Trump World’s Phony Anti-War Posturing Finally Comes Crashing Down
There never really was a constituency among the MAGA faithful for anti-war politics.
Perhaps the only thing more predictable than the swift wagon-circling of Beltway news outlets around Never Trump Republican commentary on the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan are the attacks on Biden from Republicans who once lauded former President Trump’s anti-intervention “America First” doctrine. Even Trump himself, whose administration negotiated the agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 2021 (President Biden pushed back the date to September 11, and then up to August), blasted Biden last weekend for pulling out American troops too soon. “Joe Biden gets it wrong every time on foreign policy, and many other issues, the August 14 statement said. “He ran out of Afghanistan instead of following the plan our Administration left for him…”
There is no shortage of criticism of the Biden administration’s planning and messaging around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But it’s hard to tell from the news coverage that Biden did something that was, up until last weekend, relatively popular with the public — and truly bipartisan within the halls of Congress. Well-known MAGA loyalists on Capitol Hill from Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado to Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley praised Trump’s initial withdrawal plan and subsequently bashed Biden for following through with them. Their sudden change in tune is clearly a case of shameless political opportunism— but it is also a fitting end to the GOP pretending to be an anti-war party under Trump.
In the early days of 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump threw a grenade into the GOP presidential primary race when he attacked the last Republican president, George W. Bush, for starting two failed wars in the Middle East. Open racism eventually became a staple of Trump’s campaign, but it was his flagrant disregard for the foreign policy establishment that set him apart in the debates. This lack of deference to generals and policy elites turned out to be shrewd, as it set a clear contrast against the Democrat’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Following a contentious primary race against left favorite Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton repeatedly faced jabs from the left and right for her 2003 Senate vote in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and her support as Secretary of State for the U.S.-backed NATO intervention in Libya amid the Arab Spring protests.
Still, it was obvious back in 2016 that Trump’s flippant commentary opposing the Bush wars after the fact did not reflect any deeper commitment to anti-war causes. It didn’t even reflect a preference for diplomatic or humanitarian alternatives to exercising U.S. military power abroad. Indeed, Trump’s brand of isolationism seemed more like an afterthought or distant corollary to his primary commitment to white identity politics. And the punditry that gave it credence in order to harm Clinton politically usually left out the xenophobic elements of his “America First” policy — from refugee caps to the Muslim ban to a militarized U.S.-Mexico border. The pundits also saw no need to reconcile candidate Trump’s supposed anti-war commitments with his endorsement of torture and theft of other countries’ resources.
Now in their rush to hammer Biden, Trump and his acolytes in the GOP are channeling the same Bush-era neocons they lampooned for four years — at least until they get caught.
For instance, in an August 16 follow-up statement to his initial criticism of Biden’s withdrawal plan, Trump seemed to endorse resettling Afghan refugees in the states, saying the Biden administration failed in “evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge.” The following day, according to the Washington Post, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also insisted the U.S. should help Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban during an interview with a Kentucky news station. Even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, with his notoriously acrimonious relationship with Trump, fell in line with a statement on August 17 claiming Georgia would be open to accepting Afghan refugees.
But just one day later, Trump appeared to walk back his pro-immigration comments with a single sentence statement — “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!” According to Daily Mail, included with the statement was the now-infamous photo of over 600 Afghan refugees crowded into a U.S. military evacuation jet. The evening before, Fox News primetime hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham had unleashed rants against establishment Republicans who, likely taking their cues from Trump, came out in favor of resettling Afghan refugees in the U.S. However, once Trump saw popular and pro-MAGA conservative media figures turning against the refugees, he realized he couldn’t attack Biden on humanitarian grounds, but on predictably xenophobic ones.
In an August 19 statement, Trump made sure to emphasize that Biden’s failure was that he didn’t “bring out all the American citizens” first, then their equipment. He made no mention of Afghan refugees. Instead he said the U.S. should just bomb their own bases — while the troops are still present.
As nonsensical as Trump’s statements are, the Afghanistan withdrawal isn’t the first time Republicans have been opportunistic to the point of absurd in their reactions to foreign events. Back in 2017, when Trump launched dozens of airstrikes on Syria’s Shayrat Airbase, Republicans applauded the move as a long-needed showing of American prowess, even though they had just spent an entire election cycle hammering President Obama and Hillary Clinton for getting the U.S. involved in the neighboring Libyan civil war.
“American First” was never an anti-war rallying cry. It was always an appeal to white identity politics within and beyond domestic political borders. Trump centered his newfangled opposition to the Bush wars during his 2016 campaign because they were already unpopular with the public and had thus become a useful weapon against his political enemies who, unlike Trump, had voting records that could be scrutinized.
Biden could have certainly chosen the politically safe route and quietly kept thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan indefinitely; I suspect he went forward with the Doha agreement’s timeline for troop withdrawal in part because he took the right’s opposition to the war at face value and did not expect much pushback from them or the press. But Trump-aligned Republicans have shown time and again that other than racism, they have no real policy objectives or principles. They just want to see their political enemies suffer.