The Trump Doctrine and 2020

The events of the last 72 hours may be bringing the Trump Doctrine into sharper focus. Is there a “Trump Doctrine”? Trump would say it means “America First,” but his moves to withdraw American forces out of Syria and, it was reported late Thursday night, perhaps a large drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, suggest he really means it.

Everyone is in an uproar about Trump’s decisions, and perhaps they are right. ISIS may well reconstitute itself; the Taliban may take over Afghanistan again, and make it into a haven for terrorist plots against America and our allies. As I was trying to suggest in my post about this question yesterday, those on the left and right who cheer a shrinking American military footprint around the world give up their right to complain when the world becomes a more chaotic and violent place.

But I wonder if Trump’s supposed lizard brain isn’t on to something about the politics of the matter. The conventional wisdom is that Trump won the key midwestern states in 2016 because of white working class anxieties over immigration and job loss (or just racism if you’re a leftist), but there is some evidence that Trump’s stands on ending America’s military commitments overseas may have played a significant role in his victory in the upper midwest.

Douglas Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University, and Francis Shen, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, posted a paper on the Social Science Research Network last year with the provocative title, “Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House?” Here’s the abstract, with the most relevant parts highlighted:

America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model 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. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.

I’m usually skeptical of the kind of regression-model jiggery-pokery that goes into papers like this one, and while I yield none of that methodological skepticism here, some of the discussion in the body of the paper strikes me as sound, especially on the point of why this aspect of public opinion isn’t much discussed (except when it can hurt Republicans):

And in the post-election analysis of the 2016 cycle, discussion of war fatigue has been all but absent. This oversight may plausibly be due to the fact that most American elites in the chattering class have not, at least in recent years, been directly affected by on-going conflicts. Children of elites are not as likely to serve and die in the Middle East, and elite communities are thus less likely to make this a point of conversation. The costs of war remain largely hidden, and an invisible inequality of military sacrifice has taken hold.

Once again, Trump’s instincts may be way ahead of everyone else, just as they were on immigration. And as for the possible risks of American disengagement, Trump’s military buildup looks to have some foresight to it also.

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