What a long way that we have come in this country. The Republican front runner in 2015 is parroting Michael Moore’s 2004 propaganda film Fahrenheit 9/11 almost verbatim and there’s actually a discussion as to whether this constituted good politics. Somehow almost everyone who is commenting on this story is completely missing the boat as to what Trump’s parroting of Michael Moore’s talking points actually means in the context of the current Republican debates.
In the first place, I don’t think Trump has any identifiable core beliefs about what happened on 9/11 and who is to blame. I don’t really think that Trump has frankly though through the implications of what he’s saying with respect to what Bush should have known about 9/11 and what institutional changes he could have been expected to put into place in the 8 months he was in office prior to the worst terrorist attack in United States history. All Trump knows is that he perceives this attack as being damaging to Jeb Bush, and so he is prepared to use it.
Second, I think it is incorrect to say that these comments by Trump make him a “truther.” Trump is not saying, at least as far as I can tell, that Bush directly caused 9/11, or that he had foreknowledge of 9/11 and chose to do nothing about it. Trump isn’t quoting from Loose Change, he’s quoting from Michael Moore. His argument is not that Bush was complicit, his argument is that Bush was incompetent.
Many of the commentators on the right and left are viewing this through the lens of whether Donald Trump will suffer in the polls for attacking Bush, which misses the point of what is happening here. It does not matter how popular or unpopular Bush is personally among the GOP primary electorate, nor what the GOP thinks of his antiterrorism efforts generally or his response to 9/11.
The point is that Donald Trump is willingly attacking Jeb Bush from the left – and not just the center left, but the fringe, extremist left who were already routed conclusively in the 2004 elections. Whatever you think about the decision to invade Iraq and the subsequent conduct of the war, or any of the other things that occurred during the course of the Bush presidency, the country as a whole already roundly rejected the contention that he was blameworthy for failing to prevent 9/11, a contention that is to this day only accepted by the the kinds of fringe liberals who read and comment on DailyKos or own all of Michael Moore’s films.
Until this election, this has been understood to be a death knell in politics: you do not attack members of your own party using the other party’s ammunition. In 2012, Newt Gingrich catapulted himself to the lead based solely on his willngness to call out the media for their stupid attack questions on Republican candidates. Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Democrats on stage with Hillary understood the principle well when they steadfastly refused to criticize Hillary about the email scandal that has engulfed her candidacy. The understanding, prior to Trump, was that earning yourself points against your primary opponents at the expense of making your whole party look bad was a recipe for disaster.
In Trump’s case, the attack is much more gratuitous because he did not even need to use it. Trump has already decisively squashed the candidacy of Jeb Bush. He is not a backbencher who is desperate to make up ground in the polls; by all accounts he is leading Bush (who has fallen to fifth or sixth place) by over 20 points. There is absolutely no political reason for Trump to pick up the ammunition of the DailyKos crazies against a guy he is already trouncing.
So what we are left with is the conclusion that Trump attacked Bush from the left, undercutting a significant core of the Republican party’s appeal – foreign policy competency, relative to the Democrats – for no other reason than that he childishly enjoys getting a reaction out of Jeb Bush.
If the people supporting Trump had any interest at all in supporting a candidate who would advance the conservative movement, they would be fleeing the Trump ship like rats after these comments. If they were interested in someone who “fights” for conservative principles, they would eschew someone who fights with leftist tactics just because it amuses him personally.
Time will tell if this will end up happening, but I rather suspect that it won’t – because the Trump phenomenon is not about Trump and is largely impervious to almost literally anything Trump might do. Standing with Trump doesn’t mean you have to take responsibility for anything Trump does or think critically or logically about it. In fact, Trump himself is completely incidental to the movement, except that he draws TV ratings and thus makes the movement more visible.
The Trump movement isn’t about Trump, it’s about the members of the movement wanting to be seen as as a political force that exists in rebellion to a shadowy conspiracy that they can’t even accurately describe, much less state a coherent objection to. Each person belonging to it fancies themselves to be the political equivalent of James Dean. However, like the many idiot imitators that Dean inspired, they are unable to see that their mindless imitation in the name of rebellion just makes them conformists of a particularly unimaginative stripe.
In the meantime, the longer Trump remains in front, the more permanent damage he will do to the ability of future Republican candidates to win elections, not just by the electoral drubbing he will saddle us with in 2016 but also by his acceptance of leftist tropes as the Republican nominee.
And the sad fact is that none of can say with any level of certainty that the Republican Party doesn’t deserve this fate.