Guest post by Samuel Twitchell
From the outset, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been anything but conventional. Despite a litany of words, actions, and behaviors that would have ended any other candidate’s ambitions, Trump defeated a deep roster of Republican presidential hopefuls and remains, to the incredulity of many, a viable candidate for the most powerful office in the world.
While writing his success off as a product of luck or celebrity culture may be comforting, beneath the surface of his campaign lies a recognizable structure indicative of a strategy that is actually quite sophisticated. Indeed, it is accurate to characterize the Trump campaign as an example of hybrid warfare, and by analyzing the race in these terms, it is possible to find order in the chaos of his candidacy.
There is no single agreed-upon definition of hybrid warfare among military professionals, but all of the definitions coalesce around one characteristic: offsetting the conventional military strength of an opponent by reconceptualizing both the nature of war and the means used to wage it. Through a careful application of a mix of tools, including high-intensity military battles, low-intensity insurgent and guerilla campaigns, economic and political pressure, and propaganda, an adversary seeks to aggregate small victories into achieving strategic goals while avoiding the risks and costs of a more traditional confrontation.
The exact mix of tools employed is less important than the ability to be highly agile in their use and to confront the enemy with a mix of problems at every level of the conflict. Above all, hybrid warfare recognizes the military advantages in information, disinformation, and propaganda as instrumental in shaping the international and domestic political environment to help achieve war aims.
This definition of hybrid warfare may seem superficially vague, and dismissing the very concept of hybrid warfare as an inconsequential remix of already existing military tools and practices is tempting. However, the fact that describing the difference between hybrid warfare and older military ideas is difficult should not conceal the significance of these changes.
To illustrate the gravity of this difference, it helps to examine the emergence of the German blitzkrieg between 1939 and 1941. Although the exact nature of blitzkrieg is interesting in its own right, a detailed description of it is beyond the scope of this analysis. It is enough to say that when the Second World War broke out in 1939, every major nation possessed the physical tools of blitzkrieg—tanks, armored infantry vehicles, and close air support. Indeed, some of the nations targeted by the German blitzkrieg possessed these tools in greater numbers than the Germans. However, only the Germans had reconceptualized the use of these tools and put these ideas fully into the field.
Although hybrid warfare has only emerged in the last two decades or so, there are already several examples of its successful implementation, including the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, and recent Iranian efforts to exert power in the Middle East. However, the single most accomplished practitioner of hybrid warfare is Russia.
For at least ten years, Russia has used hybrid warfare methodologies to re-exert its power over its traditional sphere of influence, intimidate its neighbors, and generally diminish the power and credibility of the United States. This effort has included the 2008 Georgia-Russia War, the 2011 annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, and the ongoing conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine. While I have no evidence other than conjecture of the existence between the Trump campaign and Russian strategy, such a connection would not surprise me.
When viewed in terms of hybrid warfare, the actions of Trump begin to make a lot more sense. Trump has never bought into the conventions of electoral politics, and while this is a major factor in why he seems to be immune to the normal criticisms of a candidate, it also conceals differences with his opponent’s campaigns that are deeper and more significant. Traditionally, candidates see their campaigns in terms of two domains fought more or less sequentially.
The first of these domains is the nominating process, in which a candidate seeks to garner enough support by a major party to earn its endorsement. Following the successful conclusion of this fight is the battle for the next domain: the general election. Winning this domain requires appealing to a broader segment of the population. Consequently, the transition to this domain is characterized by a pivot from either the political left or the right (for Democrats and Republicans, respectively) toward the center of the political spectrum.
In contrast to this two domain model of U.S. presidential campaigns, Trump has always conceptualized this election as at least three separate domains, all of which he fought simultaneously instead of sequentially. We will call the first of these domains the white nationalist domain--that is, the largely white, largely rural voters who see the changes of the last fifty years as a departure from something better (this "golden era" is largely a myth, but let's ignore that for the moment).
These voters are alienated by the social and economic changes that began in the 1960s and continue to this day. Previous GOP candidates have done what they could to appeal to this segment of the population, because they are a significant conservative voting bloc. That said, these white nationalists have traditionally had little real political power; to some extent, Republicans took them for granted. Trump's campaign has flipped that script.
Literally, from the first day of his campaign, when Trump described Mexican immigrants as racists, he has placed white nationalists at the center of his entire election effort. His campaign slogan--Make America Great Again--speaks to this voting bloc in a language that they understand while avoiding at least some of the backlash that more extreme language would create. In this way, Trump has earned the loyal support of white nationalists while not stepping out-of-bounds of conservative voters.
The second domain is the Republican Party itself. By placing the white nationalists at the center of his campaign, Trump has created a powerful tool to manipulate both Republican candidates and the party elite. While it is clear that many in the GOP view Trump with distaste, fear of losing the white nationalist voting bloc that they need to win elections forces most Republicans to acquiesce to his campaign. Because of this, Trump’s support of this bloc is a powerfully coercive tool, as it forces other candidates to confront a set of choices they would rather not make. Moreover, if Republicans bail on him, Trump does not need to change his tactics a bit. He can simply lump them in with the elites he is already criticizing, strengthening his own election narrative while casting doubt on theirs.
The final domain is much broader, and it includes both traditional media and the Democratic Party. I feel comfortable lumping these together because, on some level, they have shown a reluctance to stray from the traditional tools of the trade. This is understandable in the case of the media, as they are ethically compelled to abide by a certain set of practices. As such, they are excellent foil for the Trump campaign's sophisticated use of propaganda. As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, for all of their claims of superior intelligence and flexibility, they tend to abide by a set of orthodoxies that, in the end, make them an utterly conventional opponent vulnerable to unconventional tactics.
Notice how much time Democrats have spent on the issue of Trump's tax returns. While this is a legitimate issue, and it has become somewhat more important in recent weeks, has the return on the investment been worth it for Democrats? At best, the answer is a qualified yes. Democrats have used large amounts of political capital attacking Trump on this and several other issues, but these attacks have yielded only marginal results. This asymmetry of return on resources invested is another hallmark of hybrid warfare.
You will also notice that, although Secretary Clinton's candidacy has been the primary beneficiary of the recent revelations of Trump's sexual misconduct--which, let's be honest, we all saw coming--the domain in which Trump is losing this election is the second of the three domains discussed above--within the GOP itself. There is finally enough evidence of Trump's behavior to give the Republican elite and many mainstream Republican voters abandon the candidate, come what may in the general election. While this is partly speculation on my part because the events have yet to play out and I have not yet seen enough polling since last Friday, I feel confident in this assertion. If the rise in Secretary Clinton's electoral chances is not matched by a fall in her unfavorability numbers, that would be evidence that I might be right.
Secretary Clinton will almost certainly win this election, and it is possible the Senate flips along the way, but there is a real danger that this will be a short-term victory. Another characteristic of hybrid warfare is that it takes a long time. The Crimean Annexation took place over two years ago. The Syrian Civil War has been going on since 2011. The Russo-Georgian War happened in 2008. As stated before, all of these events can be tied into a long-term campaign to weaken U.S. power in the world in general and in Europe in particular.
If Trump is indeed following a hybrid warfare model of electoral politics, this would indicate that this type of politics--whether with Trump at its center or not--is here to stay.
Samuel Twitchell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Iowa State University, where he studies the history of military technology and 20th century military history. He lives in Johnston, IA. This post is adapted from a Facebook post by Mr. Twitchell.
Photo: Donald Trump.
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