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What is this obsession Repubs have with “strength”?



“Strength” has long been a staple of the Republican tool kit. Republicans claim to be the “strong” political party, while deriding Democrats as weak, especially in the area of foreign policy.

Does this claim bear up under scrutiny? And what does it mean?

This assertion of “strength” is a mainstay of Trump’s campaign. As the National Review observed, “Trump’s strong-man act” stands in sharp opposition to “Obama’s weakness.” Of course, there are no convincing definitions of “strong” or “weak” on the Trump campaign’s part, just their assertion.

Republicans always have seized on the notion of “strength” to convince voters to like them. The GOP found its muscular voice in the late 1800s, as America’s gilded age slipped into the twentieth century and, under Republican presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. seized/won/absorbed/stole [choose your verb] foreign territories as far-flung as Cuba, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines. Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” was both the symbol and expression of Republican strength.

The GOP’s allegation that the Democratic Party lacked strength became increasingly hard to maintain after Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II, and Democratic President John F. Kennedy squared off successfully against Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War. (Earlier, JFK’s “bear any burden” Inaugural Address was strongly militant and anti-Communist.) Even Lyndon Johnson, forced from office due to an incoherent Vietnam policy, could never have been described as “weak.” Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans were forced to shelve the “weakness” falsehood against Democrats, until resurrecting it during the 1980 presidential campaign, when Reagan portrayed himself (or was portrayed by his managers) as a tough, manly cowboy, riding horses and clearing brush on his ranch, who would stand up to the Russians. Reagan consistently portrayed Carter as hapless, accusing him of having “weak…policies,” a charge reiterated with increasing intemperance ever since by Republicans who know that calling Democrats “weak” polls well. And for the last 30 years, Republicans have pointed to the collapse of the old Soviet Union as proof of Reagan’s (and Republican) “strength.” Never mind that the collapse was due to forty years of resistance to the U.S.S.R. by all American presidents, Republican and Democrat. Moreover, the collapse would not have happened had it not been for “the great number of radical reforms that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had implemented during his six years as the leader of the USSR”, reforms Reagan had nothing to do with. Reagan just happened to be presiding at the moment the Iron Curtain came down.

Still, that Soviet melt-down gave Republicans decades of bragging rights—rights that now are being reasserted, with the militant appeal of Trump.

Let’s look at the evidence. Was Bill Clinton a “weak” president? He thrust America into no foreign wars, although the warmongers wanted him to send ground troops to Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. Resisting that advice, Clinton instead successfully got all warring parties to agree to a cease-fire through the Dayton Agreement, which achieved peace (more or less) in the Balkans through diplomacy. Clinton accomplished all this without America invading the Balkans, a war that would have resulted in who knows how many more U.S. troop casualties.

Barack Obama clearly has preferred negotiation to invasion when it comes to countries like Iran, China, North Korea, Libya, Syria and even Afghanistan and Iraq. Things are not perfect in any of those lands, nor should anyone ever expect them to be; but the nuclear deal with Iran shows that the U.S. can achieve its aims through “jaw-jaw, not war-war” (i.e., diplomacy, as Winston Churchill, a hero to Republicans, once picturesquely phrased it).

We have now a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, running for president who has always been said to be tougher and more aggressive in her foreign policy approach that Barack Obama. Hillary has had to put on her tough-girl boots in order to succeed as a politician because otherwise she would have opened herself to predictable GOP charges of weakness. The public already perceives Hillary as strong (some liberals think she’s too prone towards overseas adventurism), so Trump surrogates have been unable to portray Hillary as “weak.”

How then do Republicans bring the “strength” thing into their campaign? Well, if they can’t fulminate against Hillary, then fulminate against Obama, as Mike Pence did last week, when he alarmingly claimed that Vladmir Putin “has been a stronger leader” in Russia “than Barack Obama has been in this country.”

Pence no doubt was instructed to strike that theme by the devious Kellyanne Conway, but really, Trump’s love affair with the Russian dictator gets odder by the minute. Putin presides over an increasingly one-party, repressive state; Obama presides over a democracy; of course Putin is “stronger” when it comes to clamping down on social media, arresting his domestic critics, and invading territories on its border, like Crimea. Is that the kind of “strength” Pence and Trump wish an American president to display? What exactly would a “strong” President Trump to do overseas? What countries would he invade with ground troops? What countries would he bomb? How, exactly, does a President Trump plan to “destroy ISIS”? President Obama has promised the same thing; so has Hillary Clinton; so have most European leaders, and so for that matter has Vladimir Putin.

There is no reality to Trump’s claim that he will be tougher on ISIS than Hillary Clinton, but then, everyone knows that he’ll end up doing the same things as Obama. Yet “strength, strength” will continue to be chanted endlessly by Trump and his surrogates. There doesn’t have to be any plan associated with vague promises to “defeat ISIS.” All that Trump needs is to have angry, ignorant voters believe that “strength” will do it. I am reminded of another Republican elected on a promise to be “strong” and end an unpopular war: Richard Nixon. He rode into office with a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. Yet it took him another five years to withdraw our troops (in a deal he made with North Vietnam), and almost as many U.S. service members died in Vietnam after Nixon took office as died under Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

We know now Nixon had no plan to end the war. He lied when he said he did, and gullible Americans believed him. You would think Americans would be that much wiser when Trump makes similarly hollow promises to “defeat ISIS.” But Republicans, unfortunately, don’t seem to be in a particularly wise mood these days. Their talk of “strength” is the babble of beery drunks at the bar who, let’s face it, have no frigging idea what they’re talking about.

  1. And what about the “strongest” recent President, George W. Bush? He managed to invade 2 major countries. And look how well those turned out. At least his father only invaded one (I think), and he arguably had a good reason, and withdrew as soon as his goal was accomplished.

  2. Bob R, I agree. And trump’s war policy is stolen directly from the Cheney-neocon radicals who have gotten America into so much trouble.

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