The hard-working staff here acknowledges that Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisers have become Spoiler Alerts’ great white whale: These mythical advisers haunt our dreams. Who are they? Why haven’t they materialized yet? Do they actually exist?
UPDATE: These advisers do, in fact, exist, as Trump discussed Monday morning in an interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board. He has a five-person team chaired by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Check back in with Spoiler Alerts on Tuesday for more coverage.
Full disclosure: Since he’s such a God-awful candidate, I don’t want anyone else to advise Trump. When I think about him, he consults himself.
But I bring this up today because of three streams of information that have come over the transom this past week:
(2) Repeated discussions with Beltway insiders insisting that even the 120 signatories to the anti-Trump foreign policy letter will eventually be unable to resist the temptation to work for the putative GOP nominee (see this Bloggingheads conversation with Heather Hurlburt, for example);
(3) Eli Stokols’s Politico story about Trump’s big speech at AIPAC today, which contains the following:
Over the nine months of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has yet to step to a podium and read from a script. That changes Monday, when he is set to address more than 18,000 people attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington.
He’s also looking to surprise the crowd with something else: substance.
“He has taken input from a number of very significant Jewish influences who have reaffirmed to him the importance of this particular speech,” according to a source close to Trump’s campaign. “He is taking it very seriously.”
So, it’s just a matter of time before Trump gets some competent foreign policy advisers, right?
Or, at least, I’m hypothesizing that it’s wrong. To be clear, Trump will attract some advisers. Some people are begging for a foreign policy job in a Trump administration. But there’s a selection effect that suggests that the ones Trump will attract will be extremely dodgy.
Here’s my theory. There are three reasons that foreign policy folk latch onto a candidate. The first reason is personal: the adviser has known the candidate for forever, which builds up a trust that is commonly lacking in politics. The second is ideological: the candidate espouses a worldview that is sufficiently unique that advisers who share that worldview. The third, and most powerful, is careerist: foreign policy people can move up the party food chain by advising a nominee, even if that nominee doesn’t win. As I’ve noted before, at some point the logic of bandwagoning kicks in. Surely, all three logics apply to Trump.
Except, not so much. In the nine months Trump’s campaign, I haven’t seen a single news story discussing Trump’s longstanding personal ties to any serious foreign policy person. That surely would have bubbled up by now. Here, Trump’s lack of political experience or philanthropy on foreign policy issues hurts him.
As for ideology, Trump’s crude nationalism has managed to unite realists and neoconservatives into balancing against him. I didn’t think this kind of unity was possible anymore. Say what you will about neoconservatives, but they take their ideas seriously. As Vox’s Max Fisher recently observed, if it’s a choice between the GOP and their foreign policy principles, they’ll stick with the principles. Even people like Frank Gaffney, who has a record of conspiracy theories and who was playing footsie with Trump in December, backed Sen. Ted Cruz this past week. I playfully speculated that realists might find aspects of Trump’s worldview that were appealing, but realists have assured me that this ain’t so. Outside of maybe John Bolton, I can’t think of a GOP foreign policy person who is ideologically simpatico with Trump.
More importantly, Trump’s own toxicity has created an additional stigma to hitching one’s star to his campaign. Mock the foreign policy community all you want, but most of these people have more self-respect than Chris Christie or Ben Carson. As I noted last month: “foreign policy professionals do feel shame, and I wonder whether this will pose something of a internal constraint on them to bandwagon with Trump.”
None of this might matter if Trump was primed to win the general election. There’s enough of a chance of this happening that the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified Trump as a genuine geopolitical risk. And yet there are some really big data points suggesting that Trump’s chances of victory are super-slim:
- Trump is really, really disliked by an awful lot of Americans;
- Trump’s xenophobia is causing voter registration by anti-Trump demos to spike;
- Trump is not polling well enough with
white peoplekey demographics to compensate for his toxicity;
- Trump is so reviled by Mormons that Utah is in play. Utah!!
In weighing the costs and benefits of publicly supporting and advising Trump, foreign policy professionals have to balance the possible benefits of a plum job in a Trump administration with the shame of backing a know-nothing on foreign policy and the stigma of having “former Trump foreign policy adviser” stamped on their tagline for the rest of their lives.
Will some foreign policy folk calculate that the benefits outweigh the costs? Sure, some. But the people who make that calculation are the ones who are frustrated with their current lot in life and are willing to take poor odds to advance their careers. And they will probably have the self-control that, say, Trump’s campaign manager has demonstrated in recent weeks.
To put it bluntly: When the GOP’s foreign policy team starts to support Trump, it won’t be sending Trump their best.