I got up at 4:00 a.m., Tel Aviv time, to watch Saturday night’s Republican debate and I was dozing my way through the proceedings when John Dickerson asked Donald Trump about an interview Trump gave to CNN in 2008.
Dickerson: “You said you were surprised the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t try to impeach [President Bush] . . . ‘which personally, I think would have been a wonderful thing.’”
Dickerson asked if Trump still thinks the most recent Republican president should have been brought to trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.
I thought he would deny he ever said it or try to wiggle out of it. But Trump didn’t flinch. “I want to tell you they lied,” he said, referring to the Bush administration. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction. . . The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it.”
Donald Trump was a Democrat back in 2008, but even responsible Democrats rejected the charge that Bush and his advisers lied about WMD in Iraq. Bill Clinton admitted that he, too, had thought Saddam Hussein had such weapons based on the assessments of the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies.
“Bush lied, people died” was the trope of the Michael Moore-onic fringe and the marching chant of the Stalinist rabble of ANSWER. Hearing it recycled as a talking point by the leading candidate for the Republican nomination startled me out of my four-in-the-morning stupor.
Whether it is a wake-up call for primary voters in South Carolina is an interesting question.
So far, despite his best efforts, Donald Trump has been unable to offend South Carolina Republicans. According to the pre-debate polls, he was far ahead of the field. Pundits warned that dissing Senator McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam would cost Trump with the many veterans who live in South Carolina, but it hasn’t been a problem. White Evangelicals, the old Moral Majority, were supposed to be put off by Trump’s sybaritic lifestyle, and unapologetic lack of enthusiasm for that old time religion, but the Church of Trump seems to be flourishing. And in a state that supposedly venerates good manners, South Carolinians seem unfazed by Trump’s vulgarity and unpresidential language.
Nor was Trump being penalized for his striking similarities of Bernie Sanders. Both are New Yorkers, political late-bloomers of a certain age (Trump turns 70 this summer, Sanders 75) and leaders of insurgent movements with more than a little in common.
Both men think America is a mess. Both put the blame, with varying degrees of emphasis, on the social, fiscal and trade policies of the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Trump is soft on ObamaCare (in fact, he may be amenable to single-payer health care) and Sanders has been soft on guns (although he denies it on a stack of Das Kapitals). Neither is electorally popular with “constituencies of color” but both have done surprisingly well with women voters.
Trump and Sanders portray themselves as tribunes of the middle class. They are enemies (they say) of corporate greed, antidotes to the malign Washington influence peddling by the billionaires who comprise the political donor class.
On foreign affairs, they are both proud amateurs. If they have advisers, nobody knows who they are. They are willing to stake national security on their own instincts and judgment. Unlike their primary opponents, they remain unapologetic critics of the war in Iraq, although Bernie was to the right of Trump on impeachment, which the senator dismissed as “impractical.”
There are issues -- immigration and taxation, most notably -- where Trump’s brand of secular insurgency differs from that of Sanders’. But as the debate made clear, Donald Trump is neither a conservative nor a Republican. The GOP electorate of the Palmetto State is reputed to be both, big time. That will be tested next Saturday at the polls. If Trump can win in South Carolina as a “Bush lied, people died” secular enemy of the rich, he can win anywhere.
Zev Chafets is a Fox News contributor. His latest book is "Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses" (Sentinel 2015).