South Carolina's GOP Showdown: Strength vs. Ideology

The Palmetto State's debate pitted audacity against principles. 

Who would Donald Trump appoint to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court? Ted Cruz believes he knows. “If Donald Trump is president,” he said, “he will appoint liberals. If Donald Trump is president, your Second Amendment will—” At this point Trump’s bellowing terminated Cruz’s pregnant thought, but the implication was clear: Trump is no conservative.

Certainly last night’s debate underscored that Trump is no movement conservative of the type that has set the GOP’s course since the Goldwater revolution in 1964. He’s never been a culture warrior in the past and it’s hard to imagine the thrice-married billionaire making a big deal about issues like abortion. When pressed about his different stances on issues last night, Trump didn’t try to dodge: “you have to have flexibility.”

Scalia, by contrast, was not flexible. He saw any hint of it as tantamount to moral relativism. Scalia grew up in an era in which conservatives were fairly unified around opposition to the cultural changes that Democrats embraced in the 1960s. Scalia was at the forefront of a conservative cultural counterrevolution. He flaunted his vehement opposition to abortion as well as gay rights. Consider Scalia’s protest in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas:

“. . . today’s opinion is the product of a Court, which is the product of a law-profession culture, that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda, by which I mean the agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.”

When it comes to foreign policy, Trump would also represent a big shakeup for the GOP. There was true venom between him and Jeb Bush last night. Trump directly assailed the House of Bush. Even Bush’s mother, Barbara, became a target of Trump’s vituperation. Trump had nothing but disdain for Bush and Marco Rubio. He unleashed a furious volley of attacks that earned him boos from the audience but also testified to his utter indifference to the shibboleths that govern the GOP’s discussion of foreign policy. To some Republican ears it sounded as though Trump was channeling Michael Moore when he decried W. for failing to prevent the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Trump grew emotional when he declared that on September 11, “I lost hundreds of friends.”

Nor did Trump display any hesitation about declaring that the Bush administration concocted a bogus case for war in Iraq: “They lied.” These were audacious moves. Whether they will benefit Trump at the polls is an open question. George W. Bush, as the media tirelessly points out, remains popular in the pro-military state of South Carolina. Senator Lindsey Graham said after the debate, “I hope the people of South Carolina will send a message to Donald Trump that we don’t like Putin, we like W.” But it’s clear that even if Trump believes in flexibility, he’s not going to trim his foreign policy message to suit the neoconservative wing of the GOP. Instead, he’s functioning like a battering ram. Which makes him the most intriguing of the candidates, followed by Ted Cruz.

This race isn’t about ideology for Trump. It’s about showing strength. “The weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration is Jeb Bush,” Trump said last night. “Whether you like it or not, he is so weak on illegal immigration, it’s laughable and everybody knows it.” Similarly, he dismissed Cruz as “the single biggest liar.”

Perhaps a real sign of whether South Carolinians like it or not will come on Monday in Charleston, where Jeb Bush will hold a rally with his brother. The Bush family is rallying around its latest aspirant for the Oval Office. But for now, Trump appears to command a 20-point lead in the Palmetto state.

Meanwhile, Trump is busily bashing movement conservative intellectuals, calling Charles Krauthammer “dopey” and “totally dishonest” as well as pillorying Glenn Beck—“your endorsement [of Ted Cruz] means nothing!” Nor is his ridicule of Bush showing any signs of letup—on Twitter on Sunday he called Bush a “cry baby.” Trump may not have much in common with Scalia, but he does share one thing with him. He is a master of objurgation.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.