The Republican Party and American Foreign Policy: A Broken Tent Pole


By Robert H. Clemm



A long tradition in American politics has been the metaphor of political parties serving as a “big tent.” In the case of the 2016 Republican nomination process, however, the tent seems to be collapsing if not set aflame by its own members. The contentious and riotous affair that has been the primary season, a far different one than most pundits and party insiders had expected, could simply be laid at the feet of Donald Trump; a fitting carnival-barker candidate if there ever was one. To blame one man, however, for the fractured nature of the primary belies that the “big tent” metaphor not only fits, but also explains why the Republican primary has become the chaotic affair that it is.

Parties are always an amalgam of people with varied, and often contradictory, views and backgrounds. It is precisely this variance of individual interests that makes the “big tent” metaphor stick. The goal of any party is not to meet every individual need, but to unify a diverse group of people under several “tent-poles.” The goal is to enlarge the tent so you are able to acquire the greatest number of voters while still adhering to some general principles or policies. Create a large enough tent and the party can, in theory, serve the diverse needs of voters from rural Iowa to inner-city youth and from the financiers of Wall Street to the small hardware store owner on Main Street. The problem of the 2016 GOP is that the tent-poles are no longer able to bear the weight and the party is thus fracturing along cultural, economic, and regional lines. I would argue part of the reason the tent has collapsed is the “tent pole” of foreign policy has been irrevocably broken.

On the surface, suggesting that foreign policy is no longer an important issue in holding together a party seems farcical. Not only has the GOP held several “foreign policy” debates, but in a world filled with ISIS, a saber-rattling North Korea, and an emergent Russia, no candidate could survive claiming that foreign policy was immaterial. The issue is that while foreign policy may still matter as an issue, there is no longer any common agreement (or tent pole) among the GOP.

Since the 1960s, the GOP presented itself, above all, as the party of national defense and anti-communism. The leaders and stratagems might change but the common assumption was that if a voter wanted a ‘muscular’ defense apparatus you would find a welcome seat under the big-top of the GOP. The collapse of the Soviet Union created some confusion as to the role of the United States and for the “standard” GOP foreign policy. During the 1990s the GOP remained affixed under the tent more out of unified resistance to President Bill Clinton as much as in a shared foreign policy vision.

It is likely that the divisions we see in 2016 would have emerged under President George W. Bush. His campaign promises to not get involved in nation-building, and the growing emergence of libertarian critiques on the size and scope of the national security apparatus, suggested a debate was in the offering on foreign policy let alone along the fissure-lines of the party. The attacks on September 11, 2001 created a new shared tent-pole for the GOP but only served as a temporary one. The taxing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not only sapped the budget but also a common faith in the GOP for a neo-Wilsonian foreign policy. Indeed, the rancor between Senators Rubio and Cruz on the NSA or Libya is a reflection of the deep divide that now exists between “traditional” GOP foreign policy and the emerging libertarian tendencies within the base.

The fractures between rural and urban, college-educated and not, and religious and agnostic, have always existed in the Republican Party. The candidacy of Donald Trump did not create these fissures but he has seized upon them. Yet, his success needs to be explained as other candidates–Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Pat Buchannan–have tried his same road and found it wanting. The critical difference is that Trump has emerged at a time when there is no “common assumption” that paves over the differences and rallies the voters back into the tent. The huge debates over immigration may also be seen in this light as so many candidates now discuss it in terms of foreign policy. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, suggested his evolution on the issue of border security was directly related to the rise of ISIS.

The chaos of 2016 is what happens when the big-tent starts to collapse. Foreign policy no longer provides that unifying theme and so the fractures, often hidden under the cover of the big top, are on display for the world to see. For pundits who like to see a circus, it is all good fun, but for the GOP it suggests a worrying development that will not end in 2016.

By Robert H. Clemm

Dr. Robert H. Clemm is an assistant professor of history at Grove City College.

Dr. Robert H. Clemm is an assistant professor of history at Grove City College.

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