Certainly, Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination by disagreeing with his party’s mainstream members on many core issues, in particular foreign policy. The Democratic Party had its own insurgent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who did not win the primary but whose popularity, like Trump’s, emerged from disagreeing with the traditional Democratic Party on key foreign policy stances. If Trump wins the American election on the 8th of November, U.S. foreign policy will certainly be transformed but even if he loses it is likely to undergo significant change. This is because insurgents matter.
First, let us contemplate the unimaginable: against all rational predictions, Trump wins the presidency. This scenario is distressing because Trump does not appear to have any interests in becoming president outside of actually winning office. His campaign consists of unabashed rhetoric while his relationship to policy advisers and decision-makers is feeble. His rejection of decades of Republican Party thinking and his own neo-isolationist views about America’s role in the world, mean that there are few Republican foreign policy specialists who will serve in his potential administration. To date, Trump mentioned business friends and his daughter Ivanka as possible members of his cabinet.
Nevertheless, the rosiest scenario of a Trump presidency is that he becomes quickly bored with the day-to-day tasks of the Executive Branch, prompting him to delegate the actual duties of the job to someone else. After all, Donald Trump Jr. asked Governor John Kasich after he dropped out of the presidential race to consider whether Kasich had “any interest in being the most powerful Vice President in history” by which Trump Jr. meant that Kasich would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy. If knowledgeable and experienced advisers could be parachuted in to steer a more Republican-mainstream policy, Trump’s presidential role would resemble Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi’s. As Foreign Policy pointed out, “It is perhaps no accident that Mr. Trump seems to be more popular in Italy than in other places in Europe, particularly among supporters of Mr. Berlusconi.”
Yet, this leads to the troubling question: when the really big issues are on the table would a President Trump yield to experts or would he make key foreign policy decisions himself? The second presidential debate, in which Trump robustly refuted his running mate Governor Mike Pence on Syria and Russia, indicate that he would remain resolutely in charge. The saddest part of this scenario is that it is the one most hoped for by Republicans that still support Trump’s campaign. Their dreams are that a President Trump would be trainable and, if not, at least containable.
The more likely scenario is that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. Although Clinton’s foreign policy views certainly fall in what might be labeled mainstream Democratic Party positions, it does not mean that she will pick up where Obama left off. In fact, Clinton’s differences with Obama led to her inclusion in a group that key national security adviser Ben Rhodes called “The Blob,” or that part of the Obama National Security Council that advocated a policy that maintained a strong American security order in Europe and the Middle East. Other members of “The Blob” include former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, General David Petraeus and various other Washington-foreign-policy-establishment types. What do all of these individuals have in common? They hold a liberal internationalist view, what has been labeled America’s role as the indispensable nation.
But, no matter who wins, this year’s election will be differentiated by the electorate’s embrace of insurgents. This fact has led some Republican elites to argue that Trump engineered a hostile takeover of their party, which in turn necessitated a break-up of their party in order to mount a third-party challenge against him. Even if the Republican Party avoids splintering, the Trumpites’ revolt will impact its stance on foreign policy for years to come because in periods of political cynicism and anti-establishment fervor insurgent candidates can have profound effects on the conduct of policy. Already in 1942, V. O. Key described insurgencies as the means by which those disenchanted with the party establishment champion reform. Insurgents emerge because the party’s center of gravity is so far removed from the issue preferences of the party’s agitators, who want to change the party’s positions. At the same time, party professionals may worry about the issue integrity of a party they no longer feel is their own and as a result may leave their party.
It is not the first time that an insurgent candidate was accused of taking over a political party during a presidential campaign. Forty years ago, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, whose primary reason for running for president was his opposition to the Vietnam War, clashed with the foreign policy beliefs of “professional” Democrats. In 1972, as in 2016, voters across the electoral spectrum expressed a deep-rooted revulsion against government elites and a distrust of “the establishment.” In October 1972, the American editor of The Economist wrote, “Mr. McGovern’s greatest advantage in the primary campaign was to be running for the Presidency without the backing of Democratic party officials.”
This rejection by his own party eventually resulted in a cataclysmic defeat for McGovern and a break-up of the Democratic Party into several groups that differed significantly, including those professional foreign policy Democrats who left the party in the 1970s and became neoconservatives. Following their formation as a separate group, neoconservatives became a powerful force shaping foreign policy, especially during the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies.
In 1972, the leaders of the Democratic Party thought that McGovern’s “far-out views on Vietnam” meant that his chances of winning the nomination were “next to zero.” Perhaps the professionals in the party were not paying attention to an electorate that questioned the integrity of establishment officials, with many Americans stating that they thought the U.S. government operated in a manner more beneficial to special interests than to the general public. Nor were Democratic bosses paying attention to the agitators in their own party who wanted a radical transformation. Of course, in the 2016 race the Democratic Party had its own insurgent, who did not win the primary campaign, but who certainly shared some of Trump’s anti-globalization foreign policy views. True to the effects of the insurgent candidate, Sanders’ more McGovern-like “Come Home America” isolationism has clearly pulled Clinton’s policy stance in that direction.
Finally, no one should think that Trump plans to go away when he loses the election and is wholly abandoned by Republican Party professionals. There are reports that Trump’s whole plan in running was to launch a “Trump TV” media venture. Surely his campaign’s affiliation with Fox News’ disgraced CEO Roger Ailes and Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon (a man who has no experience in running political campaigns but much experience in broadcasting), point to media goals beyond the election.
A new media empire that continued to exploit for personal gain the underlying forces that defied the Republican Party’s traditional center of gravity would certainly put pressure on an already fragmented party, making it more likely that it breaks apart. Perhaps one group will emerge to form a strong coalition, just like the neoconservatives did when they left the Democratic Party in the wake of the McGovern insurgency. Ironically, those foreign policy professionals who are most likely to leave the Republican Party following Trump’s insurgency are the neoconservatives. Where will they find their new home? Might neoconservatives finally come home to the Democratic Party, some four decades after they left it?