BY SHAWN DOYLE
Donald Trump is careening towards the Republican nomination, with the conservative establishment left watching in horror as the failed meat salesman and former reality television star hijacks the party. A last-ditch movement to stop Trump before the convention has materialized to prevent this reality. The SAIS community has played a significant role in these efforts, as Strategic Studies program director Eliot Cohen helped organize an open letter for this purpose. Signed by a diverse set of leaders from throughout the Republican foreign policy spectrum, the letter remains a key moment of dissent crystallized within the campaign.
We sat down with Dr. Cohen to discuss the letter, the public reaction to it, and what the broader significance of Trump’s rise might be.
Can you describe the the process of how the letter came together?
It originated the way things often do. I was emailing a bunch of friends including the letter’s co-writer Bryan McGrath. A bunch of friends, all identifying as conservatives, and we all were profoundly alarmed by Trump. Not only on foreign policy grounds but on domestic policy grounds as well. Someone said that there should be some kind of letter. McGrath, an enterprising guy and former destroyer skipper, decided to go ahead and write the letter with me. It was very much a last minute thing. We emailed 50 or 60 people, just going through our rolodexes and off the top of our heads. About 50 people immediately signed…We got 70 more and actually just decided to cap it now.
That you find Trump exceptionally disagreeable is well known. Were there any broader motivations in this effort?
Different people have different motivations. For me, I have grandchildren. I have this image of my four-year-old granddaughter asking me, “Grandpa, what did you do when Donald Trump was running for president?” on a spring break 15 years from now. I wanted to have a good answer. We did not hold any illusions that this would sway a single vote. I think the people who signed it felt that it was very important to put their thoughts on the record.
What do you think a potential Trump presidency means for American foreign policy and power?
There have always been populist and neo-isolationist wings in both parties. Trump is a particularly repellent manifestation of it on the Republican side, but it’s there within both parties. For a variety of reasons, those wings of both parties have gotten stronger over the past 15 years. It’s now more important than ever to reaffirm the basic bipartisan foreign policy consensus that we have had since World War II. What I am fearful of is that we are going to go through a number of years of turmoil. In the old days that would have been okay since we did not have a larger role to play in sustaining world order. But now we do. A lot of bad things can happen in the world if we have four or eight years of the United States being out of the game because we’re engaged in our own internal politics.
In your mind, as this process unfolds, what is the future for the Republican party and for the American political system as a whole?
My own view is that if Trump is the nominee, it really tarnishes the Republican brand. Not just him, but all the officials who will line up behind him. That is, to my mind and to others, unacceptable. There have been deep divisions brewing within the Republican party for quite some time, over things like taxes—things that became litmus test issues which never should have. Issues such as the Second Amendment. These splits are coming to the surface, and I could definitely see a third party is emerging. The [political] rules could change, could get blown up. We could see the same sort of changes amongst the Democrats as well, as they have moved towards the left.
If there is a third party, even though I am not a libertarian at all, I would like to see it have a basically libertarian attitude on social issues. I think you can come up with things that fit the temper of the times. I don’t see why you can’t have two parties, three, four. I don’t think anyone really knows. I think we’re in uncharted territory.
Dr. Cohen’s letter, “Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders,” can be found at warontherocks.com.