With his sweep of convincing victories across five states in the north-east early this week, Donald J. Trump has edged closer to the Republican nomination. The Kasich-Cruz pact to thwart him is looking ineffective, and Cruz has since turned to Carly Fiorina in a desperate last-ditch bid to halt Trump’s momentum. Fiorina may give Cruz a boost in California on June 7, where she had success in the Republican primary in 2010 for the U.S. Senate. But whether or not she can exacerbate Trump’s problem with female voters is unclear, and besides, by California it could be too late.
The Indiana Republican primary coming up on May 3 is looming as pivotal. If Cruz can steal a large share of Indiana’s 54 delegates, it would likely thwart Trump’s ability to win the nomination in July on the Republican national convention first ballot. After that, many delegates would be free to turn to Cruz, Kasich, or a parachuted dark horse in a second or third ballot. In other words, all hell will break loose within the Republican camp and likely hand the general election to Clinton. A big win for Trump in Indiana, however, would effectively cripple Cruz’s race. It would also increase pressure on the party to rally around Trump as its nominee. Trump knows this, and is spending big on TV and radio in the state and has reportedly doubled the size of his team working on the ground there.
Trump’s recent momentum boost has also coincided with his first genuine foreign policy speech at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest. It did little to assuage fears that a dramatic shift in American priorities and policies would accompany a Trump presidency. For those still uttering soothing self-reassurances about the centre of US politics inevitably winning the day, a frightening reality-check may be in store. The future does not necessarily resemble the past. Trump’s controversial slogan, ‘America First’, was the slogan of Charles Lindbergh and the isolationists of the 1930s. The isolationists were not opposed to acting when America was directly threatened. They just opposed the ideology and practice of proactively shaping the world, precisely the role the United States has played in the world since WWII.
Viewed purely as a branding exercise, ‘America First’ is brilliant. It speaks simultaneously to the powerful threads underpinning the American polity Trump has been exploiting from the very beginning. In two simple words it says you, the working American who believes in the promise of America, have been cheated. You’ve been cheated not only at home, but also abroad via the process of globalisation that has robbed you of that promise. The enemy are to be found in the political elites whose arguments about America’s role in the world have been found wanting repeatedly since the end of the Cold War. They have weakened America.
Compare the message of ‘America First’ with the counter-argument, well known and understood by only a very small percentage of the population. That US primacy in the economic, institutional, and military domains of power since WWII must be preserved because it has underpinned an increasingly global system, geared toward expanding zones of security in which prosperity can be pursued in ways that do not significantly diverge from or challenge that primacy. Or something to that effect (see Robert Kagan). No-one can expect the latter to compete with the former as a matter of messaging when wage-earning people can’t make ends meet. The all too visible contradictions and trade-offs inherent in the American world Kagan and others recommend do nothing to sell its nuances either.
High-minded elite discourse on the future of American power is an endlessly compelling field of academic engagement. The domestic politics of foreign policy are an entirely different beast. No one is more ‘establishment’ in this game than Hillary Rodham-Clinton. The Clinton camp will have to find a way to counter Trump’s reactionary isolationism, and make the case for continuing America’s role in the world piece-by-piece. Dismissing it as merely ill-informed or naïve could be fatal. The risk that Trump will win the argument is growing because at the moment, he is the only one actually speaking to the audience.