Cleveland is a city with the scent of Swisher Sweets and shame. It is the second poorest city in the United States – one in three Cleveland residents lives in poverty, and the growing number of squatters on the east side of the city is a topic of significant conversation. So it is a suitable place for Donald Trump to bring his message of restored American greatness – one that blames the problems of white Midwestern America on the convenient targets of foreign immigration (a mere 3 percent of Ohioans are Hispanic, half of whom are Mexican) and bad trade deals (international trade accounts for 1.5 million jobs in Ohio).
It is a convention already marked by tension and a feeling that many of the necessary moving parts were slapped together at the last minute – new barriers erected against unanticipated protests, a schedule released less than a day before the ceremonies start, and security personnel on edge after the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
As the convention begins, polls find race relations are at 25 year lows, with 74 percent of the country saying they are bad. What is needed here in Cleveland now is a leader who can do what Barack Obama did not: unite the country with a sense of common purpose and a renewed belief in our capacity for self government. But you go into an election with the candidate you have, and Republicans plan to make the best of it, and drink.
The program is here. It is a fairly conventional presentation with a few odd additions. “Convention attendees will at least be treated to remarks by national luminaries such as Scott Baio, noted star of hit television sitcoms ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Charles in Charge,’ soap opera star Antonio Sabàto Jr. (‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and ‘General Hospital’), and Willie Robertson of ‘Duck Dynasty’ fame.” Trump promised a great show after all.
The questions on the minds of those here seem to be twofold: First, how did we get here? And second, can the party possibly unify? In the past few days, several smart people on the right have endeavored to explain the answer to the first question, and address what should come after what many anticipate is a likely November loss (“Can he win? Of course! Will he? Oh I doubt it.”). Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam do so here. And Tim Carney writes on the topic here. Both approaches are worth reading and smart, even if they function as – as is so often the case with analysis of Trumpism – a confirmations of priors. This does not mean they are wrong, just that they’re a bit incomplete in my view.
For Carney, who I agree with more as you might expect, his frame doesn’t work. The Republicans were never actually the party of the rich: they were the party of people who wanted to BE rich, and moreover believed they could get there. The Republicans haven’t lost the country club – they’re nominating a country-club owner, a man who many people look at as the embodiment of achievement. The Republican coalition properly understood isn’t either a country-club or populist party, it has been a party that believes at its core that all people can ascend to the country club. A party that does not have that faith is far more open to expressions of nationalism and protectionism, even as the majority of voters support free trade and immigration.
For Douthat and Salam, let’s re-write the first graf: “When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination on Thursday in Denver, it will represent a stunning moment in American politics — the triumph of a raw populism, embodied by a shameless demagogue, over both the official establishment and the official ideology of a major political party.” Well, maybe the “official ideology” part doesn’t carry over, but the rest does.
Their attempts are largely still about policy positioning. I think they’re most correct about the foreign policy/national security frame, but that it is obviously at odds with what is necessary to destroy ISIS. I am dubious about their support for dictating low-skilled immigration levels – the labor market is a market, and the supply will arrive regardless. Smart policy actually legalizes and renders accountable those flows. We already try to control it, and we do so poorly.
The fundamental motivation of Trumpism: that a large portion of the American people don’t believe in our institutions and they don’t think we live under a rule of law with equal justice. All the bright ideas about entitlement changes mean nothing to the mob with pitchforks and torches that is on its way.
More than 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln led a Republican Party that argued against the dominant protectionist white identity politics of the day in favor of the idea that free people, endowed with the rights of life and liberty and property, buying and selling in a free market, could govern themselves best. This was an inclusive and aspirational message speaking to the hopes and dreams of every man and woman of every race and creed. As Frederick Douglass, one of the first Republicans, put it: the wings of the American Eagle are broad enough to shelter all who come.
The party of Lincoln comes to Cleveland this week to die. It has become the party of Donald Trump. It has given way to a party that pits one race against another, that trades free markets for protectionism, statesmanship for xenophobia, and the higher principles of our better angels for crass identity politics. The comfortably corrupt Republican leadership which ignored the populist frustrations of the voters left the people feeling abandoned and desperate for change, for something different than the elites who have failed them for far too long.
They know that Donald Trump is different than the elites and institutions that have failed them. But they have turned, in their desperation, to a man who they don’t fully understand and who’s not going to deliver on his promises, in large part because he doesn’t understand the principles that made America great in the first place.