While covering a news event Wednesday afternoon, a most unsettling realization came over me. It was based not on personal views — just an instinct that comes with decades of covering things as a journalist and then seeing how they turn out.
I realized that the speaker who was delivering a major international policy address had a keen talent for telling ordinary people what they want to hear, making complex crises sound simple and solvable. And a supremely confident way of capturing the hopes and hearts of people who are fearful and fed-up.
I realized I was quite possibly — and maybe even probably — covering America’s next president: Donald Trump.
Democrats are now salivating at the prospect of being gifted with Trump as their Republican presidential opponent. But in November, those Democrats may be as shocked as today’s Republican elites who last summer were laughing at Trump’s chances. Trump has a way of winning over people who may not have a lot of knowledge about issues – but know enough to know their lives and livelihood are not as prosperous as they should be and their government seems to be making things worse, not better.
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What made that realization so unsettling was that Trump clearly seems unknowledgeable about the national security topics he was reading from a teleprompter (something he’s rarely done as a neophyte politician). Even worse, I believe he doesn’t know his major in-depth foreign policy speech was riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. (A point cited by many post-speech TV analysts, including former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.)
Trump, who only in recent weeks formed a team of international affairs consultants, laid out a world vision in which, in a single sentence, he declared two seemingly contradictory concepts: “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” But America got into nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq only because the demise of the dictatorial regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had left unstable lands that militants sought to capture to create safe havens for terrorism.
While never specifically mentioning President George W. Bush’s rush to invade Iraq and topple Hussein’s regime, Trump said of the present problems in the Middle East: “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy.” Yet, in his list of steps he will take to make things better, Trump said (without further explanation): “Finally, I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares.”
But Trump also was able to capitalize on a number of the calamitous outcomes of President Barack Obama’s declarations and actions, such as the time Obama pointedly warned that if Syria used or even moved its chemical weapons, he would consider that crossing a red line. Trump quite properly said: “Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand, I will enforce that line in the sand.”
Trump spoke of the importance of U.S. allies being able to trust his commitments and adversaries respecting his word. Yet when talking about combatting Islamic State terrorists, Trump declared, “We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable.”
And, after listing what he called reductions in U.S. military strength under Obama, Trump concluded, rather incongruously, by tossing in his only mention of climate change: “Our military is depleted and we’re asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming.”
He spoke hopefully of a new comity with old adversaries: “We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. ... Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great – not good, great – for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table.”
Trump made no mention of trying to undo any of Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine, an omission he might not have charitably forgiven if it had been made by Obama. Still, Trump’s speech was loaded with the sort of jingo-demagoguery that has worked so well for him among fed-up voters so far. And it may indeed surprise the pols and pundits come November.
But Trump’s biggest fans may not have forgiven him one omission. Trump never mentioned what every Trump rally-goer can name is his foreign policy centerpiece: Trump never mentioned Mexico or forcing Mexico to pay for building a huge wall along the U.S. border.
Alas, unlike his rally-enthusiasts, Trump’s polite foreign policy audience didn’t prompt him by chanting, “Build the wall!”
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.