The past 24 hours have not been great for Donald Trump’s efforts to present himself as the better candidate on foreign policy. There’s his escalating war of words with the Khan family, which managed to trigger a denunciation from the nonpartisan Veterans of Foreign Wars. And there’s Trump’s attempt to explain his bizarre “This Week” comments regarding Russia and Ukraine, which is made more problematic by what he actually said when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
These own-goals have forced Trump’s campaign to seek out congressional surrogates to defend him — not that many have come forward to do so. Indeed, if Trump had a bad foreign policy day in the news pages, he had a catastrophic day among the commentariat.
— Julianne Smith (@Julie_C_Smith) August 1, 2016
Lest you think Smith is wishcasting, consider that conservative columnists Robert Kagan and Bret Stephens published columns questioning Trump’s fitness for office/overall sanity. This is not what conservative columnists normally write about the GOP nominee for president. Trump has actually caused Fareed Zakaria to use profanity on CNN.
Fareed Zakaria, discussing Trump on CNN: "This is the mode of a bullshit artist." pic.twitter.com/WXsgeegGFS
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) August 1, 2016
All of this reinforces a point I make two months ago: Trump lacks the array of foreign policy surrogates that major party candidates traditionally muster during a general election campaign. Indeed, since June the problem has gotten worse for Trump; I haven’t seen Bob Corker defending Trump as of late.
But is any of this relevant for November? Political scientists are fond of saying that foreign policy has historically played a minimal role in presidential elections. If foreign policy doesn’t matter, then surely Trump’s lack of foreign policy surrogates/experts matters even less, right?
In a normal election cycle, I would agree. This isn’t a normal election cycle, however. So here’s my hypothesis on why this matters in 2016:
First, the theory: Alexandra Guisinger and Elizabeth Saunders have a working paper on how partisan and expert cues affect public opinion on foreign policy questions. In essence, what they found in their survey experiments was that expert consensus had little effect on public attitudes when a strong partisan divide already exists (say, climate change). However, on issues where there was no preexisting partisan split (say, NATO), an expert consensus could have an effect on public attitudes. So, in short, an expert consensus can move the needle on issues where there is no partisan split.
What does this have to do with 2016? Paradoxically, Trump is exacerbating his foreign policy problem in two ways. The first is that the overwhelming bulk of his campaign pronouncements are concentrated on foreign policy, loosely defined: terrorism, NATO, Russia, China, trade, immigration, etc. There is practically no domestic policy content to Trump’s campaign. If Trump is good at one thing, it is generating free media coverage — and that coverage is focusing on what Trump is saying about world politics.
The second reason Trump is sabotaging himself is that it is on foreign policy where Trump is most at variance with his party. At this point, his proposals on taxes and regulations are garden-variety GOP talking points. On foreign policy, however, Trump is so out of step that I’m not sure he could properly staff his administration if he won. GOP foreign policy commentators and experts are opposed to most of Trump’s policies. Instead, as noted above, they’re writing op-eds attacking him. They’re signing bipartisan documents condemning Trump’s statements (full disclosure: I’ve signed a bunch of these). So in the areas where Trump is generating controversy, there is no partisan split. Instead, the split is between foreign policy experts and Donald Trump.
Trump has therefore managed to create his own campaign doom loop:
- Make idiotic pronouncements on foreign policy and national security;
- Invite widespread bipartisan criticism for said statements;
- Rely on meager pushback from the likes of … Jeffrey Lord.
Ordinary voters are not going to notice many of Trump’s flagrant fouls — heck, I’m paying close attention to the campaign and I can barely keep up with his miscues. But as the general election has begun, voters are likely to pick up on one or two of these mistakes. They’re going to notice that Trump’s defenders are either incompetent or nonexistent. And over time that will rebound badly onto Trump’s campaign. Indeed, the latest CNN/ORC poll provides strong evidence of this:
[J]ust as foreign policy has come to the forefront of the campaign, Clinton has widened her edge over Trump as more trusted to handle foreign policy (59 percent Clinton to 36 percent Trump, up from a 5-point split following the GOP convention) and has pulled even with Trump on handling terrorism (48 percent each — Trump was +11 after the GOP convention) and ISIS (48 percent Clinton to 47 percent Trump — was a 13-point Trump lead after the GOP convention).
The nifty thing about this doom loop is that there’s no way for Trump to fix it. Sure, he could stop saying moronic things about international relations and try to bone up on these issues. But if there’s anything we have learned in the past year, it is that Donald Trump is not going to morph into a normal candidate. There is no evolution to him; he’ll keep doing what he’s doing. And even if Trump tried to learn, there’s the minor fact that he has a piss-poor foreign policy team. He has no reservoir of expertise to draw upon. At this point, I’m partially convinced that a reporter could ask him about the Sokovia Accords and he’d try to bluff his way through an answer.
I fully acknowledge that my doom loop hypothesis may be proven wrong. Trump has demonstrated an ability to defy conventional political science. Maybe the American people are so freaked out by terrorism that they’ll gravitate to the brassy voice proclaiming “I alone can solve this!”
Nonetheless, as unusual as this election cycle has been, some political laws of gravity are still in operation. Ben Carson self-destructed in the primaries in part because of his lack of foreign policy knowledge. Trump has managed to persevere, but I can’t help wondering if he’s at that moment in the Road Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote realizes that gravity is about to kick in.