Campaign 2016

The Trump National Security Paradox

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, September 30, 2016, 3:37 PM

To my knowledge, the first explicit argument—at least by a prominent member of the national security community—that the man who would become the Republican standard bearer for President in 2016 poses a threat to U.S. national security was advanced on this site by John Bellinger last December. “[N]ot only does he lack the national security and foreign policy qualifications to be President,” Bellinger wrote, “he is actually endangering our national security right now by his hate-filled and divisive rhetoric.”

A few months later, I elaborated on the point, arguing that the man had “an unusual combination of—from a national security perspective, anyway—terrifying liabilities.” I did so, at the time, somewhat defensively, emphasizing that “I ask th[e] question [of whether Trump is a national security threat] not with the snarky intent of landing a political punch, but in deadly earnest.” I was actually concerned at the time that people might take the point as a partisan jab. I needn't have worried.

In that essay, I offered seven distinct reasons for concern:

  1. Trump’s “near-total ignorance of international policy, military affairs, and intelligence and counterterrorism policy,”
  2. that he has “done more than any single person to undo two presidents’ earnest and consistent protestations that the United States is not at war with Islam,”
  3. his open promises to commit war crimes,
  4. his flirtations with adversary nations and dictators, particularly Vladimir Putin,
  5. his flirtations domestically with white supremacists and white supremacy,
  6. his “evident clinical symptoms,” what is sometimes euphemistically called his temperament problem, and
  7. the magical thinking that permeates his entire campaign and his way of talking about policy and policy outcomes.

In the months since, the case for each of these seven points has only grown stronger. What was then largely a bromance of personal praise between Putin and Trump, for example, has blossomed into a scandalous and bizarre set of interconnections, in which Trump has refused to acknowledge Russian hacking of the DNC—and even at times publicly encouraged it—and one of his campaign advisors stands accused of foreign policy freelancing in Moscow. Only today, Shane Harris of the Daily Beast reports that:

Suspicion is mounting about Donald Trump’s ties to Russian officials and business interests, as well as possible links between his campaign and the Russian hacking of U.S. political organizations. But GOP leaders have refused to support efforts by Democrats to investigate any possible Trump-Russia connections, which have been raised in news reports and closed-door intelligence briefings. And without their support, Democrats, as the minority in both chambers of Congress, cannot issue subpoenas to potential witnesses and have less leverage to probe Trump.

Privately, Republican congressional staff told The Daily Beast that Trump and his aides’ connections to Russian officials and businesses interests haven’t gone unnoticed and are concerning.

Nobody concerned about Trump’s temperament, I might add, could be reassured by his having spent the week following the first presidential debate fighting about the former Miss Universe’s weight.

Indeed, in the months that have followed Bellinger’s essay, the idea the GOP nominee for president is a national security threat has broadly caught on to become an almost universally shared view among serious national security and foreign policy types of both parties. There are the GOP national security figures who lined up to sign the War on the Rocks letter—which came out the same day as my piece—declaring that Trump would “as president . . . use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe.” There’s the other letter signed by many former senior GOP officials saying that “we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” There are the editorial pages, most recently USA Today and the staunchly Republican Arizona Republic. There are the remarkable personal essays, like this one by Kori Schake. The list goes on and on and on. It turns out that, at least among the foreign policy and national security elites, there is still a bipartisan vision of national security, and the idea that the GOP nominee for president represents a threat to it is a matter of near consensus at this point.

And yet, even as this elite consensus has developed, a huge number of people are getting ready to vote to elect this man president.

At a minimum, Trump will get around 40 percent of the vote of the American electorate. According to the various forecasting models, he has somewhere between a 30 and 40 percent chance of winning the election. Despite the damage he has done himself this week, he runs only a little behind Hillary Clinton in national horserace polls. According to RealClearPolitics, he is running ahead in states accounting for 166 electoral votes.

What’s more, many of Trump’s voters are going to vote for him because of national security, not despite it. They are going to vote for him believing that Trump is the “tough” candidate. They are going to vote for him believing in his conflation of terrorists and the victims of terrorism. They are going vote for him believing that “a wall” to keep out migrants has something meaningful to do with national security. They are going to vote for him having accepted at some level his apocalyptic account of confrontation with the Islamic world and his insistence that all we need is greater willpower and more firepower for victory to be ours.

The radical disparity between elite policy views of Trump in the national security arena and the apparent resilience of his support certainly has parallels in other areas. But the national security side is different both in the degree of alarm and in the degree of unanimity. This is the area, after all, where the president has the most latitude, and it's an area where non-partisan expertise is still valued and attitudes tend to be least partisan. 

What has happened here? How have we come to a place where at least partly in the name of national security, a huge swath of the electorate is about to vote for a man when a wide community of practitioners and scholars considers it obvious that his views, actions, words, and very psyche threaten national security?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question. It will take some future Richard Hofstadter to unpack it all. And I am not a scholar of ideas. It obviously has something to do with the larger populist wave that is hitting both Left and Right and the broader loss of control by elites of the Republican Party—and, to a lesser degree, the Democratic Party. It also, in my view, clearly has something to do with the escape of racism and a variety of xenophobias from the boxes of social unacceptability into which our political system had stuffed them. It has something to do with rage and revenge. And it has a lot to do with the conflation of security and identity—that is, the belief that society has a right not merely to protect itself from violence and foreign attack but to protect itself from change brought by outsiders.

Beyond that, it clearly also reflects a grave failure on the part of us, the national security elites, to justify adequately over time the vision of national security we have sought to pursue. We often find ourselves defending this consensus vision of national security from those on the Left—the Glenn Greenwalds of the world. The attack from the Left, and from the libertarian Right for that matter, sounds in the notion that American foreign policy is too ambitious, ambitious to the point of imperialism and militarism and renders hypocritical all of our professions of our deepest values. We know how to defend against this critique, which has never approached electoral plausibility in any event.

The Trumpist critique is harder to pin down, because the man is so incoherent. It certainly partakes of some of the same flavor as the Left critique at times, as when Trump lyingly insists that he opposed the Iraq War. But it also has other flavors. And these accuse the bipartisan consensus of something else—not too much vigor but insufficient vigor. So we should be less interventionist, yes, but we should also “win” more; we should crush ISIS; we should “bomb the shit out of them.” And when Trump talks about national security, trade is never far from the front of his mind. Neither is immigration. In other words, Trump is promising to “protect” us from “threats” the traditional national security vision doesn’t treat as threats at all: Mexican migrants, for example, and refugees. Trump treats domestic shootings by people who grew up in the United States as national security matters if the shooters happen to be Muslim. 

The key point is that there is a huge gap between the vision of national security that the community devoted to security sees itself as protecting and the vision of national security Trump is promising and that a large number of people seem to want. These visions are not just different in degree or divergences in tactics or strategy. They are radically different in kind and in aspiration. They are mutually preclusive. One, after all, is the security of a free and open society; the other is security from, among other things, having to be a free and open society.

Antipopulism lies at the core of my political being, and I have no interest in compromising with a vision of security so irreconcilable with my own. At the same time, I think it’s a mistake not to take the ideation associated with the Trumpist vision of security seriously. Bad ideas, after all, have lives too. And we need to be cognizant of the fact that the difference between 40 percent of the electorate and a viable presidential coalition is not all that great.

To the antipopulist democrat, the fundamental role of the “people” is to give consent to the elites to govern and to withdraw that consent when the elites do not perform. Trump’s coalition represents, among other things, the withdrawal of consent to govern to the bipartisan elites who have conditioned foreign policy and national security thinking for a long time. The coalition is not a majority. But it’s uncomfortably close. And the vision Trump is putting forth as an alternative to the consensus security vision is both dangerous and ugly.

It requires energetic confrontation.

And the consensus vision requires an ongoing and energetic defense.

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