Undoubtedly, many commentators will emphasize the important achievement of the second place finisher and what it means for the future. But in reality, it's unlikely to mean much. Trump still holds a commanding lead nationally and is first in every upcoming state except Texas, which goes to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. We'll know more in a week, but it looks quite likely that Republican voters are destined to nominate Trump.
Given the various horrible positions Trump has championed thus far--on immigration, torture, banning Muslims, etc.--this development is naturally depressing. But would you have really felt much better if Cruz, Rubio, or Carson had won instead? I didn't think so. The primary elections had to occur at some point, and the outcome was virtually guaranteed to be some version of terrible. Trump is the version we got from the Republicans.
Before we lose all hope, however, we should acknowledge that the Trump revolution is not all bad. If you look close enough, there is an upside. It comes chiefly from two sources: Trump's slightly isolationist views on foreign policy,* and the irreparable damage he may to the Republican party. We'll take them in order.
Trump's merits on foreign policy are surprising in light of his strongly anti-Muslim domestic proposals. But they are there nonetheless. Here are the highlights:
- Iraq - He opposed the Iraq War. Better still, he is more than happy to attack his opponents for supporting it. The fact that he managed to win a deeply conservative state like South Carolina in spite of criticizing the war is a phenomenal accomplishment. It's tough to say whether most of his supporters actually agree that Iraq was a terrible idea or merely tolerate it, but either one is a very positive sign.**
- Russia and Syria - He refuses to demonize Vladimir Putin and would prefer cooperation over conflict with Russia on the issue of Syria. This is still very far from ideal, of course. But it is far preferable to the options proposed by Rubio or Clinton, which call for direct confrontation with Russia so we can defend the known allies of Al Qaeda. And unfortunately, that is not a misrepresentation of their position.
- No Political Filter - Trump's willing to say true things (and some false things too) that aren't supposed to be mentioned in polite politics. If he faces off against Hillary Clinton in the general election, his lack of a filter could lead to some extremely useful and enlightening exchanges on US foreign policy. Some examples of this tendency in action already are here, here, and here.
Meanwhile, Trump's impact on the effectiveness of the GOP is just as significant. Trump's candidacy represents an open rebellion--not because his ideas are that different, but because he is opposed by every GOP operator and wins in spite of it. You might say that the traditional gatekeepers of political power have lost control of their borders. And while that only produced a deeply flawed Donald Trump this time around, it may have created an opening for the future.
Bernie Sanders is actually having a similar if lessened effect on the Democrats. No one with power wanted him to even be in the race at this point in February.Yet here he is. And if he had the good sense to offer a real alternative to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, I think he could have even been in the lead.
In any case, we'll let Nick Gillespie pick up this theme here with an article at The Daily Beast. In a humorous and properly cynical take on campaign 2016, Gillespie explains how Bernie and Trump are destroying the established parties and accidentally could be paving the way for better ideas in the years to come. Here's the article:
*Isolationism and noninterventionism get confused all the time, but Trump seems to fall squarely in the former camp. This derives chiefly from his advocacy of heavily protectionist trade policies (i.e. high tariffs). By contrast, typical noninterventionists would advocate free trade on economic as well as diplomatic grounds. As the famous saying goes, "Where goods do not cross borders, armies will."
**For more on the significance of Trump's opposition to Iraq, check out radio host Scott Horton's smart take on it from last week. It's only about seven minutes long and starts at around the 2:30 mark.