Is Donald J. Trump really an extremist within the Republican party?
American liberals have, throughout last year’s presidential election and into the beginning of President Donald J. Trump’s first term, become fond of presenting Trump’s political ideology as so extreme that it bears little resemblance to GOP policies of years past. Bill Maher, comedian and political commentator, semi-jokingly professes that he would have overwhelmingly preferred a Mitt Romney or George Bush presidency over a Donald Trump one. Former President Barack Obama, while on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, pointed out that the US would be significantly worse off under Donald Trump than it would have been under his own Republican opponents John McCain or Mitt Romney. Is this really the case, however? When comparing several of Trump’s policy positions with those held by mainstream republicans such as McCain, Romney, Bush, and others, the differences between them are smaller than might be imagined.
Trump first became politically famous for his plans to build a wall on the southern border of the US, first mentioned when he announced his presidential bid in June 2015. He also spoke of establishing a specialised deportation force with the aim of rounding up and deporting as many of the eleven million undocumented immigrants in the US as possible. This approach towards immigration has often been cited as bigoted (no one is talking about a northern border wall) and overly harsh. Nevertheless, Mitt Romney’s 2012 immigration policy plans were not very far removed from Trump’s: he argued for a high-tech fence across the whole US-Mexican border. Furthermore, although Romney did not speak out as strongly as Trump in favour of mass deportations, he was a proponent of severely sanctioning employers who hired undocumented immigrants. This would have made it increasingly difficult for them to find a job, incentivising the “self-deportation” of millions of undocumented immigrants. In the process, this would have dragged down several sectors of the US economy, such as agriculture, which rely heavily on the labour of this group. As such, the main difference between “establishment” Romney and “extremist” Trump on this issue seems to be found not in their intentions or ideologies, but rather in the shrewdness with which they set out to achieve their goals.
On foreign policy, Donald Trump has repeatedly stated his intent to blatantly violate both the US constitution and international law, by advocating for “taking the oil” in Iraq, torturing and/or killing innocent civilians in the Middle East, and openly wondering why the US cannot use nuclear weapons, even refusing to rule out a nuclear strike in Europe – to name only a few tactics. Some of these positions too, however, are not as rare within GOP orthodoxy as one might expect (and hope) them to be. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, repeatedly advocated for an increase in and indefinite presence of US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. These offensive wars, started under Republican president Bush, will, when all costs and interests have been added up, have cost the US a whopping 7.9 trillion dollars, and have led to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilian casualties.
Concerning torture, Trump’s comments on “[bringing] back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” have created considerable outrage. This sentiment was routinely echoed, however, by his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; and of course, waterboarding and other torture mechanisms were routinely used under the George Bush administration, oftentimes on innocent people. All of these Republican politicians’ viewpoints are usually seen as falling within the realm of respectable debate.
On climate change, President Trump is of the opinion that it is “a hoax created by the Chinese,” while the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced that man-made global warming is a real, significant threat to the future of the planet. Even Trump’s most moderate contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, who in a very lukewarm fashion accept (some form of) climate science (John Kasich, Jeb Bush), do not advocate taking any action to combat global warming. Furthermore, 92% of scientific studies denying man-made climate change are in some form or other linked to conservative think tanks. Climate change denial thus seems to have its place within mainstream conservative/republican ideology as well, rather than being a particularity of Trump’s brand of conservatism.
Instead of being more extremist than GOP politicians who are, as opposed to Trump, seen as honourable and respectable, Trump is in several ways the quintessential Republican, voicing widespread Republican talking points, but in a rougher, more transparent way. How else can it be explained that Mitt Romney, formerly a staunch detractor of Trump, praised the new president for being “off to a strong start” after implementing his controversial Muslim travel ban? How else can it be explained that virtually every Republican senator approved almost every single cabinet pick Donald Trump made, including, for example, Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who in the 80s was denied a federal judgeship because of his overt racism?
Therefore, Obama’s and others’ characterisation of mainstream Republican orthodoxy as somehow significantly more moderate and reasonable than that of Donald Trump is wrong. The only thing it achieves, is the legitimisation of equally far-right viewpoints of mainstream Republicans: if it isn’t as bad as what Trump says, it’s debatable. Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, people such as Bernie Sanders, who would at most be seen as centre-left in the rest of the world, are portrayed as far-left communists. As such, these comments only help in shifting the Overton window to the right.
Photo by Gage Skidmore