Donald Trump’s star turn as an unexpected ally of Code Pink was widely panned last Saturday evening. Standing next to Jeb Bush at the Republican party’s fractious South Carolina debate, Trump seemed determined to indulge the most idiosyncratic of the anti-war movement’s critiques. The invasion of Iraq, he proposed, was based upon a “lie.” Its advocates, he submitted, were engaged not in a mistake, but in a conspiracy. And, worst of all, George W. Bush was to blame for 9/11.
For now, I shall let those chips fall where they may, and focus on a question that is related but a touch less explosive. Certainly, Trump sounded at times like Michael Moore, and he brought back into the fray a host of poisonous questions that have not been seriously re-litigated since the election of 2008. But of far more concern to me going forward is that Trump’s whole line of attack is built upon a highly questionable premise: To wit, that he was a consistent and outspoken opponent of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy.
Absent any new information, it is reasonable for voters to believe that Trump has a clean slate in this realm — not because he had some special insight that allowed him to correctly predict the future in 2004, but because he was not a politician until the summer of 2015 and can therefore not be blamed for the decisions of those who were. Whether this innocence is a strength or a weakness will depend upon your perspective; personally, I would rather have somebody who knows what he’s doing in the White House, lest he be easily rolled by the permanent bureaucracy and the lobbyist class. Either way, though, I hope that I will be forgiven for being rather amused by the protean manner in which Trump’s novelty is regarded by his fans. As I understand it, we are supposed to look back to the swirling debate over Iraq and praise Trump’s purely private skepticism, and to do so without question or doubt; at the very same time, we are expected to willfully ignore the rest of his concrete record on the grounds that he’s an “outsider.”
Trump is claiming an at-the-time prescience that there is no proof he exhibited.
Trump’s role as a supra-political Rorschach test has by now been well-established — the man does, without doubt, have a keen knack for malleability, most evident in matters of foreign policy. Simultaneously, Trump manages to appear as the strongman crusader who will bomb the s**t out of the bad guys, submit terrorists to techniques worse than waterboarding, and intimidate every other government with one narrowing of his eyes, even as he plays the Taftite opponent of foreign adventurism who will bring back your tax dollars for some “nation building at home.” If that is what a good portion of the Republican base is looking for in a president, that is its prerogative; all’s fair in love and war, and profitable will be the man who can flit seamlessly between the two. But for the rest of us — many of whom have grown tired of the intellectual incoherence and practical vacillation that have marked the unlovely Obama years — elasticity and expedience are not virtues, and nor is the cynical retconning of recent history. In keeping with his penchant for playing all sides of every game, Donald Trump was silent on Iraq right up to the moment at which it turned nasty. He must not be allowed to pretend otherwise.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.