White House race: Donald Trump's rampaging heresy in South Carolina

Washington: Just two days before the South Carolina Republican primary, Donald Trump is on a rampage across the southern conservative stronghold, slaughtering Republican Party sacred cows with the same gusto he has applied to the rest of his campaign.

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To the ongoing horror of the Republican establishment more broadly and the Bush family in particular, Trump now has a towering lead over his rivals with 35 per cent of the Republican vote, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, followed by senator Ted Cruz, who has 17.8 per cent and Marco Rubio a couple of percentage points behind him. Jeb Bush is languishing in fourth place with 9.8 per cent.

In a particularly savage debate on Saturday night, Trump put the most sacred of cows to the sword, arguing that George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was not only a military and strategic catastrophe, but that Bush lied in claiming that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction.

Trump, who the party establishment does not believe to be either a true Republican or a viable presidential candidate, went further, blaming the September 11 attacks themselves on Bush's failure to adequately respond to available intelligence.

This is - or was - outright heresy in the Republican Party, which attributes blame for the atrocity to the previous president, Bill Clinton, for not earlier killing Osama bin Laden.


And it is a staggering statement to make in South Carolina, which has always been Bush country. Indeed when Jeb Bush loses the state on Saturday, he will be the first Bush to do so.

This has layers of dark meaning for the family and the Republican Party.

South Carolina has an intrinsic relationship with the GOP - it is Christian, conservative and proud of its military traditions. For this reason it has a history of correctly picking the eventual Republican nominee. But last election it failed to do so, selecting Newt Gingrich rather than Mitt Romney.

There were those at the time who believed this was an anomaly. Now it is beginning to look as though the abandonment of the establishment's chosen candidate, Romney, was in fact a sign of the grass roots rebellion to come, a rebellion none could have foreseen was to be led by Trump.

And all the signs are that the rebellion is snowballing rather than waning, and that the party has no idea how to counter the threat posed to it by Trump.

In recent days he has merrily attacked the party position on a host of issues, further defining his populism and economic nationalism.

He has refused to promise cuts to a popular public health program for the elderly and voiced support for Planned Parenthood, a government-funded women's health service that, alongside other services, provides abortions.

He is opposed to free trade and immigration reform, both policies backed by the GOP's donor class.

Even some South Carolinian veterans back Trump's comments on the Iraq war. 

"At the end of the day, a lot of good Marines and sailors and airmen died over something that wasn't there," one veteran at a Trump rally, Mark Jebbens, told The New York Times. "So you've got to ask tough critical questions. In the military we called it a debrief or a hot wash."

Conservative pundits reacted to Trump's heresies with horror and predicted a swift rejection from the South Carolina electorate. So far Trump's lead has held steady.

Should he go on to win the primary, it would be the clearest signal yet that the party's establishment has lost its formerly vice-like grip on its voters and that a new, deeply conservative but less ideological bloc of Republicans has seized control of the GOP. 

Watching Trump and his fans at rallies you get the sense that the Republican Party has simply forgotten how to talk to the people it once relied upon to turn up and vote for whatever candidate it was pushing.

It's clear that many of them like Trump, not despite his failure to abide by the written and unwritten laws of the party, and certainly not despite his often profane and divisive language, but because of it.

Perhaps John Baldwin, a used car dealer from Greenville, South Carolina, put it best when he told The Los Angeles Times: "We're voting with our middle finger."

In normal circumstances it would be hard to consider any candidate who had polled so highly in Iowa only to win New Hampshire and then South Carolina as anything but the presumptive nominee.

And should Trump win on Saturday as expected, this is the straw the GOP will cling to: that nothing in the 2016 race so far remotely resembles normal circumstances.

Important questions from the past

Trump blames George W. Bush for the September 11 attacks. Is this fair?

It is something akin to a biblical truth in the Republican party that Bush "kept us safe" from terrorism; a belief Republicans justify by blaming the September 11 attacks on Bill Clinton, who left office almost nine months earlier.

Trump argues Bush might have been able to prevent the disaster but "he didn't listen to the advice of his CIA".

It is a matter of record that Bush was provided with several detailed warnings that al-Qaeda planned a spectacular attack on the US homeland in the northern summer of 2001. The Bush administration mostly dismissed concerns about non-state actors as an obsession of the Clinton administration.

Instead Bush and his closest advisers, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, focused on state-sponsored threats, which might explain their quick pivot to Iraq after the September 11 attacks. 

Trump went even further in Saturday night's debate, saying the Bush administration "knew" there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and lied in order to justify the war.

This is almost certainly a bridge too far, as the evidence indicates the Bush administration, like the governments of many allied countries, believed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had a WMD program he was concealing from the world.

However, an official Senate report on the use of intelligence before the Iraq War concluded the Bush administration exaggerated evidence in order to take advantage of a climate of fear after the September 11 attacks.

"In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when, in reality, it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even non-existent," said John Rockefeller, the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence panel. "Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretences."

While these views are quite mainstream among Democrats and most independents, Republican practice for the last decade has been to ignore that conclusion and lay any blame for the intelligence failures preceding the Iraq War solely at the feet of the intelligence agencies themselves. 

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