(September 29, 2016 / JNS) I came away from the first presidential debate earlier this week with three immediate thoughts.
First, given Donald Trump’s diabolical performance, it’s hard to conceive of anyone voting for him for any reason other than implacable opposition to Hillary Clinton and fear of her worst excesses.
Second, that both candidates have a completely different understanding of national security; for Trump, it starts at home, with the first line of defense, while for Clinton, it hinges upon America’s global alliances.
And third, Clinton’s line “Trumped-up trickle-down” sounds like a song by the 1960s vocal group The Crystals.
Let me go back to the first point (don’t worry, I’m done with the third one.) Was House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose grave doubts about Trump’s candidacy were hardly a secret, really being serious when he described the GOP candidate as “a spirited voice to those of us who don’t like the status quo?” Did he really mean it when he added, “I see emerging in front of us the potential for what a unified Republican government can get you which can be the solutions?”
Because I don’t see it. I’ve tried, especially through talking to friends and colleagues who are going to vote for him, to see the case for Trump, and to understand, as those same people insist, that he will appoint the right advisers on the right issues. But I remain as skeptical as ever.
It’s not simply what Trump said, though I will come back to that. It’s what he didn’t say should be deeply troubling to his supporters. For months, we’ve been hearing endlessly about the wall on our southern border that is going to be constructed at Mexico’s expense. One wasted day trip to Mexico City later, and we’re not hearing about it anymore. All those who chanted “Build That Wall!” at Trump rallies should be feeling very cheated right now.
Ditto with his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. That “policy” also recently went through a slight refinement that no one really understood, but in any case, it too has disappeared. All Trump said was that he wanted a “strong border,” a statement so bland that nobody could possibly disagree with it. The only time Trump mentioned the word “Muslim” was when he boasted about a club he’d opened in Palm Beach that didn’t discriminate “against African-Americans, against Muslims, against anybody.” So what are we supposed to conclude here? That in 2016 you get a pat on the back for not being a racist?
Don’t get me wrong. I will be glad if both of these obscene ideas are buried. However, I question the integrity of a man who builds a campaign by repeating endlessly these two messages, and then junks them. If he’s hoping people won’t notice, then that’s plain dishonesty. If he thinks he doesn’t owe the American public an explanation, then that’s more evidence of why Trump is unsuited to be president.
Let’s look at what Trump did say. To begin with, there were moments of extraordinary incoherence, no more so than when Lester Holt, the debate moderator, asked Trump about his pushing of the ridiculous conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a natural-born citizen, and his reason for now rejecting it. Trump didn’t really answer the question. What he did do – and remember, this is a man who criticizes established politicians for their Beltway clannishness – was reel off a list of names that most Americans have never heard of.
“It’s very simple to say,” Trump said, promptly seguing into a paragraph of migraine-inducing obscurity. “Sidney Blumenthal works for the campaign and a very close friend of Secretary Clinton. And her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, went to, during her campaign against President Obama, fought very hard, and you can go look it up, and you can check it out, and if you look at CNN this past week Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened. Blumenthal sent McClatchy, a highly-respected reporter at McClatchy, to Kenya to find out about it.”
What this means, I think, is that the Clinton camp looked into the “birther” accusations, but that it took Trump’s intervention to prove conclusively that the theory was nonsense, a claim that is, in Trump’s inimitable tongue, “braggadocious” as well as false. Nor does it explain why Trump kept on pushing this fabrication for years. Moreover, you have to wonder about the intellectual abilities of someone who fogs his sentences with references to political operators like Sidney Blumenthal. (A pertinent fact not mentioned by Trump is that Sidney is the father of the professional anti-Semite, Max Blumenthal, who presently spends much of his time ranting on Twitter against both his dad and his dad’s boss.)
So much for the temperament side of things. I could say more on this matter, and on the domestic issues that were discussed, but my job is to write about foreign policy. And on global affairs, I heard a bunch of rambling, incomplete thoughts from Trump that, if translated by some miracle into actual policy, could drag America into a war of annihilation. Or make us the laughing stock of the world. Or both.
Specifically, let’s start with Russia. Understand this: our interests never align with those of the Kremlin, it’s just that the Kremlin exploits our weaknesses to make it look like we’ve achieved consensus. We’ve had bitter experiences of that under Obama, and it will only get worse with Trump. He will never criticize Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, much less act against his cyber attacks on American infrastructure and his expansionist aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Never.
Or look at Iran. Trump complains, not unreasonably, that Clinton helped to shape the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. But he hasn’t said whether we will adapt or dismantle that deal. He hasn’t offered a policy to curb Iranian interference and terrorism across the region. And as long as his friend Putin is calling the shots, he won’t.
Or look at Syria. Actually, don’t, because neither candidate had the decency to express some sympathy and solidarity with the people of Aleppo, who are presently enduring a bombing campaign reminiscent of the worst outrages of the Luftwaffe during World War II. According to Trump, Syria is none of our business because we cannot – and Bernie Sanders uses the exact same words – “be the policeman of the world.” At least Clinton understands the importance of alliances with the Kurds and with the Sunni Arab world, but she too was pitifully short on detail.
So, like many Americans, I went to bed after the debate feeling rather despondent. Yes, it’s an entertaining election, but so what? What this country needs is inspiration. On that point, both candidates fall short, but much more so Trump. You can’t help thinking that if he was up against another candidate, he’d be toast by now.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).