US & Canada

Viewpoint: Will Syria air strikes cost Trump votes?

Trump supporter at border Image copyright Getty Images

President Donald Trump's popularity among his hardcore supporters has remained largely solid throughout his first 15 months, but the outcry sparked by his bombing of Syria would be ignored at his peril, warns conservative writer Adam Gingrich.

Well, that escalated quickly.

Just days after announcing his intention to pull the existing US troops out of Syria, President Trump shocked his devoted political masses by launching missiles instead.

The response from his cyber-savvy base was a swift and pretty devastating attack of its own. Reading the tweets of vitriol lobbed by some of Trump's fiercest social media allies was an alarming development.

To many, this act of military aggression was more than a broken campaign promise, it was a betrayal. While I don't share the sentiment, personally, I recognise the explosive element it can introduce to the fault lines in Trump's base.

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Media captionTrump voters grade president's first year

Trump, perhaps more than any modern Republican president, requires a nearly united political base of support in order achieve his political objectives in DC and abroad.

When that ferocity is dulled, as it has been in the wake of the recent Syria air strikes, Trump's political fortunes get dicey. When some high profile conservatives start taking stances of opposition against Trump's re-election, over brief coalition-led air strikes, it's time to appreciate the ramifications.

Such a tempestuous response to a limited and, for Trump at least, fairly telegraphed military manoeuvre, speaks volumes as to the political danger it exposes.

As a seasoned political operative, I tend to view such overreactions in a dubious light. However, I am witnessing a political phenomenon unveiling itself that defies traditional interpretation.

Read more on Trump and the Syria civil war

Taking for granted that these volatile voters will surely come home again is a fool's errand. There is a vital component of Trump's base made up of disaffected liberal activists who felt abused and ignored by the establishment wing of the Democratic party. They have formed an uneasy alliance with libertarians who thought they had finally found a serious political foothold with the Trump presidency.

This "coalition of the wary", as I call them, are not the stuff upon which political foundations are built. The outcry at the air strikes from these polemic forces of the Trump base came as fast as they came furious.

My own Twitter feed and email account were instantly overwhelmed with sentiments of shocked defiance; coinciding with a nearly codified belief that the chemical attacks that served as an impetus to the strikes were a "false flag" to ensure US did not withdraw from Syria.

Trump must now carefully take stock of these reactions from his base and weigh them as evidence as to conveying the message of his foreign diplomacy going forward. This will be his greatest challenge.

Dazzling diplomacy

The president is notorious for loathing a rigid and static foreign policy. Explaining his motivations and ultimate diplomatic goals to his own secretary of state and UN ambassador has proven problematic enough - the thought of doing so to an intervention-weary political base may prove too much.

Myself, I see the brilliance in his dazzling array of diplomatic moves since taking office. Often they directly belie a candidate pledge, or two, but they are extremely effective.

A few months ago, many pundits in the media were raising the threat of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. Now, it seems the more relevant question is whether or not Trump can defy historical odds and unify the Koreas. Talk about a diplomatic turnaround.

Trump has also finessed a few favourable trade concessions from a famously recalcitrant Chinese government. No president in US history came into office with more experience than Trump has with China, and it shows.

Vladimir Putin can scarcely contain his astonishment at Trump's diplomatic strides. Two years ago, Russia was dangling a peace process in the Middle East, due to a vacuum of US leadership in the region.

Today, they are scratching their heads as Trump managed to finally commence a long-promised move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Suddenly the United Nations is far more concerned with US funding commitments and not getting evicted from their prime New York headquarters, than they are in being a roadblock to Trump's agenda.

Candidate Trump campaigned on rebuilding our military, and not using it to engage in nation-building in a war-torn Middle East. It was an effective message.

Massive military spending is now underway, and with it, a fluid and effective foreign policy is being wielded by President Trump; an American president more at the helm of his own global diplomacy than any since FDR.

Trump has extracted an inordinate return for his surgically brief military deployments and operations. His willingness to chide allies in the region, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to invest more in their own security, has borne fruit at a stunning rate.

Russia is now trapped, forced to either financially dump valuable resources into Syria, and worse, weigh the risk of having their precious Iranian deal scrapped. That's a no-win situation for Putin.

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Image caption The air strikes sparked protests in New York

All of this for a hundred missiles wiping out an empty airfield and three buildings in Syria? Impressive. The fact that John Bolton now occupies an office a few feet from Trump can't do anything to improve Mr Putin's mood either.

While all of this success in a global sense bodes well for Trump, it's only a silver lining to the angst reverberating through the ranks of his base.

If he needs reminding of how the base reacted to military force, he need only check his vaunted Twitter account. The evidence is all right there.

You can build a bigger and better military, Mr President, but there is a large cross-section of your base that don't want you to use it.

And so, the old axiom proves true: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Adam Gingrich, a former campaign operative for the Trump Campaign in Pennsylvania, is currently the President of the MAGA Coalition, Inc - A Pro-Trump PAC