Donald Trump Haunts Neoconservatives

The businessman is actually a paleoconservative advocating for a form of noninterventionism.

After having shaken up the American establishment, Donald Trump’s unexpected success is sowing panic in the neoconservative camp. Known for the failed crusade they led against Iraq, the neoconservatives are looking for a new icon to bring their ideals back to life. The announced defeat of their favorite, Marco Rubio, has not convinced them to join forces with the lead candidate, whose populism goes against their political convictions.

The controversial candidate’s nomination could thus lead to a neoconservative exodus to the Hillary Clinton clan, who is embodying their ideological stance more and more. This break-off would reveal the cleavage that separates the presidential candidates. Besides the personalities, the primary elections are the setting for a showdown between the deeply engrained political traditions of American history.

Marco Rubio: The Neoconservative Hope

Neoconservatives stem from former Democrats who were opposed to the nomination of George McGovern, who advocated détente with the Soviet Union during the 1972 primary election. They were seduced by the ideological zeal with which Ronald Reagan was fighting “the evil empire.” The Sept. 11 attacks sealed their grip on George W. Bush’s presidency. Taken over by the missionary spirit bequeathed by Woodrow Wilson, they wanted to free the Middle East at gunpoint and export democracy there as a remedy to terrorism. They had a nearly blind faith in the moral superiority and military capabilities of their country. Iraq was like a laboratory for them, where they played wizards-in-training without accepting defeat.

In a hurry to undo Barack Obama’s legacy, neoconservatives are advising Marco Rubio in regaining the White House. They are thrilled with the belligerent speech by the candidate, who is reminiscent of Reagan. Settled on re-affirming the dominance of the U.S., Rubio has committed to increasing the defense budget, toughening the sanctions against Moscow, providing weapons to Ukraine, and expanding NATO to the Russian border. He intends to increase troops to fight the Islamic State group, revive the alliance with Israel, and end the nuclear disarmament deal with Iran. The son of Cuban immigrants, he also promises to end all dialogue with the Castro regime and to tighten the embargo against the island.

Donald Trump: The Paleoconservative

Donald Trump’s detractors describe him as an impostor who has a serious lack of understanding of international affairs. Yet, he has set himself apart by cultivating a noninterventionist tradition that goes back to the interwar period. Trump is a paleoconservative who preaches the reduction of the U.S. presence and engagement throughout the world. His precursors were active in the America First movement, which wanted American neutrality during World War II. He can identify with Robert Taft, a Republican senator who was against NATO and the expedition to North Korea at the beginning of the Cold War. He also shares Pat Buchanan’s nationalism, who was a candidate before him.

Although Trump’s political philosophy is not entirely insubstantial, his campaign stances do not have the same ideological coherence. He accuses President Bush of having lied to invade Iraq, but wants to confiscate Iranian oil to compensate the war’s American victims. He has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, but wants to build a wall at the Mexican border and close military bases in ally countries. He intends to ally with Russia to bomb the Islamic State group, but is contemplating a tariff war against China to protect jobs. He adheres to the Iran deal and dismisses a change of regime in Syria, but is suggesting killing North Korea’s leader and the families of terrorist leaders.

Hillary Clinton: The Democratic Hawk

Will Donald Trump’s noninterventionist temptation and unpredictable character lead the neoconservatives to make up with their former political group? Two figures of the movement have already repudiated the Republican lead and announced their future support of Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic candidate boasts a much more robust and interventionist position than Obama. Annoyed with her boss’s caution while she was secretary of state, Clinton was pleading early on to send massive reinforcements in Afghanistan. She believes in U.S. humanitarian imperialism and persuaded the president to use force against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Her call to help Syrian rebels at the dawn of the Arab Spring was ignored. Now, she is giving faint support to the agreement negotiated with Iran and supports the creation of a military exclusion zone over Syria. Her platform offers a new base for neoconservatives, who will have to decide if they will stay loyal to their ideals or to their party.

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