Although it’s not saying much, Thursday night’s Republican debate was easily the most subdued and – dare I say – substantive. There were no penis discussions or references to menstrual cycles or evaluations of candidates’ energy levels. Instead, the candidates, thanks in part to the moderators, focused most of their attention on policy differences.
The Republican presidential campaign has consisted mostly of theatrics and platitudinous exchanges, but on the rare occasion that policy has crept into the discussion, some fascinating differences have emerged, differences that highlight just how fractured the party has become.
If Trump’s ascendance offers any optimism at all, it’s that primary voters – and conservatives more generally – are starting to reject Republican orthodoxy – on trade, on foreign policy, on taxes, and even on entitlements. During Thursday’s CNN debate, this trend continued.
Alexander Burns of The New York Times sums it up nicely: “Under determined questioning, Mr. Trump was finally forced to fill in some of the gaping blanks in his policy vision. The result was a broad rejection of core Republican priorities. He assailed free-trade agreements, pledged not to cut government benefits for retirees and defended taking a neutral stance in negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
Trump’s musings on foreign policy and America’s soft imperialism were especially intriguing:
“We’re the policemen of the world. We take care of the entire world. We’re going to have a stronger military…But we take care of Germany, we take care of Saudi Arabia, we take care of Japan, we take care of South Korea…We get virtually nothing…We are going to be in a different world. We’re going to negotiate real deals now, and we’re going to bring the wealth back to our country.”
This is the near-isolationist ethos of Rand Paul, which Republicans have consistently repudiated for years. And yet Trump has tethered it to his vague populist message with resounding results. On the Israel-Palestinian question, Trump was similarly refreshing, if still borderline incoherent:
“I think if we’re going to ever negotiate a peace settlement, which every Israeli wants, and I’ve spoken to the toughest and the sharpest, they all want peace, I think it would be much more helpful…I’m a negotiator. If I go in, I’ll say I’m pro-Israel and I’ve told that to everybody and anybody that would listen. But I would like to, at least, have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done.“
If you declare in advance that you’re “pro-Israel,” you’re not really neutral, but let’s not focus on Trump’s disjointedness. The important point is that Trump is breathing a little sanity into this discussion on the right. It’s become a heresy in Republican circles to admit that we ought to adopt a more realist – and sensible – approach to Israel because of the stranglehold religious lunatics have on the party. So it’s rather nice to see Trump say this at a Republican debate. He received a muted applause last night, but the election results and polls prove his message is resonating.
Trump’s free trade bashing is also revealing. The Republican Party has championed neoliberalism, free trade and trickle down economics for decades. As a result of these policies, we've seen an explosion of wealth for those at the top and the near-total erosion of the middle and working classes. And yet the GOP’s cynical manipulation of religious fervor and cultural angst has distracted much of their base from these realities. Trump’s economic populism suggests, at minimum, that conservative voters are waking up to bill of goods they’ve been sold.
Trump is terrible for the country, and his election would be a permanent stain on our political system, but his success offers at least this one silver lining. His campaign still says more about the latent resentment bubbling beneath our body politic than it does anything else. But progressive Democrats can nonetheless rejoice at the broad appeal of this aspect of Trump's platform.