Something happened last night that would be the subject of screaming headlines in an ordinary election: A candidate dramatically reversed himself on a key issue of military policy. After months of staking out ground against Middle East entanglements and courting voters who were tired of America’s “neocon wars,” Donald Trump advocated a massive new deployment to Iraq. Here’s the debate transcript:
HUGH HEWITT: Mr. Trump, more troops?
TRUMP: We really have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS. We have to knock the hell out of them. We have to get rid of it. And then come back and rebuild our country, which is falling apart. We have no choice.
HEWITT: How many . . .
TRUMP: I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000. We have to knock them out fast. Look, we’re not allowed to fight. We can’t fight. We’re not knocking out the oil because they don’t want to create environmental pollution up in the air.
Why? Because Trump’s supporters don’t even believe anything he says about policy at this point. Keeping up with the substance of his ever-shifting pronouncements has exhausted the most dogged observers to the point that all anyone can do is marvel at his cult of personality.
There was a time not so long ago when we weren’t all so tired. The internet was flooded with think pieces about the appeal of Trump’s hawkish immigration postures and his revival of Jacksonian populism. But the Republican front-runner isn’t a Jacksonian populist. He’s a Trumpian Trumpulist. And his motto is “always be closing.” Weeks ago, when he declared that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes, he was signaling that he’d closed the deal with his base. He had their support sewed up, and now it was time to pivot back toward the center in search of the next deal. Because closers close.
STEPHEN DINAN: All right. Mr. Trump, I want to give you a chance to respond, but specifically you talked about flexibility and one of the examples you gave was the height of the border fence. What are some of the other issues on which you’re willing to show flexibility?
TRUMP: It depends on what comes up. You never know. It depends on what comes up. Look, look, we had a great president, Ronald Reagan. We had Tip O’Neill, speaker. And what do we do? We take these two men that are very, very different men, they got along, they had relationships, and they got things [done], and very beautifully.
Trump can get away with this in part because our age is not just post-truth, but anti-truth. He can deliver vague nonsense by the bushel — did anyone actually listen to his answer on fixing entitlements? — and so long as he does it without actually shouting personal insults at his competitors, the mainstream media will muse that he’s suddenly becoming “presidential.” To borrow Jonah Goldberg’s excellent analogy, it’s as if two plus two equals duck, provided you say it with enough gravitas.
When President Obama declared the IRS’s Tea Party targeting to be a “phony scandal” just a few weeks after he’d vigorously condemned it as “inexcusable,” conservatives rightly reacted with outrage. After all, since Obama’s initial condemnation, the evidence had only grown worse for the IRS. Didn’t the truth matter?
Well, it matters if it helps your side. If not, all that’s left to do is misdirect. Last week, after Mitt Romney laid out a point-by-point case detailing Trump’s business failures and his flawed policies, the response wasn’t a defense of Trump but rather insults such as, “Establishment!” or “Where was that passion against Obama?” But were Trump fans drinking Trump Water or eating Trump Steaks as they vented their rage? No? No matter. Narrative über alles.Trump understands all of this. He didn’t craft one of the nation’s most popular reality shows without a real talent for crafting compelling stories. He knows that his fans desperately want to win, and that their thirst for victory will help him close the deals to come.
So get ready, Trump fans, to lose everything in a general election — everything except maybe victory. Trump is a closer. He’s closed on you. Now he’s got a bigger deal in his sights.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.