In April 2016, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd published “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk,” a now-infamous piece making the argument that of the two presumptive major party candidates, Hillary Clinton would be more war-prone than Donald Trump. Though the body of the op-ed hedged ever so slightly by calling Trump a “Quasi-Dove” and a “mix of dove, hawk and isolationist,” it’s emblematic of a certain set of terrible punditry that plagues modern media. Whenever Trump orders military action, screenshots and links to Dowd’s piece flood social media, serving as indictments of 2016 political media and pleas for less credulous coverage of this year’s election.
Though Dowd’s piece gets all the attention, she was hardly alone in falling for Trump’s occasionally isolationist rhetoric.
Days before “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk” was published, the Times printed a feature by then-White House correspondent Mark Landler, who framed a Clinton-Trump matchup as “an unfamiliar choice: a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.” Landler added, “[N]either Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has,” and later commented on Trump’s supposed opposition to the Iraq War without noting that Trump was originally in favor of the war.
The tendency to leave unchallenged Trump’s lie about his supposed opposition to the Iraq War was a common theme throughout 2016. Outlets including NBC, CBS, CNN, and Bloomberg ran interviews with the then-candidate in which he repeated this lie without being corrected. In other instances, reporters and media figures were themselves responsible for pushing it, as journalists in The New York Times and The Washington Post did.
A July 2016 op-ed in The Guardian proclaimed that “at least President Trump would ground the drones,” with columnist Simon Jenkins suggesting that a shift toward isolationism brought on by a Trump presidency might be one fringe benefit to a potential Trump victory. In March 2016, William Greider used an article in The Nation to naively describe a recent interview with the Post as Trump “dropp[ing] a peace bomb on the neocon editorial writers at The Washington Post and the war lobby.” In its write-up, the Post called Trump’s approach to foreign policy “noninterventionist.”
In May 2016, Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin wrote that “on some points of policy, such as trade and national defense, the billionaire businessman could even find himself running to the left of Hillary Clinton.” This sentiment was identical to that of Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who appeared on MSNBC that month to proclaim that “Donald Trump will be running to the left as we understand it against Hillary Clinton on national security issues.”
Trump’s statements on foreign policy were often conflicting, but they shouldn’t have been impossible for journalists to parse.
On an August 11, 2015, episode of Fox & Friends, Trump declared that he was “the most militaristic person there is.” Throughout the campaign, Trump touted the importance of being “unpredictable” when it comes to military strategy, refusing to rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS or in Europe if he saw that as necessary. MSNBC’s Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough claimed knowledge of a foreign policy briefing in which Trump supposedly asked of nuclear weapons, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” He pledged that if he was elected, he would send 20,000 to 30,000 troops into Syria to fight ISIS, and he left open the door to attacking Iran if the country threatened Saudi Arabia. He said that he would consider allowing Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. He said that he would “take out” families of terrorists, a move widely viewed as a war crime if carried out. His years-long obsession with seizing Middle East oil fields, an action that would also likely be considered a war crime. He vowed to bring back waterboarding and “much worse” because “torture works.” He called for massive increases in military spending.
Yes, he did say, “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world,” during a 2016 speech. Yes, he did say the U.S. would “stop racing to topple foreign regimes.” Yes, he did promise to “avoid the endless wars we are caught in now.”
There’s always been a sizable disconnect between what Trump says during his scripted remarks and what he says when he’s simply speaking his mind. Many of the statements that would make him a “dove” came from the teleprompter and were little more than platitudes aimed at connecting with war-weary voters. But this was a man who, before his political career began in earnest, supported military action in Iraq and Libya. This was a man who trafficked in displays of macho chest-thumping, who had always sought to leave the biggest and most garish mark on the world around him possible. With decades of knowledge about the type of man Donald Trump was, how could anyone reasonably look at the incoherent cluster of incompatible positions laid out during the campaign and guess that he’d opt for the one with fewer explosions? It was foolish for reporters to look at a man who spent years declaring his intent to commit war crimes and conclude that he would usher in a new age of peace through diplomacy.
Journalists who are hand-wringing over Trump’s betrayal of his supposed anti-war positions are ignoring their role in building that myth.
Just as the narrative that Trump was pro-LGBTQ was the creation of a credulous media, so too was “Donald the Dove.” And as was the case on LGBTQ issues, he benefited from being compared to his competition. In that case, his antipathy for LGBTQ individuals was always measured against his more openly and vocally anti-LGBTQ Republican primary opponents. His supposed dovishness existed only as a contrast to Clinton’s reputation as a hawk. In neither situation was Trump judged on his own merits. Instead, in some search for ideological balance, reporters and commentators projected onto him ideologies that contrasted with his opponents. From incoherence, journalists are faced with the option of either portraying a complicated truth or a simple fiction. Many, intentionally or not, chose the latter.
In many ways, he’s done exactly what he promised. In 2018, he reportedly asked CIA officials why they didn’t murder a terrorist’s family when they had the opportunity. He brags about increases to military spending. He’s displayed exactly the type of disregard for civilian casualties his anti-“political correctness” views suggested he would. On that same basis, he’s defended people accused of war crimes and attacked those who try to hold their fellow service members to account.
“Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk” made for a clever use of alliteration, but it didn’t do much to tell us about what people should come to expect under a Trump presidency.