Donald Trump has been accusing George W. Bush of lying about WMDs in Iraq, inspiring glee in liberals and shock among many establishment Republicans. Campaign watchers predict it won’t play well in South Carolina and beyond, and at Saturday night’s debate Trump was loudly booed for his remarks (by an audience he claimed was made up of Republican donors). In TIME, Joe Klein asks a question we’ve seen others echo: “Can he say absolutely anything at all and still win the Republican nomination?” That remains to be seen—but Trump’s Iraq tirade may not be as offensive to his core Jacksonian base as some pundits seem to think.
As WRM has written, Trump’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric is calculated to appeal to Jacksonian America, and that’s as true here as it is on immigration or ISIS or entitlements or trade. Republican leaders have taken heat on Iraq from Michael Moore-style liberals and Rand Paul-style libertarians, but they haven’t yet contended with Jacksonian America’s specific qualms with the war.
Jacksonians were strong early supporters of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq—both because they felt more of a cultural affinity with Bush’s patriotic message than that of his shrieking liberal critics, and because they believed that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Iraq’s WMD program posed a direct threat to the American people. But unlike most of the GOP’s foreign policy leadership, Jacksonians are skeptical of state-building projects and U.S.-driven democratization in the Middle East. Jacksonian America’s support for the Iraq war was motivated by its sense of honor and patriotism—its willingness to deal out overwhelming force against America’s enemies—not by abstract ideals of democracy and human rights.
After 9/11, Jacksonians rushed to their nation’s defense. They joined the army in large numbers, they unflinchingly supported the War on Terror, and they stood by the Bush administration told the world that Iraq had WMDs. But after U.S. troops deposed Saddam Hussein and enriched uranium and chemical weapons were nowhere to be found, the justification for the war that had resonated most with the Jacksonian worldview fell apart—even as the war’s architects continued to defend it on the grounds that America was obligated to enforce U.N. resolutions, or that the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated, or that the war favored America’s long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. Such arguments surely appeal to the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians in the party, but they likely felt like a betrayal in at least some quarters of the party’s Jacksonian base. So even if they don’t agree with Trump’s ravings about WMDs—or his more radical conspiracy theories about the Bush administration—Jacksonian America might be drawn to Trump’s willingness to say what has previously been unsayable in GOP circles when it comes to foreign policy.
One can argue about the merits of the Iraq War forever, and it’s certainly clear that President Obama’s Jeffersonian foreign policy isn’t a compelling alternative. But Obama’s failures—which are likely to help the GOP in the general election—make it easier for Republicans to overlook that it wasn’t just liberals and libertarians who have serious misgivings about Iraq.
Trump has opened up a painful wound within the GOP, one that establishment Republicans will need to reckon with more thoroughly, lest it come back to bite them the next time they control the levers of American foreign policy.