Why did Donald Trump decide last Friday to temporarily ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days? It all goes back to the war in Iraq.
For the last few years, the establishment conservative answer for why America lost the Iraq War has been: Barack Obama. George W. Bush’s “surge” had belatedly won the war, the argument goes, until Obama withdrew U.S. troops, thus allowing the rise of ISIS. During the 2016 campaign, this storyline allowed the establishment candidates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie—to blame Iraq on the Democrats and avoid challenging Bush’s decision to launch the war in the first place.
Trump rejected that. He attacked Obama for withdrawing troops, but he also (falsely) boasted that he had opposed the war from the beginning. In so doing, Trump exploited a gap between conservative elites and the conservative grassroots. Conservative elites were loath to condemn the war because they liked Bush and liked the projection of American military force. Ordinary conservatives, on the other hand, were sick of the Arab world and wanted America to kill jihadist terrorists while otherwise having as little to do with the region as possible. (Trump exploited the same divide on Syria. His establishment opponents denounced Russia for intervening there. Trump said, essentially, better them than us). Trump won the nomination, in part, by appealing to those grassroots conservatives who Rich Lowry has called “To Hell With Them Hawks.” Such people, Lowry once argued, “are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable.”