When you behold the perfect media machine Donald Trump has built for this presidential campaign, based on his uncanny ability to generate massive coverage via well-timed outrages that scratch atavistic itches in his white working-class core constituency, you have to wonder how he can keep outdoing himself.
It’s been quite a run. Trump’s first big leap into the badlands of previously unmentionable policies was to embrace a “deport ‘em all” posture on undocumented immigrants that others had hinted at and argued toward but never quite came out and articulated. More recently, he’s placed himself beyond the outer bounds of acceptable discourse on national security by suggesting the families of terrorists should be targeted and killed, and then by calling for a temporary ban on entry into the United States by Muslims (other than those employed, of course, by the Trump organization). With every such step, Trump seems to have found hitherto unplumbed depths of extremism among Republican primary voters, even as he shocked progressives, Establishment Republicans, and the mainstream media into giving him attention, often in the increasingly irrational hope that he has finally gone too far.
But where can he go next? I have an idea of where that might be, and it’s frighteningly consistent with what he (and his doppelgänger Ted Cruz) has said about national-security challenges generally, and the fight against ISIS specifically. It’s “Kaboom! Nuke ’em ’til they glow!”
Trump has shrewdly occupied that niche in conservative foreign-policy thinking populated by people who simultaneously oppose what George Washington called “entangling alliances” and the “no-win wars” America has engaged in since World War II — but who favor retaliatory military action against the country’s enemies so long as it is swift, certain, and as lethal as possible. Often called “isolationists” by their enemies because they mistrust diplomacy and drawn-out military engagements, they are naturally drawn to air power as the way to project force with a minimal risk of U.S. casualties or of the kind of quagmires that Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq turned out to be. And when pressed, these nationalists with an intense antipathy for “limited war” are prone to flirt with the idea of waging nuclear war. It’s the tradition that led many “isolationist” Republicans who backed Robert Taft’s opposition to NATO to support Douglas MacArthur’s proposal to use nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War. (In turn, MacArthur endorsed Taft’s 1952 presidential campaign against the conventional anti-Communist Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
It’s also the tradition that motivated Barry Goldwater’s criticism of LBJ’s “no-win war” in Vietnam in 1964, even as he supported letting field commanders launch tactical nuclear weapons. Nukes are the best and ultimate friend of American exceptionalists who hold the lives of foreigners in low regard and cherish the idea of the United States as a peace-loving country that will tolerate no restraints on its righteous use of arms once it is provoked into action. And even more obviously, the threat to go nuclear is the toughest posture a potential strongman president could possibly take.
Does that sound like Trump and his supporters? It sure does to me. The willingness to use nukes to make it clear messing with America is suicidal is entirely consistent with what some have called the “Jacksonian” tradition in American foreign policy, which has long exerted an emotional pull among the conservative white working-class Americans who arguably form Trump’s base. When he talks about destroying ISIS without getting into the kind of “mess” he says we created in past Middle Eastern interventions, and without respect for civilian lives, it’s a short if audacious jump to the tip of a warhead as the tip of the American spear.
Ted Cruz, whose national-security views are close to Trump’s these days, is already nearly there. Just a couple of weeks ago, he famously said in Iowa:
“We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” [Ted Cruz] said at the Rising Tide Summit in Cedar Rapids.
To those who think neither Trump nor Cruz will “go there,” remember how far they’ve gone already, and remember how favorable a landscape current conservative voter sentiment provides for anything that offends elites in both parties.
Could anything be more “politically incorrect” than publicly considering the first use of nuclear weapons in the religious and political cauldron of the Middle East? I don’t think so. And that’s why the idea could be fatally tempting to Donald Trump as he seeks to maintain his momentum in the voting phase of the GOP presidential nominating contest.