I watched very little of the GOP convention. I just couldn’t bring myself to subject myself to the predictable mix of nonsense, hysteria and vitriol that was to pour forth from the podium. I did tune in now and then, and, of course, saw pieces on the news broadcasts.
The low point, to my mind, was the speech by the woman who blamed Hillary Clinton for the death of her child in the Benghazi attacks. I’m not reproaching the woman, of course—it’s natural to look for scapegoats when one has suddenly, shockingly lost a loved one. What is disgusting is her handlers’ cynical exploitation of this poor woman’s grief to promote the lie that Clinton was responsible for the Benghazi tragedy. After a trillion hours of hearings by one of the longest-lasting Congressional investigations in history, a Republican-dominated House committee could find no wrongdoing by Clinton. No matter: for the GOP convention, it’s as if the committee had never delivered its 800+page report, or had issued a completely different report. Today’s Republican Party, like its presidential nominee, has no hang-ups about preferring truth to falsehood. The Benghazi lie was reinforced by the deeply God-fearing Christian Mike Pence in his acceptance speech. When you know that God is on your side, who’s to say that He wouldn’t approve of a fib here and there in the service of His cause?
But, if we’re looking for low points, I’m sure there were many close contenders. One came with the cry by one convention delegate, Al Baldasaro, that Clinton should be shot. Baldasaro can be written off as a rank-and-file Republican mad dog, but more significant was the response of the Trump spokesperson, Hope Hicks: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments.” How reassuring.
No, it is not normal for a US presidential candidate to wink at suggestions that his opponent be killed, but this is not a normal US presidential candidate; nor is he the nominee of a normal American political party. As I have said repeatedly, today’s Republican Party is crazy, and not in an entirely figurative sense. Another way of putting it is that the GOP is a party gone wild. A wild party nominates a wild man for the presidency. What could be more natural?
I did force myself to watch most of Trump’s final acceptance speech. The speech proved that Trump can be Trump even when mostly reading from a teleprompter. That is both good and bad for him. It’s good in that it shows that Trump is capable of some degree of self-discipline without being boring. It’s bad because it suggests that even a self-controlled Trump can’t reach out beyond his core supporters to project a message of hope and reason and inclusiveness. The speech was one long vituperation, a tour de force of fear- and hate-mongering: Hillary Clinton is responsible for practically all the ills of the current world, the nation has been going to hell fast under Obama, and the descent will be complete if we should be so foolish as to put the criminal Hillary in the White House. If Trump didn’t quite reach the top decibel levels recorded by Rudy Giuliani earlier, he nevertheless made it clear that he, too, is a very angry old White man. It’s an image whose appeal is both widespread and limited.
True to form, Trump tossed out lots of dramatic promises—he will crush ISIS quickly, he will make sure every child has opportunity for a great education, he will bring back coal and steel jobs, etc., etc.– without bothering to explain how he would make good on them. He will replace the Trans Pacific and NAFTA with better deals for Americans, but what would a “better deal” look like? Early in the speech, he told us he would lay out his plans, his reform proposals, later on, but that never happened. Instead, he indicated he would appoint lots of committees (“I’m going to get the best experts working on this,” “I’m going to bring together the smartest business men to fix this” etc.) The closest he ever came to proposing anything concrete (which is not the same thing as specific) was in offering up the cherished Republican bromides of tax cuts and deregulation.
There is plenty of evidence that the GOP is less than fully united behind Trump. The most dramatic display came with Cruz’s non-endorsement and the tumult that followed. Less dramatic but still telling was the absence of notable GOP dignitaries—the host state Governor Kasich, the Bushes, Romney, and practically every Republican senator in a tight re-election race. This aloofness will hurt the candidate among independents, but I think the party will largely unite behind Trump. The fact is that Trump’s policy agenda, despite some important departures, is much closer to the hearts and minds and wallets of the Republican faithful than is Clinton’s.
The sharpest departure from recent GOP orthodoxy lies in Trump’s rejection of neo-conservative foreign policy. But Trump’s belligerent neo-isolationism serves much the same political function as the neo-conservatives’ aggressive globalism. Both appeal to the hyper-patriotic yearning for national greatness that Trumps’ demagogy so skillfully exploits. Both put America First, though the neo-cons know better than to use that wrought slogan.
In economic policy, Trump would implement most of the Republicans’ radical reactionary agenda. His main heresies are his resistance to “entitlement reform,” and “free trade,”* subjects close to the hearts of business elites and their intellectual supporters, but not popular with the Republican base. The other departure is Trump’s immigrant-bashing, which clashes with business’s preference for cheap labor. But Trump would otherwise advance the ends of the right, eviscerating the tax and regulatory state. He would certainly not disturb the fossil fuel industries with any talk of climate change. And no one can doubt that Trump would pay his dues to the radical right in his Supreme Court nominations, as he did in his vice presidential choice.
So, for reactionary true believers, Trumpism requires a few breaches of GOP orthodoxy. In return the party gets a standard bearer who is very likely the most skillful demagogue at the national level that this country has ever seen. Arguably not a bad bargain, though fortunately not likely to be good enough to win in November.
*Both of these euphemisms usually deserve quotation marks.