As the Republican National Convention gets underway in Cleveland, it is hard to recall a time when American conservatism has been in so parlous a condition
Andrew Sullivan (in a most welcome return to political live-blogging) captured the ugly essence of Night 1 of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio:
Just mulling over the events tonight, there’s one obvious stand-out. I didn’t hear any specific policy proposals to tackle clearly stated public problems. It is almost as if governing, for the Republican right, is fundamentally about an attitude, rather than about experience or practicality or reasoning. The degeneracy of conservatism – its descent into literally mindless appeals to tribalism and fear and hatred – was on full display. You might also say the same about the religious right, the members of whom have eagerly embraced a racist, a nativist, a believer in war crimes, and a lover of the tyrants that conservatism once defined itself against. Their movement long lost any claim to a serious Christian conscience. But that they would so readily embrace such an unreconstructed pagan is indeed a revelation.
If you think of the conservative movement as beginning in 1964 and climaxing in the 1990s, then the era we are now in is suffering from a cancer of the mind and the soul. That the GOP has finally found a creature that can personify these urges to purge, a man for whom the word “shameless” could have been invented, a bully and a creep, a liar and cheat, a con man and wannabe tyrant, a dedicated loather of individual liberty, and an opponent of the pricelessly important conventions of liberal democracy is perhaps a fitting end.
What struck me most from the first night of the Republican convention, as speaker after speaker stood and railed against President Obama, called for Hillary Clinton to be thrown in jail and led the delegates in endless chants of “USA! USA!”, was the fact that these people were all scared. Scared of the future, scared of their economic prospects, scared of Islamist terrorism, scared of national decline.
Rudy Giuliani, appearing a very shrunken figure since his glory days in the late 1990s and during 9/11, sounded like a fearful pensioner shouting at the television when he gave his barnstorming prime-time speech. Where had his America gone, he shouted, and who would keep them all safe in these dangerous times? The answer, of course, was always Donald Trump.
We know that some American conservatives have skipped the convention entirely in disgust – and who can blame them? But of those in the convention hall – or the Quicken Loans arena, to give its full title – the vast majority seem to be drinking the Kool-Aid, or have at least reluctantly reconciled themselves to the fact that Donald Trump is their presidential nominee.
Something has changed in the soul of the Republican Party. One can argue endlessly about the reasons why – this blog believes that the continued failure of Republican government to benefit the struggling middle classes, the failure of the Tea Party to make a positive difference despite its loud rhetoric together with the ill-fated adventurism of the neoconservatives, has done much to alienate working class Americans from a conservative political class who have little to offer them but shallow patriotism.
Of course, Donald Trump offers shallow patriotism too. But he is also a strongman. Where President Obama wrings his hands and attempts to explain the complexity of the world and the problems facing America – often to excess – Donald Trump offers clarity and bold, oversimplified solutions. ISIS can be defeated without putting American boots on the ground, just by America deciding to “lead” again. Semi-skilled manufacturing jobs can be repatriated to America simply by “standing up” to nefarious foreign countries like China and Mexico. And apparently, after having been ground down by two stalled wars and a financial crisis, American conservatism was sufficiently dejected and debased to pick up that message and run with it.
I came of age (and became aware of American politics) in the late 1990s, in the tail end of the Clinton presidency and into the George W. Bush era. And in that time, in books and speeches by prominent conservatives, American conservatism was clearly dedicated – in rhetoric, if not always in practice – to advancing freedom. Freedom for the individual in America, and (sometimes disastrously) freedom for people in other parts of the world.
But the Republican Party of 2016 barely talks about freedom at all. On the first night of the RNC in Cleveland, speakers and delegates gathered under a massive sign proclaiming “Make America Safe Again”. Freedom has apparently gone out the window completely – why else would Republicans nominate an authoritarian like Donald Trump, a man who expresses contempt for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and human rights? And in freedom’s place comes the soothing, reassuring, beguiling promise of safety.
The America I now see through the prism of the current Republican Party – thankfully quite a distorted prism – is one where the American Dream has died for millions of people, or is at best on life support. The Republican primary voters who overwhelmingly voted to make Donald Trump their presidential nominee, and who are now gathered in Cleveland for the quadrennial party convention, were motivated by not by a sense of opportunity but by fear. Fear for their physical safety from terrorism. Fear of economic instability. Fear of relative decline.
Tim Stanley agrees:
Note: preserve. Not build more, not expand, not create – but preserve. You might argue that Trump is conservatism in its purest sense, the sense of being about conserving the best of the past. You might also argue that this represents a break from Reaganism, which is optimistic and about growing the economy to the advantage of the individual.
I’ve been a US conservative convention goer for eight years and I can tell that a change has come over them. You used to hear a lot about defending the Constitution and shrinking the government. Not so much anymore.
The people who are interested in those things are here. On Monday afternoon, God bless them, they tried to kick Trump off the ticket with a rules challenge on the convention floor. They failed and stormed off. They never had the numbers necessary to do it and the Republican establishment has reconciled itself to Trump anyway – so no dice.
And that’s the most depressing thing of all – there is no longer a major political party in the United States remotely dedicated to expanding freedom for the individual and defending against the encroachment of the state.
Lord knows that the Democrats will not be championing liberty now that they are led by Hillary Clinton and nearly entirely captured by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. For small-c conservatives, libertarian and conservatarians, this election is very much a case of pick your poison.
Andrew Sullivan is quite right to highlight the lack of any serious policy discussion on Day 1 of the convention (and if you don’t get any on the traditionally less TV-worthy opening days then you won’t get any at all). Trumpian conservatism clearly is not interested in solutions. Like their strongman hero, the Republican Party of 2016 has decided that the difficult, intractable problems of Islamist terror, deindustrialisation, global competitiveness and social mobility can be solved simply by willing them away, by “standing up to America’s enemies” and being swept along by Trump’s strong leadership.
Maybe it will take defeat in the 2016 presidential election for the Republican Party to be shocked out of its current stupor and invigorated to find a way to appeal to Trump’s broad coalition of voters with a more optimistic, pro-liberty message.
The nightmare scenario, though, is a Trump victory, which would gild this fear-based, revanchist form of conservatism with the prestige that comes with winning (never mind posing a serious threat to the American republic) and has the potential to transform Donald Trump from an unfortunate blip on the political landscape to an early 21st century Ronald Reagan.
In short, it is hard to see any grounds for hope at all going into this Republican Party convention. But this blog will continue to watch and hope for the green shoots of a future conservative revival, something better to come once this Trumpian nightmare is over.
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What do we really know about Trump? He’s a salesman and a deal-maker with an enormous talent for self-promotion. He may exaggerate his successes but his record does show that he has the ability to spot opportunities and successfully exploit them. But he doesn’t have any track record of involvement in nationalist-populist politics before now. So the fact that he has suddenly gone in that direction just at the moment when it has become a possible route to electoral success suggests that the entrepreneur has spotted a gap in the market and decided to fill it.
Seen from that perspective, his vulgarity is a deliberate attempt to appeal to the disaffected in order to secure the Republican nomination. Appealing to a party’s base always means taking a stronger ideological position than would be used to appeal to the electorate as a whole, and that goes double when it is specifically aimed at those who are most angry. It is also an effective media strategy because it causes the media to focus on Trump at the expense of the other candidates. If he hadn’t been so outrageous the media would have dismissed him as a no-hoper because he didn’t have an established base of support or a proper campaign. He would have got a brief mention in the summary of the also-rans at the end of a report, if anything.
If that’s the case then we would expect Trump to gradually tone-down his rhetoric and attempt to appear more presidential as soon as the nomination appeared secure. He would no longer need to make any effort to attract media attention but he would need to replace his sales pitch to the party base with one that would appeal to the median voter. This is exactly the change that we are seeing now.
If Trump became President it’s likely that his first instinct would be to do a deal with the people he needed to have on his side, or at least not actively fighting him. Making deals is what he does, and his books make clear that he considers himself to be the master of negotiation. So he’d seek an accommodation with the permanent bureaucracy and the GOP establishment.
His outrageous claims about what he would do in office should not be taken at face value. It’s an old negotiating trick, and one endorsed by Trump himself, to start by demanding things that the other party will never accept so that you can then appear to compromise by accepting whatever it was you really wanted in the first place. If you want to sell some real estate for a million dollars, demand three million and then let the other party feel that they’ve won because they talked you down to just one million.
So it’s likely that a Trump administration would actually be quite ordinary. He would talk tough but probably not much more so than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. There would be little real change because the people he would need to do deals with would all want to maintain the status quo, although there would probably be some small and simple reforms that could be made to remove barriers to economic growth. His understanding of the realities of wealth and power would probably lead to a conventional realist foreign policy.
In short, the substance of a Trump administration would probably be closer to that of the first President Bush than any other recent incumbent. Yet that also poses a danger, because if Trump failed to satisfy the demand for change then his most angry supporters might unite behind a sincere and genuine extremist the next time round.
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That’s quite a journey from George H W Bush to President Donald Trump, but you make a good case. I’m just not sure that Trump’s outrageous comments are all bluster, and I fear that the constitutional impediments and checks and balances which should stand in the way of his authoritarianism are often weaker than they appear, even in a mature democracy.
But then maybe you’re right – Trump apparently offered to make John Kasich the most powerful VP in history, responsible for domestic and foreign policy – effectively a prime minister to do the boring detail while Trump jets around the world and enjoys the visible trappings of power. Maybe he envisions the same role for Mike Pence. Still, it seems an awfully big risk to take.
Sadly it looks as though American voters will have to choose between two different risks. Hillary Clinton is a known quantity and pretty much everything we know about her is bad. It’s also likely that the Russians, Chinese and others have a ton of dirt on her underhand financial dealings and will use it to blackmail her. I see Trump as a shrewd opportunist so I don’t believe that he would be anything like as bad as American liberals have painted him. He is egotistical and bombastic and that does represent a risk, as does his lack of political experience. It’s a question of do you vote for the “known bad” or the “uncertain, but probably not that bad”? On that basis I think that Trump would be the lesser risk.