Ross Douthat Once Again Downplays the Trump Threat
In this case, by suggesting Nikki Haley is more dangerous.
“THERE WILL BE NO TRUMP COUP,” WAS THE HEADLINE of an October 20, 2020 New York Times column in which Ross Douthat downplayed suggestions that the president, if defeated, might use extralegal means to try to cling to power. Needless to say, that turned out to be dead wrong.
Having minimized the dangers posed by Donald Trump three years ago, Douthat is now back with a column repeating the error, minimizing the dangers posed by Trump while maximizing the perils supposedly posed by Nikki Haley. “Why Nikki Haley Could Be the Most Dangerous President” is the arresting title of his January 20, 2024 column. Is Douthat serious? Apparently so. What is his argument?
With the withdrawal from the race of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Sunday, Haley, whose candidacy is facing its final gasp in this week’s New Hampshire primary, is the only Republican alternative to Trump still standing. But, warns Douthat, when it comes to foreign policy and national security, “a Haley presidency could be more dangerous than a second Trump term.”
His reasoning is as follows. Haley may not, like Trump, represent an authoritarian threat to American democracy. But she comes from a school of thought close to that of President George W. Bush, “the architect of a hubristic foreign policy whose disastrous effects continue to ripple through the country and the world.”
It is Bush who brought us into the catastrophe of the Iraq war and the failure in Afghanistan, both of which, Douthat writes,
discredited the American establishment at home, shattering the center-right and undermining the center-left, dissolving confidence in politicians, bureaucracies and even the military itself, while the war’s social effects lingered in the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis.
Haley, though not exactly a Bush Republican, shares with him a belief in a Republican future defined by a “full-spectrum hawkishness in foreign policy,” Douthat argues. This hawkish foreign policy vision is “out of touch with the present global landscape,” in which a weakened United States faces “a set of rivals who see this moment as their window of opportunity.”
Haley’s promises of “resolve and moral clarity will not save us.” We face tradeoffs and hard choices that she fails to recognize. What is needed, Douthat tells us, is a hard-headed pragmatist in the mold of Richard Nixon or Dwight Eisenhower—a president who is a “realist and a careful balancer, not a dove or an isolationist but also not a bellicose idealist.” Haley, in Douthat’s take, is exactly that: a “bellicose idealist” who is likely to “overestimate our powers, commit ourselves too broadly and too thinly.” Under her leadership, the United States risks “facing a series of outright military debacles and defeats.”
There are so many things wrong with this line of argument that is hard to know where to begin.
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One obvious starting point is Douthat’s claim that the rise of Trump and our present travails can be laid at the doorstep of George W. Bush for having embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a gross oversimplification of the history of the last several decades that, among other things, ignores the lingering societal dislocations caused by the hollowing out of America’s industrial base, decades of real wage stagnation and rising income inequality, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of identity politics on the left and the backlash against it on the right, and the increasingly angry, inflammatory and violent rhetoric of those who once dwelled solely at the fringes of the Republican party.
As for the wars themselves, it is simply wrong to claim that they were primarily the product of crusading ideological fervor. Both were driven in the first instance by strategic considerations: a desperate desire to prevent a repeat of the most devastating attacks on our homeland in the nation’s history. Bush and his successors made costly blunders in the conduct and eventual termination of both wars, but in neither case were the eventual, dolorous outcomes inevitable. And despite their tragic outcomes, neither conflict discredits the case for a forward-leaning American foreign policy that is committed to the active defense of liberal democracy.
Turning from the past to the present, Douthat emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the limits on our resources and points to the “necessary trade-offs between the costs of the Ukraine War, our support for Israel and containment of Iran, our efforts to protect Taiwan and cool North Korea’s growing bellicosity, along with the various secondary obligations and surprise crises.” But he is curiously silent about what he would sacrifice among these critical imperatives. Should we jettison Ukraine, as MAGA world would have us do? Or should we jettison Israel as the “Squad” prefers? Resources are always limited, of course. But what reason is there for concluding that, together with our allies, we lack the capacity to defend against the threats that now menace us on a variety of fronts simultaneously? On these and other equally pressing questions, Douthat offers no guidance whatsoever, rendering his call for “necessary tradeoffs” so many empty words.
TURNING FROM THE PRESENT TO THE FUTURE, Douthat minimizes the perils posed by the possibility of a second Trump term almost to the vanishing point. The threat posed by Trump is not just that he would be “flailing and amoral,” as Douthat has it, but that he would actively and deliberately undermine both our international position and our domestic institutions.
Indeed, it is absurd to imagine that we could conduct an effective foreign policy of any kind with all the chaos he would sow and the damage he would do internally. Trump would wage war on domestic opponents, undermine the rule of law, corrupt our institutions, denigrate democratic values, truckle to dictators, and foment extreme partisan divisions that would make those we’ve experienced in the last four years look like microscopic fissures by comparison. The end result would be to weaken America and turn it inward and away from an extraordinary array of converging challenges.
As for foreign policy, Trump has already made it plain, and we now have the testimony of his former closest advisers, that, for starters, he would throw Ukraine to the mercy of the Russian wolves and back away from our commitment to NATO. Leaving Ukraine to its fate would be a moral disgrace but it would also be a strategic disaster. For Vladimir Putin’s ambitions do not end with Ukraine. He has made clear his intention to reestablish an approximation of the old Soviet sphere of influence, and has already made threats to the Baltic states, Moldova, Poland, and even Finland and Sweden. The emboldening effect of a collapse of American resolve on China and rogue states like Iran and North Korea is also entirely foreseeable. And why should they not be emboldened? Trump has lost none of his unabashed admiration for authoritarian strongmen. Last year, he praised Xi Jinping as “a brilliant man . . . the look, the brain, the whole thing”; this past weekend, Trump called Xi, along with Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, “very fine people.”
Douthat offers us the enticing but illusory option of some sort of balanced realism along the lines of Eisenhower and Nixon. But of course, neither is on the ballot in New Hampshire or this coming November. For better or worse, the real choice is between a Democratic president who, despite his obvious flaws, still hews to the basic tenets of post-WWII internationalism and—if it is not to be Haley—a Republican who clearly does not. During the 2016 campaign Trump proudly embraced the “American First” slogan of pre-war Nazi sympathizers and ardent isolationists. This catchphrase, and the sentiment that underlies it, still comes close to summing up the totality of his thinking on foreign policy. Despite Douthat’s blithe reassurance it is difficult to exaggerate the damage that a second Trump presidency would do.
Douthat deflects attention from these looming dangers. He trains his fire on a candidate who has almost no chance of winning the presidency and, in the process, tacitly endorses some of Trump’s familiar, conspiratorial claims about the supposed betrayal of American interests by a ‘globalist’ elite. The contortions of reasoning on display in his column are irresponsible and the end result is reckless: Whether intentionally or not, Douthat’s column gives intellectual cover to those who will vote for Trump in the upcoming primaries and beyond.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. @gabeschoenfeld.