Ever since George W. Bush went home to paint puppies, Republicans have generally lauded him as a toughass commander-in-chief who Kept Us Safe, a guy who fought the terrorists over there so that they wouldn’t come over here. But Donald Trump is torching that party mantra.
What’s happening right now in South Carolina is truly remarkable. I can’t possibly overstate that. South Carolina, which will stage its GOP primary on Saturday night, is arguably the state that will make or break Trump and Jeb Bush. It’s a state with a huge military presence, a conservative state long dominated by the Republican establishment, a state that has long revered the Bush family. It saved George H. W. Bush’s candidacy in 1988, and Dubyah’s candidacy in 2000. It was their firewall.
And yet, over the last few days, Trump has been pounding that wall with rhetorical TNT, saying heretical stuff that no Republican ever dared utter before. Conventional wisdom, as voiced by the Bush camp, is that this time Trump has really truly finally Gone Too Far, that what he’s saying in a place like South Carolina is tantamount to political suicide.
But I wouldn’t bet on that.
Did you watch the Saturday night debate? Trump told the South Carolina audience that “the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake….We should never have been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East….They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”
Granted, Trump was exactly right – Dubyah’s elective war was a destabilizing, multi-trillion-dollar disaster fought on false premises, a game-changing bloodbath that stains him forever as one of the worst presidents in history – but still, you just don’t say stuff like that to a Republican audience. Whatever I may think of Trump (don’t get me started), I’ve gotta give him points for moxie.
Meanwhile, Jeb just stood there, looking like the high school nerd who’d just been hit by a bully’s spitball. Finally Jeb pleaded to the moderator, “I think it’s my turn, isn’t it?” So polite! Such good breeding! Given his turn, he duly lauded his brother for “building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
There it was, the old Keep Us Safe mantra – and Trump picked it up like it was an old chair and smashed it against the wall: “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe…That is not safe.” In fact, “George Bush had the chance (to stop al Qaeda, pre 9/11) and he didn’t listen to the advice of the CIA.”
Bush fans in the audience duly booed, but, again, Trump was right. It has long been documented that the CIA, in its Daily Briefs to President Bush in 2001, rang the bell about al Qaeda’s imminent intentions on May 1, June 22, June 29, June 30 (“Bin Laden Threats Are Real”), July 1, July 24 – and, most infamously, on Aug. 6 (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S.”), which warned of a potential New York attack with hijacked planes. A CIA briefer flew to Texas that day to stress the threat in person. That’s when Bush reportedly responded with my favorite gem of all time (imagine if Obama had ever said something like this): “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”
Dubya flew in yesterday to boost Jeb – a rare return to the stump, based on the assumption that the ex-prez is still popular in South Carolina. But that didn’t deter Trump; at a news conference, he reiterated his blasphemies: “What does that mean, ‘he kept the country safe after 9/11?’ What about 9/11?….The worst attack ever in this country? It was during his presidency.” Praising Bush for what he did after 9/11 is like saying that the other team “scored 19 runs in the first inning, but after that, we played pretty well.”
According to conventional wisdom, Trump just blew himself up. The South Carolina primary electorate still likes Dubya, hence it’s suicide to knock Dubya. Republicans are generally reluctant to face the facts about Iraq, especially the WMD fiasco, hence it’s supposedly suicide to knock the war. (Trump, on Sunday: “He started the war in Iraq, am I supposed to be a big fan?”) As Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and Jeb fan, said this weekend, “The market in the Republican primary for people who believe that…W is a liar is pretty damn small.”
Longtime GOP strategist Curt Anderson said: “Everything we know about political strategy suggests that Trump’s decision to attack George W. Bush will backfire.” But what’s happening this year reminds me of screenwriter William Goldman’s quip about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
These establishment partyers may well discover, in the Saturday balloting, that Trump’s voters (a hefty, potentially winning share of all voters) are fine with Trump dissing Dubya so vociferously. They don’t cleave to conservative orthodoxy. Some of them realize that the Iraq war went wrong; some of them know about the pre-9/11 warnings; and, just as likely, a lot of them simply don’t care one way or the other. Because they’ve moved on, because they generally feel betrayed by the party establishment, because they’re simply stoked by Trump’s ire, because they dig his style.
So what we’re watching, in South Carolina, is a party in the throes of sorting out its identity crisis. If Trump parlays populist anger into a decisive victory, smashing the traditional GOP paradigm, breaking the Bush dynasty, then we may be witnessing the birth of a new GOP – and the furtherance of a frontrunner who will be tough to stop.