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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Jonathan Bernstein: Republicans wink at Trump’s destructiveness

By Jonathan Bernstein Bloomberg Opinion

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argues that destruction is the end game of President Donald Trump’s trade war and his increasing belligerence to core U.S. allies such as Canada and Germany:

“The best hypothesis is that trade war and destruction of alliances aren’t means to an end – they are ends in themselves. Trump isn’t trying to fix the system, he wants to destroy it, and supposed wrongdoing by others is just an excuse” – July 11 tweet

That’s probably correct. It would explain why Trump doesn’t pay much attention to the details of his case for unfair trade rules, or even formulate coherent demands that could be subject to bargaining. The same is true on NATO. Trump continues to botch the long-standing U.S. request that its allies spend more on defense; Trump still (falsely) believes that relatively low spending by NATO partners is tantamount to failure to pay dues and asks when those nations will “reimburse the U.S.” This line of thinking leads him to the nonsense position that America is overspending on the military, even as he brags about spending more and attacks the Democrats for opposing defense expenditures.

All of that would matter a lot if Trump was really trying to negotiate better deals. But his loose grasp of facts, and even his own position, don’t matter at all if all he’s doing is throwing bombs. That means his buffoonery is far more dangerous than many believe. We have to take seriously the possibility that he’s out to undermine the entire postwar order and may just get what he wants.

This perspective also helps us understand why Republicans aren’t more upset about Trump positions that clearly deviate from their long-held views. Granted, there are multiple reasons for the party’s acquiescence, including what appears to be a crass calculation that propping up their president no matter what is good for the party in the next elections, and the fear (justified or not) of his Twitter feed. But destroying institutions as a strategy for its own sake, with a vague expectation that somehow the party will benefit in the long run, has been a standard approach of Newt Gingrich Republicans for decades.

Take, for example, the enthusiasm party actors from politicians to campaign professionals to Republican-aligned media showed for tea party conservatives who, when they weren’t bashing President Barack Obama, were eager to attack what they called the Republican establishment. The widespread and largely inaccurate belief among tea party insurgents that their party was eager to sell them out, which many high-profile Republicans actively encouraged, certainly must have contributed to the failure of party actors to persuade voters to find someone more qualified and reliable than Trump. After all, they had spent years telling those voters not to trust Republican elites. The impulse to tear it all down (whatever “it” happens to be) likely contributes, as well, to the dysfunction that fuels the radicals in the House Freedom Caucus and made it impossible for Republicans to cut government spending or pass a repeal of Obamacare or an immigration bill. In other words, the habit of tearing down institutions has real costs for the conservative agenda. But it has become such a go-to approach that they can’t seem to stop doing it.

It’s also true that there is a strain of conservative thought that’s always been skeptical of international agreements on principle, no matter how much these arrangements appear to be in the U.S. interest. Attacking the United Nations has always been popular for Republican politicians. But NATO and international trade have been fully accepted at least since President Dwight Eisenhower. I don’t think that’s changed, just as Republicans who tried to blow up the House in the 1980s and 1990s, and the presidency when Bill Clinton and Obama occupied that office, didn’t really stop believing in constitutional government. They just came to mistakenly believe that destroying stable institutions would somehow help them win.

So far, the main victim has been the health of democracy in the U.S. Now it may be the postwar international order that has been such an enormous success. Unless, that is, Republican Party actors realize what’s going on and actually do something about it.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.

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