of the Islamic State from using the Internet to recruit American fighters.
He says the government must work with “brilliant people” in Silicon Valley to keep IS fighters offline, even if it means shutting down parts of the Internet.
Trump is also calling out members of the media to stop calling IS fighters “masterminds” because, in reality, they are thugs and terrible people.
He says, “we should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is.”
Ben Carson is ducking a question about whether Congress was right to end the National Security Agency’s bulk phone-records collection program.
Carson declined to answer when asked Tuesday whether Sen. Ted Cruz was right to vote to end the program or whether Sen. Marco Rubio was correct in supporting its continuation.
Carson says: “I don’t want to get in between them. Let them fight.”
Carson says he is in favor of monitoring anyplace where people who may be engaging in radical activities are gathered, including mosques, schools, supermarkets and theaters.
Carson says we are at war and “We have to get rid of all this PC stuff.” He says America’s enemies will “take advantage of our PC attitude and get us.”
Chris Christie is continuing to use the Republican debate to emphasize his experience as a governor and federal prosecutor, this time slamming several senators on the stage.
Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are jousting over Senate votes on the government’s authority to gather intelligence from Americans’ communication. Christie is mocking them, and the Senate in general, for “endless debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”
He says he’s had to make decisions about “whether to use actionable intelligence,” and he says New Jersey was constantly under threat after the attacks Sept. 11, 2001. He doesn’t detail just what kind of intelligence he is privy to as governor, but says it’s way more important than what the senators argued about.
Rand Paul says Marco Rubio is opening the country to more terrorist attacks with attempts to allow more legal immigration.
The Kentucky senator says Rubio tries to portray himself as strong on national security, but is actually the weakest because he promoted a broad immigration reform bill in 2013 and has opposed border security.
Paul says more restrictions on legal immigration might have prevented attacks such as the one in San Bernardino and on Sept. 11, 2011, and says Rubio has more of an allegiance to Democrats on immigration than he does to conservative policies.
The exchange comes as Rubio advocated the collection of phone metadata, which Paul opposes.
Ted Cruz is defending his bill that eliminated the bulk collection of phone data, saying it allows law enforcement to do more to search cellphones and Internet-based calls versus simply landlines. He says the focus is now on targeting the “bad guys,” not the general populace and covers all phones, versus 20 percent to 30 percent of phones before.
But Marco Rubio isn’t buying the Texas senator’s explanation, saying the situation demands more tools, not less, including the ability to collect metadata. The Florida senator also says a debate being broadcast nationwide in front of millions of people isn’t the place to talk about classified information.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says fear is the “new normal” in the United States.
During the Republican debate, Christie is stressing his background as a former federal prosecutor and criticizing President Barack Obama. Noting the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Christie says if a “center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino is now a target for terrorists, that means everywhere is a target for terrorists.”
Christie says the country needs a president who will “understand what actionable intelligence is going to look like and act on it.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich says it would have been a better use of time for world leaders to discuss destroying the Islamic State rather than climate change at a recent gathering in Paris.
Kasich says it’s imperative that the United States “get moving” in working with European and Arab allies to take on the Islamic State.
At home, he says the country must give law enforcement, including the FBI and local officials, the tools they need to stop attacks before happen. He says it’s essential to encourage Americans to talk to law enforcement when they see “red flags.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says President Barack Obama made the fight against the Islamic State worse with his address from the Oval Office last week following the San Bernardino attacks.
Rubio says the president’s approach to combating the Islamic State is continuing the current approach “and that’s not working.”
Rubio is focusing his criticism on Obama, not any of his Republican rivals sharing the stage with him in Las Vegas in Tuesday’s presidential debate.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says, “everyone understands” Donald Trump’s proposal to stop Muslims from entering the U.S., temporarily and with exceptions. But he says legislation he introduced suspending refugees from countries with large Islamic State footprints for three years “is more narrowly focused at the actual threat, which is radical Islamic terrorism.”
He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandfather, saying, “All horse thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse thieves.” He says there are millions of peaceful Muslims living across the world in peaceful countries like India. He says, “It’s not a war on a faith, it’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”
Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are engaging in the first head-to-head battle of the night. Trump is defending his immigration policy — including his proposal to indefinitely ban all Muslims from entering the country. And he’s repeating his plan for a wall at the Mexican border.
He suggests President Barack Obama has welcomed Islamic terrorists into the nation. “They’re gone” under a Trump administration, he says.
Bush retorts that Trump’s proposal is “not serious” and would make the U.S. less safe. “Donald is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate, and he’d be a chaos president,” Bush says, noting that Kurds, potential allies in a battle against the Islamic State, “are Muslims.”
Trump’s response: Bush is coming after me only because I’m leading and his campaign has been a “total disaster” and “nobody cares.”
Bush also calls Trump “unhinged.” Trump responds that he’s “the most solid person up here.”
Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump says in his opening remarks at the GOP debate that he has sparked a “very big discussion that needed to be opened up” on “radical Islamic terrorism.”
The former reality show star did not directly note his proposal to block Muslims from coming into the United States — temporarily, and with exceptions — that has taken a central role in the race. But he says: “People like what I say. People respect what I say.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says that if he’s elected president, the country will have a commander in chief who believes the U.S. is the greatest country in the world.
Rubio says the current president wants the country to be “more like the rest of the world.”
He says that, as a result, “you have millions of Americans that feel left out and out of place in their own country. ”
Ben Carson is applying his experience as a neurosurgeon to foreign policy challenges. He compares his complex patient cases to the battle against Islamic State militants. He says he frequently faced life-and-death situations. Carson is also asking Congress to declare war on the Islamic State.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is pitching himself as a serious leader who has what it takes to keep the country safe and rebuild the economy. He says “serious times require strong leadership,” including restoring funding cut from national defense and destroying the Islamic State.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is pointing to the closure of public schools in Los Angeles Tuesday. He says that’s evidence that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not done enough to keep people safe. More than 1,500 school buildings in Los Angeles were shut for a day and searched after an emailed threat of violence. They will reopen Wednesday.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is using his opening statement in the Republican presidential debate not to attack his GOP opponents, but to say any of them would be better than Obama or Clinton, the Democratic front-runner. Cruz says America needs a president who understands the threat of the Islamic State. He promises to “utterly destroy” the militant group and stop terrorist attacks before they occur.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is opening the Republican presidential debate by going after Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Paul says Trump is wrong in calling for censoring the Internet and Rubio should not advocate taking bulk phone data from Americans. Paul says the way to defeat terrorism is “by showing that we do not fear them.”
John Kasich is playing the role of unifier-in-chief. Before the Ohio governor mentions anything about national security — which his rivals are giving top billing — he says the nation’s priorities are “creating jobs, making sure people can keep their jobs, the need for rising wages.” And he says there’s “too much yelling” in politics to solve those problems. “We’ll never get there if we are divided” along party lines, he says. “Before all of that,” he says, “we’re Americans.”
Carly Fiorina says all of the country’s problems and wounds can be healed by a tested leader such as herself, citing her experiences beating breast cancer, burying a child and climbing the corporate ranks to eventually become CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina says she’s been called “every B-word in the book” and has refused to take no for an answer.
The prime time Republican presidential debate is underway and the nine candidates are giving opening statements.
Some Republican Party leaders are increasingly nervous about the prospects of Donald Trump as the party’s standard-bearer. But national GOP Chairman Reince Priebus is sticking with the role of party cheerleader tonight in Las Vegas.
“This is a unifying message,” he tells the audience at The Venetian. He adds, “I think you can agree with me, that every single one of the candidates on this stage would be world better than Hillary Clinton.”
The crowd applauded.
The Associated Press wrote this report.
[Editor’s Note: FPRI does not take positions on the candidates and is strictly nonpartisan. Its individual scholars, however, do stake out positions—a variety of positions.]
Republican voters today are divided between three broad tendencies: internationalist, nationalist, and non-interventionist. Donald Trump won the GOP presidential primaries this year partly by playing upon these divisions in an unconventional way. He assembled a new, ideologically cross-cutting insurgent coalition based upon strong support from non-college educated Republicans, directed against free trade, immigration, and policy elites from both parties. In effect, he pulled together nationalist and non-interventionist support against conservative internationalists, using his own polarizing personality as the focus. Since Trump is the GOP’s nominee, these nationalist and non-interventionist tendencies now have greater sway within the party than at any moment since the 1930s. Yet in many ways, the foreign policy preferences of the average Republican voter are no different – and no more “isolationist” – than they were four or five years ago. This raises the interesting possibility that the long-term future of conservative internationalists may not be as dire as many seem to believe. But of course, if Trump becomes president, then his declared policy preferences and decision-making style will carry even more weight than they do today. Paradoxically, the future of a viable Republican foreign policy approach rests on Trump’s defeat.
In this essay, I begin by outlining the differences between the GOP’s main foreign policy tendencies, along with their historical relationship to one another. Then I describe how Trump defied historic norms to create a new coalition that won the nomination. Next, I sketch some possible futures for Republican foreign policy tendencies, depending upon the winner of this fall’s presidential election. Foreign policy under a Trump administration is likely to track the declared priorities and decision-making style of the president. If Hillary Clinton wins, however, then GOP foreign policy tendencies might go in one of several directions. I sketch these various directions, simplifying them into six distinct scenarios, and give reasons for their relative probability. Finally, I offer some normative implications for the November election.
Republican Party Foreign Policy Tendencies
The foreign policy tendencies of voters within the Republican Party can be placed into three broad categories: internationalist, nationalist, and non-interventionist. These tendencies are also represented within the full spectrum of GOP elected officials, opinion leaders, interest groups, media outlets, and foreign policy think-tanks.
Republican internationalists believe in an active US role overseas – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. They support existing US alliances and military commitments, along with free trade agreements, foreign aid programs, and relatively high levels of defense spending. At the elite level, this has been the dominant tendency within the Republican Party since World War Two. Every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower has been an internationalist of one kind or another. There are of course significant differences between various types of GOP internationalists. Some, in the tradition of Richard Nixon, emphasize great power realpolitik. Others, like George W. Bush, emphasize democracy promotion and rogue state rollback. Yet both Nixon and Bush 43 were – like Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush 41 – Republican internationalists who favored a forward American presence overseas. This basic commonality is worth keeping in mind, since not all Republicans share it.
The success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries earlier this year encouraged the impression that broadly internationalist policies have no support whatsoever at the grassroots level within the GOP. This is a mistaken impression. In reality, even among those who voted for Trump in the primaries, select internationalist policies still carry considerable grassroots support. Just to take one example, Trump’s own supporters are far more likely to look favorably upon NATO, than unfavorably. More will be said about this point later on. Yet Trump did campaign on a foreign policy platform dramatically different from any successful Republican candidate since the 1940s, and his nomination represented a severe defeat for GOP internationalists of all kinds.
Republican non-interventionists oppose US military commitments overseas. Many members of this school do support commercial opportunities and diplomatic engagement with other countries. But their defining feature is a deep resistance to US military intervention, bases, and alliances abroad. This was a dominant sentiment within the Republican Party during the 1920s and 1930s. In the US context, it often flows from a libertarian commitment to limited government at home – along with the conviction that said government tends to be undermined by international military entanglements. During the Cold War, this strain of thinking was marginalized among conservative Republicans, as anti-Communist policies won out. Non-interventionists were also temporarily subdued by the commonly recognized need to respond to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. But frustrations in Iraq after 2003 gave anti-interventionist arguments a new lease on life, and indeed such arguments had been percolating on the edges of the GOP ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example in the repeat presidential runs of former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan.
Non-interventionists believe that America’s war on terror has been overly militarized and a threat to civil liberties, under President Obama as well as George W. Bush. Some of the leading GOP non-interventionist candidates in recent years include former US Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both have run for president, and have a core following of libertarians, but both have been unable to expand their support beyond that limited core. One reason is that while libertarian non-interventionists represent a clear and principled point of view within the Republican Party, they are still very much a minority faction – including on foreign policy issues. The median Republican voter today is not so much non-interventionist, as nationalist.
Republican nationalists arguably make up a plurality of GOP voters at the grassroots level these days, but are badly underrepresented among foreign policy elites. This sometimes leaves such nationalists with few articulate proponents. Those few GOP foreign policy experts who are not internationalist, tend to be non-interventionist. In reality however, Republican nationalists are a recognizable third grouping, distinct from either of the other two. And during the Obama era, they rose to new prominence.
Conservative nationalists have no objection to either high levels of US defense spending, or to the most aggressive measures against terrorism. They are not remotely pacifist. At the same time, conservative nationalists disdain nation-building exercises, non-military foreign aid programs, humanitarian intervention, and international institutions designed to promote global governance. For nationalists, the maintenance of American sovereignty is paramount, and diplomatic engagements with known US adversaries are generally unwelcome. The basic conservative nationalist instinct is to maintain very strong defenses, punish severely any direct threats to US citizens, refuse international accommodations, and otherwise remain detached from multilateral commitments. This mentality is well captured by the words of the coiled snake on the yellow Gadsden flag, a favorite of Tea Party supporters: “Don’t tread on me.”
Historically, it is nationalists who have acted as the crucial pivot players within the GOP on foreign policy issues. When convinced of threats to the United States, they can be unyielding. During the Cold War for example, the GOP’s nationalists worked with its internationalists to press back against the Soviet Union and its allies overseas. Indeed a chief complaint of conservative nationalists for much of the Cold War was that the US was not doing enough to roll back Communism worldwide. After September 11, 2001, Republican nationalists again supported the most assertive measures taken by President George W. Bush in the “war on terror,” including the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Over the years however—and particularly since Barack Obama became president—many conservative nationalists have come to think twice about well-intentioned pro-democracy interventions in the Muslim world. This change of heart was significant in allowing for the rise of Donald Trump.
All told, Republican internationalists have dominated the party’s foreign policy ideas and practices since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, with conservative nationalists in a crucial but secondary supporting role. Non-interventionists have been marginalized. Put simply, what Trump did during the 2016 primaries was to unite the GOP’s nationalists with many of its non-interventionists in a full-blown and politically successful assault on the party’s dominant internationalist faction. The significance of this upset can hardly be overstated. There is really no precedent for it since World War Two.
How Trump Did It
A common pattern in GOP presidential primaries prior to 2016 was their eventual devolution into a contest between a mainstream, center-right, pragmatic internationalist with establishment support (e.g. Mitt Romney, John McCain), and an “insurgent” social conservative with close ties to evangelical Christians (Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee). The evangelical favorite would do well in parts of the South and interior West, but ultimately lose to the more moderate candidate, for lack of organization or broad appeal. International issues were typically not a major source of disagreement between these candidates; both would be relatively hawkish, and neither would question the fundamentals of Republican national security policy. Those who did, like Ron Paul, lost badly.
Donald Trump rearranged and broke down this expected pattern by locating and emphasizing new sources of division within the Republican Party—including on foreign policy. He campaigned as neither a staunch evangelical conservative, nor an establishment-friendly pragmatist. Instead he ran as a furiously populist, anti-establishment nationalist. In doing so, Trump initially alienated college-educated Republicans, most conservative opinion leaders, and virtually the entire GOP establishment. Obviously, due to intense doubts surrounding Trump’s character and unorthodox policy stands, his campaign was highly controversial and polarizing inside the Republican Party. The extraordinary nature of his candidacy drove up voter turnout in the Republican primaries, both for and against him. Over 17 million people cast their votes for candidates other than the eventual nominee—an unprecedented number in a GOP primary. But Trump’s platform and candidacy turned out to have surprising reach toward a range of Republican primary voters across the usual ideological and regional intraparty divisions, and of course his opponents were divided. Exit polls from multiple primaries revealed that Trump’s supporters saw him as a strong, independent-minded leader, capable of bringing needed change to Washington. For these particular voters, Trump’s brash, combative style, his war on “political correctness,” his outsider status, and his scathing attacks on the elites of both parties were all assets, not liabilities.
Trump did equally well in the Northeast and the Deep South, with GOP moderates as well as conservatives. Indeed on multiple domestic policy issues, such as entitlement reform, the minimum wage, and Planned Parenthood, he took positions that were moderate to liberal. This was precisely why many staunch Republicans fought Trump so bitterly in the primaries: he really had no prior connection to the American conservative movement, nor to its preferred policy positions on numerous issues. Yet Trump’s persona and issue positioning turned out to be appealing to one major, numerous constituency: working-class Republicans, and those without a college education. Among this core constituency, Trump did very well throughout the Republican primary season, across regional and ideological lines. He also polled particularly well with older white men. In the end, Trump won on average about 40% of the popular vote until his last opponent dropped out. This was enough for him to win most of the contested party primaries and caucuses outside of the Great Plains, the one region where his bombastic personality seemed to carry less appeal.
The New York businessman’s unusual stance on numerous international and transnational issues was extremely divisive, even inside the GOP, but at the same time important to his nomination. Several of his most attention-getting proposals, considered unworkable and outlandish by policy experts from both major parties, were in fact overwhelmingly popular with Republican primary voters. These included, for example, his notion of a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants into the United States, as well as a full-blown security wall on America’s southern border, paid for by Mexico. While establishment internationalists tended to favor immigration reform, by 2015-16 over 60% of Republican voters had come to view mass immigration into the US as a “critical threat.” Trump tapped into this sentiment and encouraged it by proposing to identify and deport some eleven million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Trump’s protectionist stance on numerous international trade agreements, past and present, was also highly unusual for a winning GOP candidate. But since roughly half of Republican voters shared vaguely protectionist views on international trade, as of 2015, Trump’s position held considerable populist appeal.
Trump won over many of the GOP’s non-interventionist voters with full-throated critiques of the 2003 Iraq invasion, denunciations of “nation-building,” and repeated declarations that multiple US interventions within the Muslim world had produced nothing of benefit to the United States. Yet he did not really run as any sort of foreign policy dove. On the contrary, he called for the most brutal measures against jihadist terrorists—up to and including torture—and a more aggressive campaign against ISIS along with increases in US defense spending. Trump’s hawkish language against jihadist terrorism was crucial to his nomination. He won precisely by not being a thoroughgoing anti-interventionist on national security issues. The majority of Republican voters, including conservative nationalists, do not hold non-interventionist views with regard to ISIS and Al Qaeda. The more consistently dovish views of a Ron Paul, for example, remain a losing position politically inside a Republican primary. Principled libertarians understand that Trump is not one of them, and are more likely to support Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president, in November. For a third-party candidate, Johnson is polling unusually well this year, at between 5 and 10% of all voters nationwide.
Altogether, the image offered by Trump was of a sort of Fortress America, or perhaps a gigantic gated community, separated from transnational dangers of all kinds by a series of walls—tariff walls against foreign exports, security walls against Muslim terrorists, literal walls against Hispanic immigrants, and with the sense that somehow all these dangers might be inter-related under the rubric of the “the false song of globalism.” For longstanding and diehard nationalists like Pat Buchanan, this was music to their ears—vindication, after decades in the wilderness. And even for many GOP voters less dogmatic than Buchanan, yet feeling displaced by long-term trends toward cultural and economic globalization, the promise of the country’s security, separation, and reassertion of control sounded both plausible and compelling. In the end, Trump carved out unique niche appeal in the 2016 Republican primaries by combining a colorful celebrity personality with working-class appeal, a fiercely anti-establishment persona, unapologetic American nationalism, hardline stands against both terrorism and illegal immigration, protectionism on trade, media manipulation, and a withering critique of past military interventions by presidents from both parties. The combination was highly unorthodox, controversial, and divisive, but it was enough to win the nomination.
The Death of Conservative Internationalism?
The interesting thing about public opinion and international policy issues in 2015-16 however, despite Trump’s rise, is that current Republican sentiment on these issues is broadly similar to Republican opinion in 2011-12. Public opinion polls taken over the years by organizations including Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs confirm this rather surprising finding. In 2015-16, a clear majority of Republicans supported increased defense spending, energetic counter-terror measures, US alliances, NATO, Israel, and a leading role for the United States internationally. The most common Republican concern was hardly that President Obama had overreached in fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, but that he had not gone far enough. GOP opinion was more divided on issues of trade, foreign aid, and immigration, but even here, many Republicans – sometimes a majority – supported internationalist positions in 2015-16. For example:
- A poll released by the Chicago Council in September 2015 – a month during which Trump was already at the top of GOP primary polls—found that 69% of Republicans favored “taking an active part in world affairs,” as opposed to “staying out.” This was higher than the number of Democrats or independents who agreed with “taking an active part.”
- In that same poll, 57% of Republicans agreed that “signing free trade agreements with other countries” is effective in “achieving the foreign policy goals of the United States.”
- 83% of Republicans agreed that “maintaining existing alliances” overseas is similarly effective.
- 65% of Republicans supported increased “economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia,” in response to Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine.
- A Gallup poll released in February 2016 found that 50% of Republicans viewed foreign trade as an “opportunity” rather than a “threat.”
- A Gallup poll released in July 2016 found that while 50% of Republicans favor deporting all immigrants who are living in the US illegally, 48% of Republicans oppose such measures.
Public opinion polls taken in 2011-12 paint a rather similar picture to 2015-16. Like most Americans, Republicans had mixed feelings about numerous US international engagements four or five years ago. They continue to have mixed feelings today. And yet Republicans nominated Mitt Romney in 2012, as opposed to Donald Trump in 2016. This would seem to suggest that the nomination of a straightforward internationalist in the earlier case, and something quite different recently, has much to do with the contingencies of the presidential primary process, as opposed to any truly radical shift in overall Republican voter foreign policy opinion.
Common assessments of public opinion also frequently suffer from the assumption that most voters must have strong, fixed views on a wide range of complicated and sometimes obscure international issues. But while voter opinion on foreign policy is not irrational per se, it is often characterized by considerable uncertainty and fluidity, along with a certain selective deference to party leadership. Foreign policy issue stands are furthermore bundled into broad platforms held by those same party leaders at any given time, especially in the case of a presidential election. Many partisans are willing to overlook a specific change in issue position, particularly when that issue is of low salience to them, in order to maintain support for their party overall. The most common Republican response to Trump’s nomination—namely, to support him—is an excellent example of this. Or to put it another way: some of Trump’s supporters did not know they opposed free trade, until he told them so. Changing poll results reflected that shift, in a protectionist direction. This suggests the need for a model of foreign policy opinion that allows for the possibility of leadership and persuasion, as well as partisan deference and agenda-setting, rather than simply assuming public opinion is unalterably fixed. In the past, each Republican president has played an absolutely crucial role in redefining the foreign policy of his own party—and fellow Republicans have tended to rally behind him. Of course this also has major implications for the future, in that GOP foreign policy under a President Trump will in all probability be what he says it is.
During the presidential primaries, Trump did what successful political entrepreneurs often do: he identified new axes of debate, persuaded the uncertain, and changed the conversation. He built a new type of insurgent coalition inside the GOP, focused on his own personality, and appealing to a plurality of the party’s most disaffected, anti-establishment, nationalist, protectionist, and non-interventionist members. Obviously the result was a disaster for conservative internationalists. Yet the very contingency of this outcome should suggest more hopeful possibilities in future primaries. Assuming Republican foreign policy opinion is broadly similar to what it has been over the past five years – and so long as Trump is not the incumbent president – there is nothing to suggest that a measured internationalist stance is necessarily doomed in future GOP primaries. But this stance will have to be tied into winning positions on domestic issues, and to a personality appealing to Republican voters, while recognizing those legitimate concerns that do exist on the part of conservative nationalists.
Republican Foreign Policy if Trump Wins
Some prominent Republicans have suggested that if Trump is elected president, he will be pulled in a much more responsible, well-considered, internationalist direction on major foreign policy and national security decisions—including by the Republican establishment. I believe this is unlikely.
First, the US foreign policy system is ultimately president-centered. One need not view the White House as all-powerful to understand that for better or worse the beliefs, personality, and decision-making style of each individual president really do make a tremendous difference. Our last two US presidents are excellent examples of this. Congress, of course, has a very important role to play, as do leading cabinet officials, interest groups, bureaucratic actors, a free press, and the general public as a whole. The combined pressures on any chief executive can certainly be intense. In the end however, it is the president who decides exactly how to weigh up all of these pressures, and who literally makes the most important foreign policy decisions. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he will be the final arbiter of his own foreign policy advisory process. In this, he will be no different from previous presidents. So it would be worth taking seriously his declared policy preferences and decision-making style.
In terms of central foreign policy preferences, Trump’s day-to-day flexibility on countless matters leaves many observers wondering if he really has any basic agenda beyond his own election. But on a number of very significant international and transnational issues, Trump has laid out a striking change in direction, however wrong-headed or lacking in specificity. On immigration, he has proposed the most draconian measures of any candidate in living memory, including the mass deportation of eleven million people, along with the exclusion or “extreme vetting” of adherents of an entire religion from entry into the United States. On free trade, he has repeatedly declared adamant opposition to agreements such as NAFTA and TPP in their current form, and has threatened increased tariffs against Chinese and Mexican exports. He appears to have no objection to Putin’s creation of an expanded Russian sphere of influence in parts of Europe. With regard to US alliances, Trump has declared that “NATO is obsolete,” and that Japan and South Korea should consider acquiring nuclear weapons. When speaking extemporaneously, he rarely distinguishes between America’s allies and its adversaries, but instead seems to think of foreigners above all as costing the US jobs. On a few select issues, Trump’s declared position does align with Republican internationalist preferences. For example, he favors increased defense spending. For the most part, however, the Republican nominee has made it clear that he looks to take US foreign policy in a very different direction not only from the past fifteen years, but from a broad range of US international economic and strategic commitments dating back to the 1940s. Nor is Trump’s overall protectionist-nationalist stance a recent invention. Despite his many confusing contradictions when it comes to the details of foreign policy, he has in fact been saying for decades that he views a wide range of US trade agreements, alliance commitments, and military deployments abroad as an overly costly burden upon the United States. As president, he will have an empowered ability to press forward his declared agenda. Rather than dismissing Trump’s policy pronouncements as utterly meaningless, observers should apply the same prudent standard as to any other candidate: assume that he may actually try to do what he proposes, and then judge him accordingly.
Apart from the broad direction, Trump’s decision-making style is of equal significance, and equal concern. From the point of view of his supporters—and even a number of his critics—Trump can be bold, spontaneous, and sometimes downright funny. These qualities helped make him a stronger GOP primary candidate than most experts predicted. But as we have seen over the years, the qualities that make for a charismatic candidate are not exactly the qualities required for the solid conception and implementation of life-and-death foreign policy decisions.
Trump’s claim is essentially that he can apply the same skills that have multiplied his fortune over the years, to the negotiation of difficult agreements with allies and adversaries alike. But these skills are not necessarily transferable. His past experience may be that a combination of extreme unpredictability and outrageous theatrics—combined with threats of lawsuit and bankruptcy—have helped more than hurt his career, both in real estate and celebrity entertainment. But at the international political level, hardened autocrats in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Pyongyang are less likely to be impressed by scabrous tweets. And with regard to US allies overseas, Trump’s characteristic negotiating tactics will of course undermine America’s alliances, rather than bolstering them. His billions will not help him then.
Successful presidential foreign policy leadership requires among other things close attention to detail, honest policy assessment, personal steadiness, and emotional self-control. Whatever other winning qualities Trump may have on the campaign trail, he has not demonstrated these. On the contrary, he displays a stunning lack of interest in the realities of governance. It is no coincidence that Trump’s openly declared foreign policy team is weaker than any in living memory. For as he says himself, he disdains the notion of policy expertise altogether. Trump declares quite clearly, and seems to believe, that his superior natural abilities leave him able to handle any situation. Yet over a period of several decades, he has shown little care in actually learning or truthfully representing many of the most basic facts surrounding major policy questions. There are few indications that he understands either the constitutional limits or grave responsibilities of the presidency. While bidding to become the most powerful man in the world, he has already shown on a weekly basis extreme personal pique, disorganized bellicosity, an addiction to false conspiracy theories, and a profound lack of impulse control. Nor are the personality traits of a seventy-year old man likely to change or be disempowered once in high office. This is not simply a moral problem, but a pragmatic one. Any mixture of narcissism, willful ignorance, and day-to-day volatility—when combined in the person of the president—has never produced practical US foreign policy success in the past. It is unlikely to do so in the future.
In sum, Trump proposes to scale back on numerous longstanding US commitments overseas, pursue protectionist trading policies, and crack down hard on immigration. The overall direction would be bad enough in itself. He then manages to combine it with a visibly dysfunctional temperament and decision-making style. Not without reason, the Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked his possible election as one of the top ten global economic risks this year. In all probability, a Trump foreign policy would be a disaster for the United States, for American allies overseas, and for the GOP by association. This is the likely future of Republican foreign policy under a potential President Trump.
Republican Foreign Policy if Clinton Wins
If Hillary Clinton is elected president this November, Republicans will continue to develop their own arguments on foreign policy issues—in response to international events, presidential initiatives, and public opinion—from political bases in Congress, think-tanks, interest groups, and the media. At the risk of oversimplification, looking ahead over the next five years (2016-2021), there are a number of possible scenarios:
- Noninterventionists predominate.
- Internationalists predominate.
- Nationalists predominate.
- Nationalist-noninterventionist alliance.
- Nationalist-internationalist alliance.
- Continued factionalism.
The most likely scenario under a first-term Clinton administration will be scenario 6—continued factionalism among Republicans over foreign policy issues. This is true for several reasons. First, the American political system, unlike a parliamentary model, does not provide for any “leader of the opposition.” GOP leaders in Congress will play a vital role, but as we have seen in recent years, there will also be influential and often unruly media voices, interest groups, conservative opinion leaders, and congressional members with their own individual constituents and opinions. Second, GOP voters are in fact divided amongst themselves over numerous international and transnational matters, between the three major foreign policy tendencies listed above, and those divisions are unlikely to disappear—especially with Republicans in opposition. GOP internationalists in particular may agree with and support certain aspects of a Clinton foreign policy from time to time, depending upon the issue. But keep in mind that Republican internationalist convictions differ from liberal Democratic ones, and so a principled stance will sometimes require opposition rather than support. Moreover there will be powerful internal party pressures for leading GOP figures to oppose an overall Clinton agenda, and given the deep ideological differences between America’s two major parties, many Republicans will in all sincerity find little to approve.