Trump Time Capsule #48: Third Night of the Convention, Plus "NATO? What NATO!"

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The first convention I remember watching, on television at home as a kid, was the 1964 Republican convention, featuring Barry Goldwater’s fiery “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” speech.

Four years later, in 1968, the Democrats were tearing themselves apart at their Chicago convention, as the country was self-rending as well.

The 1980 Democratic convention was a nightmare, with Teddy Kennedy barely deigning to greet incumbent president Jimmy Carter on the platform after Kennedy’s unsuccessful (but gravely wounding to Carter) campaign against him.

But even 1968 was no match for the personal rancor of this evening in Cleveland, with Ted Cruz’s cold dissing of Donald Trump in front of the delegates who had just chosen Trump.

Again the theme of recent posts has been: conventions and national campaigns don’t “matter” in any profound sense (although they can make a difference in whether you get elected). But if you can’t manage a four-day convention, let alone a four-month national campaign, you’re facing steep odds in managing a very complex national government for four or eight years.

And — except for the effective Mike Pence speech, which began near the end of the 10pm-11pm EDT prime time bloc — this was another chaotically managed convention night. The Skyped-in-looking 90-second video by Marco Rubio was the minor indication. The cold, outright subversion by Ted Cruz — the man whose wife’s looks Trump had mocked, the man whose father Trump had accused of involvement in the JFK killing — was unlike anything on a national campaign stage in modern times. You can read about it in the papers tomorrow. To put it Donald Trump’s terms, the great deal-maker was publicly snookered and humiliated by his beaten opponent, “Lyin’ Ted.”


In normal times this would itself by headline news, but on this day it’s just one more disorderly note. Here’s the bonus: according to the NYT, Trump either does not understand how NATO works, or does not care. Why? Because he says that if he were president, the U.S. might not fulfill its NATO treaty obligation to defend European nations from attack by Russia (whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is the foreign official with whom Trump has seemed most simpatico):

He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.

For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

This is a genuinely big deal. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, all member states are legally bound in a compact of “collective defense” to come to one another’s aid and support. As many European countries did for the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks.

Out of careful calculation, or out of blind ignorance, Donald Trump has essentially overturned a tenet that has underlain U.S. foreign policy through all of my lifetime, and I am not a young guy.

Either Donald Trump has carefully thought this out, or he has absolutely no idea of how the world works or about the job he aspires to hold. This is what we know about the man, three months before the country decides whether to make him commander-in-chief.