Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump's Convention

Political Conventions tend to be somewhat rowdy and hyperbolic in their rhetoric. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, when convention speakers try to whip up enthusiasm by discrediting the leader of the other party. Sometimes the VP candidate does that as well. (Hubert Humphrey's magnificent "But not Senator Goldwater" acceptance speech in 1964 comes to mind.) But the presidential candidate usually leaves that to others and focuses more on a positive message. So what the relentless maligning of Hillary Clinton at this convention - including even in Donald Trump's acceptance speech itself - highlighted was how little positive there was to bind the party together. Hence, the reliance on malignant negativity.

But the convention went well beyond ordinary negativity. As one right-wing pundit acknowledged in The Washington Post, the attempt to criminalize the opposition - especially the unprecedented and the malicious "lock her up" language - were more befitting a "banana republic" than the United States or any democratic constitutional state..Criminalizing the opposition and putting them in jail is what we expect from the likes of Vladimir Putin. It is not what is supposed to happen in America. But, of course, this has been a tried and true technique used by Republicans against the Clintons, notably used by the infamous Ken Starr in his unwarranted - and unsuccessful - impeachment effort in the1990s. While Ken Starr failed in his persecution of the Clintons, he succeeded in further deteriorating the character of our politicis and the civility of our society.

Particularly striking is how this effort at partisan de-legitimizing has spread to other traditionally respected institutions. When Trump's campaign manager was challenged by a commentator who cited FBI statistics that the crime rate has been declining not increasing, the response he got was that the FBI is less trustworthy because the FBI Director (a Republican, by the way) was unwilling to propose prosecuting Hillary Clinton.Trying to de-legitimize even the FBI for purely partisan reasons reflects an even more radical breakdown in our common consensus and respect for our treasured national institutions.

But most of what happens at conventions is inside the Beltway sort of stuff. It is the nominee's acceptance speech on the final night that likely gets the most attention from ordinary citizens. Whatever has transpired at the convention so far, it is the final night that may make or break a campaign.  

Trump's night got off to a good start. His daughter Ivanka introduced him with a quite serious and substantive speech - one which at times it sounded much more like that of a Democrat advocating gender equality in the workplace than that of a Republican. Then her father took the stage - and spoke for over 70 minutes!

The speech was written and read from a teleprompter, but it still had some of Trump's stream-of-consciousness style. Stranger still, it had little of the uplifting rhetoric we are accustomed to expect on such occasions. Rather, it was largely about how bad everything is in America - and the world. Even if that were true, it would seem like a risky strategy in appealing to an electorate which does not normally respond well to bad news and tends to prefer a more positive message. (Everybody's classic political example of this is, of course, Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in large part by making conservatism seem hopeful rather than despairing. Trump's speech was strangely despairing - a sign perhaps of how very different the time now is and his party now is.) 

What the electorate does always like, however, is magical thinking, of which there was plenty in the speech, which promised to accomplish any number of almost miraculous improvements at home and abroad with no hint of any cost, while at the same time cutting taxes. Still it was the overwhelming negativity of Trump's vision of America that was so striking. Of course, the Republican party is particularly prone to conspiracy thinking. Still, if his audience really believed his dark picture of life in America, it is a wonder they were not terrified to go home last night!

Likewise striking is just what a radical break this speech was (and Trump's candidacy is) from what the Republican party has long been about. One as to assume that many of the long-time Republicans in the audience have been long-time free-traders, who now must obediently change their tune and applaud as their nominee denounces the trade policies which previous Republican presidents and presidential candidates have so strongly supported. Of course, a very good case - or at least a very plausible case - can be made in support of Trump's (and Sanders') position on trade. But that is another issue. What is striking - startling almost - is what a very different Republican party was on display from what previous conventions have showcased. Gone for now - and maybe forever - is the party of Paul Ryan. 

Something similar could be said for Trump's encouragingly positive words in support of LGBT Americans. Those words may have come easily to the cosmopolitan Trump, a New Yorker after all, with what Ted Cruz famously called "New York values." But one has to wonder how easily the applause came for some of the delegates, who nonetheless again obediently fell into line. And, in that whole lengthy address, there was not even one word about abortion. Trump's rhetoric on trade and immigration may remind one of Pat Buchanan, but the decades-old "culture war" seems really to be over - at least as far as Trump is concerned. 

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