As a conservative talk radio host in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-2000s, I can’t count how many times I was called a “liberal.”
Why? It was at the end of the George W. Bush administration and I opposed the Iraq War.
I was for small government, less spending and the Constitution.
But none of that mattered.
I argued that the Iraq War was not only disastrous on its own merits, but it had distracted conservatives from the troubling growth of government, helped explode spending and that the Patriot Act and other post-9-11 anti-civil liberties measures were undermining the Constitution.
Again, none of this mattered. Conservatives simply weren’t focused on these issues back then.
Defending the Iraq War and war-related policies became almost the singular definition of conservative identity after the 2003 invasion. To “support the troops” you had to support the president. Stop “blaming America first.” “Bush kept us safe” was a mantra on constant repeat on the right (Republican hawk presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham all repeated these exact words in 2016).
This mentality had been so ingrained into Republicans’ DNA that when Jeb Bush and Rubio were asked this summer whether the Iraq War was a mistake, they didn’t know how to answer the question. Both fumbled around, not sure of the right answer, but still seeming to sense, finally, that many voters didn’t share their pro-war view (most Americans had decided it was a mistake years ago).
If someone was going to shake the Bush-Cheney cobwebs from the GOP it was never going to be hawkish Republicans who reflexively defended failed policies. It had also long been conventional wisdom that any Republican running for president would hold the line on the party’s foreign policy orthodoxy—particularly in the GOP establishment-favored state of South Carolina.
Then came Donald Trump.
Trump brings up his opposition to the Iraq War in virtually every speech he gives. But just a week before the SC Primary he delivered his most blistering attack on the Bush administration to date. He said Bush’s war in Iraq emboldened Iran, gave us ISIS, and that the president hadn’t “kept us safe” because 9-11 happened on his watch.
Then Trump won South Carolina. Handily.
Now, whether Trump supporters actually agreed with his views on Bush and the Iraq War is largely beside the point. We already know that Trumpism is more about political alienation and anger than issue-specific.
But that a Republican candidate could express those views and still win in the military-heavy, historically pro-Bush, state of South Carolina—this is a significant turning point for the Republican Party.
Undoubtedly, many of the same conservative SC voters who’d called me a liberal a decade ago due to my foreign policy views had now helped deliver a first place victory to a Republican candidate saying essentially the same thing.
Make no mistake: Trump is hawkish. Someone who wants to take out terrorist’s entire families, bring back waterboarding or pro-actively explore America’s nuclear options is ridiculous and scary. Someone who insults entire groups of people based on race, religion or ethnicity is in no way a good representative for Republicans or America.
I could never vote for Trump.
But I did vote for Ron Paul for president in 2008 and 2012. I supported his son Rand Paul in the GOP primaries this year. I do know some former Paul supporters back home who voted for Trump Saturday based on his Iraq War condemnation alone.
I was first attracted to Congressman Ron Paul in 2008 because he was the only Republican challenging his party on foreign policy. He was literally the only Republican who represented a conservative like me during that time. Sen. Rand Paul made the same foreign policy critique a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and continues to lead on this front in the U.S. Senate.
Both Pauls have said loudly: Bush made a grave mistake in Iraq. Let’s not repeat it.
Still, the current Republican frontrunner continues to say louder than anyone the Iraq War was a mistake. Before Saturday, most observers would’ve still agreed that any Republican who completely rejected Bush’s defining legacy could never expect to do well in SC. Just four years ago, the idea that such a candidate could win the nomination was completely unfathomable.
This is no longer true.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and was the official blogger for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.