Here’s a vexing question for Republicans. Does Donald Trump know why he won the presidency in 2016? As the chances of war with Iran – war by design or war by miscalculation – appear to increase, this question grows ever more pressing.
In 2016, Trump ran on such an anti-interventionist platform that you half expected to wake up and find that he’d received all-important endorsements from Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and the ghost of Susan Sontag. This was Trump at his best. He launched an astonishing broadside against the Bush family in South Carolina:
‘We should’ve never been in Iraq. We’ve destabilised the Middle East… they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there weren’t none and they knew there were none: There were no weapons of mass destruction.’
Here was the more statesmanlike version given during his acceptance speech at the RNC:
‘After 15 years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.’
Comments like these surely freaked out thousands of lobbyists and planners who’ve grown fat from America’s endless wars. But they proved wildly popular with voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
A study by Boston University’s Douglas Kriner and the University of Minnesota’s Francis Shen shows how important this non-interventionist stance was to Trump’s victory in 2016. The study, called ‘Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama wars cost Clinton the White House?’, notes that the domestic effects of the continuous wars of the last 15 years have been unequally distributed.
Kriner and Shen say that few Americans took much notice of these wars: ‘the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat.’ Yet there is an increasing divide ‘emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not.’
The study finds that ‘there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.’ Their data suggests ‘that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.’
The policymaking implications ought to be clear to everybody, even national security adviser John Bolton. If Trump wants to win again in 2020 he must avoid more ground wars in the Middle East, otherwise he will alienate key portions of his base that put him in the White House.