Neoconservatism and the Trump Effect

by Derek Davison and Jim Lobe

With Texas Senator Ted Cruz suspending his campaign following Tuesday’s Indiana primary and Ohio Governor John Kasich suspending his campaign the following day, little stands between reality TV star Donald Trump and the Republican nomination. With Hillary Clinton now a strong favorite to with the Democratic nomination, the contours of November’s general election are beginning to clarify themselves. There are already signs that a Trump-Clinton matchup will create some interesting dynamics within the neoconservative community.

To be fair, Trump’s foreign policy, or at least what little we know about it at this point, should give any voter pause. He shows, as Phyllis Bennis writes, “no evidence of familiarity with the geography, politics, economies, or peoples of the rest of the world,” and to the extent that he does reference foreign peoples, his language is xenophobic to the extreme. This is most evident in his views on immigration, where, to quote Bennis again, “in Trumpville, Mexicans are all rapists, asylum seekers are all extremists, Muslims are all terrorists. All must be kept out.” Trump shows a similar ignorance when it comes to military details. On climate change, arguably America’s top long-term national security challenge, he’s a vocal denier. Trump’s one claim to any sort of particular national security insight, the idea that he was “loud and clear” in opposing the 2003 Iraq War, appears to be at least a partial fabrication.

The tone of Trump’s campaign, with his frequent offensive remarks directed at groups like women, immigrants, and Muslims, has posed challenges for the entire Republican Party. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in March found that 60 percent of Republican primary voters were embarrassed by their party’s nominating campaign and less than half of them (46%) said they would like to see Trump as the party’s nominee. That figure, which seems stunningly low for a party’s frontrunner in a presidential primary, was the highest it had been for Trump since he began his campaign. Most major Republican elected officials have so far declined to endorse Trump—witness the recent report that both former Presidents Bush will likely refuse to participate in the fall campaign in any way. But now that Trump appears to be the nominee more top Republicans (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example) will likely fall in line behind him.

Neocon Discontent

However, Trump’s ascendance is and will remain a particular cause for concern when it comes to the neoconservative wing of the Republican coalition, for whom Trump’s apparent foreign policy propensities are a much bigger issue than they are for the average Republican voter. Trump has hinted at holding philosophies that would be anathema to the neoconservative movement. For example, his promise to make “America first…the overriding theme of my administration,” and to “never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary,” suggests an isolationism that obviously clashes with the aggressively interventionist streak that defines neoconservatism. Trump has also talked about positioning himself as “neutral” on Israel-Palestine, and although it’s not clear exactly what he means by that it is a position that couldn’t be much more at odds with the neoconservative right’s unabashedly pro-Israel fervor. He’s also challenged core neocon precepts by heavily criticizing (and lying about his own record in opposing) the Iraq War, and famously mocking Jeb Bush’s contention that his brother George W. “kept us safe.”

In response to Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican field, there is a small, but unmistakable, movement afoot among prominent neoconservatives to reject his candidacy. Some have even gone so far as to embrace the likely Democratic nominee, Clinton. Robert Kagan, who along with Bill Kristol is one of the architects of the modern neoconservative movement, made his views quite plain in a Washington Post editorial on February 25:

So what to do now? The Republicans’ creation [Trump] will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.

Kagan’s name has recently turned up as part of a bipartisan group working on a report for the Center for a New American Security that, in Jim Lobe’s words, “is likely to be the best guide to date of where a Hillary Clinton presidency will want to take the country’s foreign policy.” As Jim explained last April, Kagan has become something of an outlier among his fellow neocons, opposing the military coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in Egypt and questioning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s active campaigning against the Iran deal. So perhaps he’s not the ideal barometer for neoconservatism as a whole.

But Kagan isn’t the only prominent neoconservative to express his dissatisfaction with Trump. In early March, former Bush administration official Eliot Cohen wrote a letter denouncing Trump that was signed by over 100 influential Republican foreign policy thinkers, nearly all of them neoconservatives. Then, in another Washington Post editorial written after Cruz and Kasich had dropped out of the race, Cohen declared that “it is time for a third candidate, and probably for a third party.” In an interview with in March, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot said “I disagree with Hillary a lot less than I disagree with Donald Trump” and called Clinton “vastly preferable.” Elliott Abrams, formerly on Trump rival Ted Cruz’s foreign policy team, told Politico that he would be “unable to vote for Trump or Clinton” if those were the two nominees. Columnist Charles Krauthammer recently told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “I don’t think I’d be capable of voting for Donald Trump.” Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens wrote on March 28 that “Trump is Obama Squared” (he didn’t mean it as a compliment), though he’s not yet said whether he could support Trump in November.

Perhaps the key figure here is Kristol, the man who (along with Kagan) has been the engine of the neoconservative movement since the 1990s. Kristol did not sign Cohen’s letter in March, but he was prominently featured, alongside several other preeminent figures in movement conservativism, in the February 15 issue of National Review, which was titled, simply, “Against Trump.” He contributed a short essay in which he described “Trumpism” as “a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained.” Although there’s been no indication that Kristol would go so far as to vote for Clinton if push came to shove, he has been firm in opposing Trump. Now that efforts to deny Trump the nomination appear to have failed, Kristol appears to have found a new cause: rallying support for some kind of third-party conservative challenge, and touting Republican Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse as a possible candidate.

The notion that some of these disaffected neocons might gravitate to Clinton may seem surprising on the surface, but it should not come as a particularly great shock. As two recent New York Times reports, one on her overall foreign policy views and another specifically on the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya, have made plain, Clinton’s foreign policy instincts are rooted in a fundamental belief that American military power can accomplish great and important things around the world. Her hawkishness can be better categorized as “liberal interventionist” than “neoconservative” (in other words, she believes in the importance of international institutions and in the potential use of American power to achieve liberal/humanitarian aims). The Libya intervention showed clearly that there is a nexus where liberal interventionists and neoconservatives can find common policy ground.

It’s not clear what Clinton would gain politically by courting prominent neocons during the campaign. The vast majority of Republican voters who loathe Hillary Clinton are unlikely to jump to her side because Max Boot thinks they should. Any close association with right-wing hawks is likely to cost Clinton at a time when she needs to build credibility with the younger, more left-wing and dovish voters who have been among the core of her rival Bernie Sanders’s support.

Trump’s Foreign Policy Agenda

Trying to pin Donald Trump’s position down on specific questions of policy has so far seemed a lot like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. His public utterances hardly ever go beyond the most general statements, and even at that his often contradictory arguments morph from speech to speech (or sometimes within the same speech). At other times in this campaign Trump has talked about invading Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State and “take the oil.” Within the past few days, he’s said that Israel should “keep moving forward” with new settlement construction in the West Bank—hardly a “neutral” position. Trump and the neocons also share a loathing for the Iran nuclear deal, with the candidate calling it “disastrous” in an early April interview with The Washington Post.

Trump also counts staunch neoconservative Walid Phares among his campaign’s foreign policy advisers, while several other prominent fellow-travelers, like former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, have criticized their erstwhile allies who have suggested that they might vote for Clinton—though it’s possible that they’re motivated more by the possibility of roles in a Trump administration than by principle. So there may be room for a compromise, albeit an uneasy one, between Trump and part of the neoconservative movement. But even if some neoconservative leaders are able to bring themselves to support Trump, some kind of fracturing within that community over his candidacy now seems inevitable.

Indeed, the trauma among neocons caused by Trump’s ascendance—after all, he is depriving them of 20 years of ownership of the GOP’s foreign policy—has had at least one salutary effect. Instead of obsessing on the evils of the Iran deal for the past several months, they have been forced to focus an overwhelming amount of their time and polemical skills on the potentially greater evil of The Donald. For evidence, just glance over that period at their favorite media outlets: the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, blogs on the Weekly Standard, The National Review, and Commentary, not to mention Fox News. Trump has displaced Tehran.

Photo: Walid Phares (courtesy of TheIRD via Flickr)

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Actually, I’m kind of happy for the neo-traitors! As Dr PC Roberts calls the neocons “the policstitude” correctly, the only choice they have is to change party and support Hillary and the democrats except Sanders who scares the hell of them because of his known views of Israel!

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