The week Trump showed he really can win US election
Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30
This weekend America marks the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The United States has never been the same since. It once saw itself as Edenic, protected by the oceans from the world's madness. Overnight, it became vulnerable.
The quest for effective presidential leadership in foreign affairs is no longer just about projecting American power. It's about protecting the innocent as they sleep.
For Donald Trump, who is gaining on Hillary Clinton in the polls, security fears offer an opening - and this week he showed that he has the capacity to exploit it.
America has never recaptured its self confidence. It has blundered into too many wars. A man who projects ego dashed with pragmatism is an attractive prospect.
Long has it been joked: "Do you really want this man's finger on the nuclear trigger?" But with North Korea actually detonating nuclear weapons in defiance of world opinion, the question becomes "why not?". It's hard to see how things can get any worse.
Before I make the case for Trump, let me quickly run through the litany of caveats: he's mean, disingenuous, ignorant.
Americans are not dunces; they value knowledge. Just ask Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, who was asked on TV what he thought could be done about Aleppo. He looked like he wanted to phone a friend. "What's Aleppo?" he asked. And one could hear the sound of his votes going up in smoke.
Trump would never admit that he doesn't know something. That's part of his genius. Last Wednesday, he did back-to-back interviews with Mrs Clinton, hosted by NBC's Matt Lauer, and displayed the qualities that could, in spite of himself, make him president.
One is that he says things that are so outrageous, so profoundly wrong that it's hard to know how to correct them. Talking about Iraq, Trump casually said that America should never have invaded but, when it did, it should have taken "all the oil".
Lauer asked how he'd do that. Trump replied: "You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils... I always said: Take the oil."
But... but how? With a massive straw? The idea that America could and should loot countries ought to have prompted Lauer to laugh. Instead, he left the point unchallenged and moved on. Thus by graciously treating Trump like a serious commentator, the mainstream media has helped transform him into a serious candidate.
They've been doing that for ages, reverently broadcasting remarks that should've been accompanied by a circus clown soundtrack.
At other times, however, Trump says things that are actually blatantly obvious - things that only seem shocking because political correctness has forced us to lie about them for so long.
These are the Trumpisms that strike a chord. Such as when he stood by his claims that throwing men and women together into military units would lead to sexual assault.
Isn't that simply true? And yet because we all want to live in a world in which integration works, we all pretend that it does when the evidence suggests it hasn't.
When Trump says such truisms, I can hear ordinary Americans punching the air with joy. Yes, having open borders does leave you vulnerable to terrorism! Yes, Islamic radicalism does have something to do with Islam!
And, yes, Vladimir Putin does look like a strong leader. Are we supposed to pretend otherwise?
Trump is in trouble for asserting that Putin is on top of his game - but that is how things look from a distance. Putin has managed to seize Crimea. His ally, Bashar al-Assad, has retained power in Syria and they have manipulated the West into an effective alliance against the Isil.
Trump told Lauer that "I don't happen to like the [Russian] system" but that within its peculiar context, Putin leads well.
Clinton's allies have tried to suggest that Trump's views on Putin are errant and even unpatriotic: liberal economist Paul Krugman called him a "Siberian candidate", a charge not helped by Trump recording a podcast that ended up being broadcast on the pro-Kremlin Russia Today.
These innuendos are borderline McCarthyism. Trump is not a KGB stooge. He is a critic of a US foreign policy that picks fights with authoritarian regimes that many Americans feel isn't focused on US strategic interests. Why prod Putin, they ask, when Putin is helping to fight Islamism in Syria?
At the moment when Americans mark the 9/11 slaughter, they might reasonably wonder if the State Department has forgotten who the real enemy is.
This is how Trump can still win. He exerts campaign discipline and behaves "presidentially". He focuses on national security and jobs. Most of all, he allows himself to be contrasted with an opponent besieged by gossip about poor health and accusations of corruption.
Hillary Clinton's email scandal has invited only two interpretations: that she is, to quote the FBI, "extremely careless" or that she is deceitful. Either way, she represents orthodoxy in foreign affairs and continuation of the Obama doctrine.
She remains the Republican Party's real trump card.