Donald Trump prides himself on keeping his legion of enemies off-balance with sheer unpredictability. That’s certainly the tactic that’s driven his process for choosing a running mate. The announcement is imminent, with the Republican National Convention opening July 18. The Washington Times reported on Sunday that it’s a “95 percent” likelihood he’s already settled on his least-interesting and most-reassuring choice, colorless Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who’ll appear with him at a rally and fundraiser on Tuesday. But with his showman’s flair, Trump is still publicly trotting out contenders—Chris Christie’s turn comes on Monday in Virginia—and gleefully fueling speculation that he still might go fantastically rogue.
Most of the contenders have been in keeping with the presumptive nominee’s promise to nervous Republicans that he’d find an experienced lawmaker to give him ballast and help him deal with Congress. Among those who’d fit the bill—and who haven’t run screaming away from the prospect of Trump offering the job—none say “solid” like Pence, the former congressman and stalwart of the Republican right. Pence would appease conservatives worried about Trump’s ideological bona fides, along with others who simply fear for his sanity.
But even as Trump gave public tryouts last week to Senator Bob Corker (who said thanks, but no thanks) and his soulmate Newt Gingrich (who continues to say, “pick me, please”), while dangling Pence as a possibility to see how he’d be received, his campaign gave it one last big twist, suggesting that Trump could go off the reservation with a retired general, either Lieutenant General Michael Flynn or Stanley McChrystal.
Some of this is unquestionably a classic Trumpian head fake. The idea that McChrystal is on any sort of shortlist, as Trump insiders claim, is belied by the fact that the retired military man—who stepped down in 2012 after a Rolling Stone story in which he and his staff made impolitic remarks about Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials—says he’s not interested in the position and hasn’t been approached for it. Flynn, though, appears to be a more serious contender (though what that means is anyone’s guess), and one who’s in keeping with Trump’s own stated interest in the idea of having a military man as running mate. “I like the generals,” Trump told Fox News last Wednesday. “I like the concept of the generals.”
If Pence would be a sop to the sensibilities of conventional conservatives, Flynn would confirm the hope—and fear—that Trump remains a disruptive candidate who’s out to reshape the GOP in fundamental ways. As someone who describes himself as a “centrist” and has been a life-long Democrat, Flynn would be an unorthodox choice in many respects, selected largely because he shares Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy views. In a radio interview with Hugh Hewett last month, Flynn said he’d be willing to destroy an entire city in Syria if necessary. “If we know that their headquarters exist in a place called Raqqa, Syria, we should eliminate, we should destroy Raqqa, Syria,” Flynn told Hewett. This vision of an America pursuing its goals unconstrained by the norms of international law is very much in keeping with Trump’s radical nationalism.
A choice between Pence and Flynn—if that’s really what it came down to—would clearly be a matter of “heart versus head” for Trump. It’s also a matter of how far he wants to push the Republican Party. His longstanding uneasiness with the GOP is no accident of personality, after all; it reflects the fundamental fact that his approach to right-wing politics is a far cry from the now-calcified ideology that has dominated the party for five decades, ever since the rise of Barry Goldwater.
Trump may have promised to make a traditionally “presidential” pick for VP, but whenever he tries to be a conventional Republican—taking up, for example, the idea that the rich need tax cuts—he comes across like a man who’s wearing an uncomfortable suit a few sizes too small. Trump is happiest, most fully himself, when he’s echoing not mainstream Republican ideas but 21st-century versions of George Wallace’s white supremacy, Pat Buchanan’s isolationism, and Ross Perot’s protectionism. Wallace, Buchanan, and Perot all belong to the tradition of Middle American Radicalism, a form of nationalism for the white middle class that feels hemmed in by both poor minorities and the business elite.
Choosing a military leader for a running mate would be perfectly in keeping with this tradition of radical presidential candidacies—even if that doesn’t make it a politically wise move. In 1968, Wallace ran with Curtis LeMay, the retired Air Force general infamous for his view that nuclear weapons should be used with jaunty confidence—a stance that got LeMay immortalized in the film Dr. Strangelove where he appears as General Jack D. Ripper. In 1992, Perot’s running mate was Admiral James Stockdale, who had survived as a North Vietnamese Prisoner of War for from 1965 to 1973.
LeMay and Stockdale were risky and unconventional choices. Aside from his frothing belligerence on the use of nukes, LeMay was hard to place politically: He was an early environmentalist and supporter of abortion rights. This clashed with Wallace’s mix of economic populism and his suspicion of new ideas about gender and society as well as race. Stockdale was simply a hopeless politician, tongue-tied and pitiably ill-informed, kicking off the ’92 vice presidential debate by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” (The poor man genuinely seemed to want an answer.)
Flynn looks to have both LeMay’s problem of not fitting a conventional political profile and Stockdale’s problem of being ill-at-ease fielding basic political questions. A registered Democrat until 2014, he describes himself as a centrist. In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, he came across as halting and unsure of himself. More importantly, he noted that, like LeMay, he is pro-choice, a position anathema to most of the Republican convention-goers who would have to validate his selection at the convention.
If Trump’s interest in Flynn was anything more than a last-minute feint, it would be revealing for a number of reasons. It would clearly be a sign that Hillary Clinton’s attacks on the Republican’s presumptive nominee as dangerously unprepared when it comes to foreign policy have left a mark on Trump—and that he fears they’ll leave more, if he doesn’t have someone convincing in his corner to respond and reassure. More important, it would mean that, heading into the general election, Trump has decided to present himself as a radical nationalist and not a mainstream Republican conservative.
Conversely, if Trump settles on Pence, or even someone like Gingrich or Christie, it will mean that he has decided to make his own strange peace with the party he now leads. It’ll be a sign that there are limits, after all, to how much he truly wants to transform the Republican Party.