While it looks like the much-touted Libertarian Moment has passed—if it was ever here to begin with—we can say with some degree of certainty that the Paleoconservative Moment has arrived. And we can pinpoint the date of its arrival with impressive specificity: The day of the South Carolina Republican presidential debate, when Donald Trump dropped a rhetorical bomb on the GOP with his stunning double-barreled declaration of war on the Bush clan. The first fusillade was aimed not only at George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, but also at the neoconservative architects of the Iraq war. In answer to moderator John Dickerson’s question about Trump’s past statements calling for Bush II’s impeachment, the GOP frontrunner replied, “George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
Trump went on to level the charge that “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”
Jeb’s reaction was to whine about how “he’s attacking my family!” and seek solace in the arms of his mother: “My mother is the strongest person I know.”
Trump replied, “She should be running!”
In an attempt to save face for the establishment, Marco Rubio launched into his prerecorded GOP talking point about how George W. Bush kept us “safe.”
Safe? How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center—excuse me. I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe, Marco.
On both occasions the crowd went wild, responding with a chorus of boos, but Trump went on the offensive and called out the “donors and lobbyists” who had packed the audience, winning extra points as the stacking of the deck boomeranged on the Republican National Committee.
The next day the pundits declared—once again—that Trump had blown it, that surely his commanding lead over his rivals would dissipate and the Trump Train would be derailed. After all, they noted, South Carolina is “Bush country,” and “pro-military”; surely Trump’s remarks would alienate them. Yet the pundits, both liberal and neocon, don’t understand that “pro-military” doesn’t necessarily translate into “pro-militarist.” Indeed, the two are opposites, since it’s the military that fights the wars of the chickenhawks who sit at home while soldiers die for no good reason. And sure enough, Trump’s standing in the polls was basically unchanged, and he won South Carolina handily.
Poor Bill Kristol: The day after the debate he lamented that no one was properly “outraged” over Trump’s indictment of an administration riddled with neocons that lied us into war: “Once upon a time we had leaders who would have expressed their outrage at such a slander,” he moaned. But, alas alack, the neocon propaganda machine isn’t working as efficiently as it used to. Maybe that’s because everybody in the country outside the offices of the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute knows the truth about that war. And maybe they also recognize that a president who received a presidential briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” bears responsibility for what happened on his watch. The neocons love to quote Harry Truman, but apparently “The buck stops here” doesn’t apply in this case.
While Trump’s critique of the Iraq war limns Ron Paul’s—and the similarity of how they performed at the debates is evocative—The Donald is no libertarian. His protectionist rhetoric, his vow to stop illegal immigration, and his signature slogan lamenting America’s lost greatness puts him squarely in the tradition of Pat Buchanan. He is, in short, a paleoconservative, and even if he doesn’t win the White House, the National Review “invade the world, invite the world” school of faux conservatism will never recover from the death blow he’s delivered.
As perhaps the last remaining paleo libertarian on earth, I admit that my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, Trump’s unreliability makes me nervous, but on the other hand I have to be grateful that, within a few months’ time, he’s succeeded in doing what I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to accomplish: breaking the neoconservative monopoly on Republican foreign-policy orthodoxy and reviving the Old Right tradition of “isolationist” populism. Trump is running on his reputation as a man who gets things done, and in this case he’s certainly lived up to it.