One of the major themes of the just-concluded Democratic National Convention, and especially of the reaction to the convention, was that the party was, as the New York Times put it, “Eager to Woo Republicans.” It was the fullest expression of the Democrats’ effort to assemble a unified front against Donald Trump. Two nights after the populist and socialist Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, so did the plutocrat and sometime Republican Michael Bloomberg.
The same night Bloomberg spoke, President Barack Obama gave an address about national unity and harmony, crafted as a response to Trump’s message of rage and fear from the Republican convention.
“[W]hat we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican,” Obama said. The same claim could be found from Obama’s committed opponents, in the #NeverTrump realm of Republican Twitter, after he spoke:
Text just now from a senior House Republican who gave me permission to tweet this: “We were supposed to make that sort of speech."— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 28, 2016
It is strange to hear that the speech given by the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, delivered at the Republican National Convention, was not Republican. Donald Trump was onstage in Cleveland because 14 million Republican voters had put him there. Presented with a broad field of other possible nominees—senators, governors, a business executive, two medical doctors—the Republican Party overwhelmingly chose Trump. What does that make him if not Republican?
But the charge that Trump is not Republican isn’t meant to be factual. It’s aspirational. The Republicans are one of the two major parties between which government in this country is divided. It is alarming to see one of those parties, half of our political system, being led by a loudmouthed buffoon, a fraud and liar, running openly on a platform of cruelty, fear, self-aggrandizement, xenophobia, and white nationalism.
It is, however, entirely consistent with the party that nominated him. Donald Trump is the product of half a century of Republican strategy and ideology. Republican voters nominated him because he’s what generations of Republicans have been guided by and encouraged to vote for.
Nothing about Trump is outside Republican mainstream precedent. It’s just that it’s never all been assembled so blatantly in one package before. One complaint about him, from the right, is that he’s not a sincere conservative at all, but a morally lax East Coast elitist who only started opposing things like abortion and gun control so he could pander to right-wing voters in flyover country. That’s probably true! It’s also true of the Bush family.
And as with the Bushes, once he put the mask on, it fit. Trump’s apocalyptic law-and-order speech in Cleveland may not have been what Erick Erickson’s anonymous House Republican wanted to hear, but it was hardly unfamiliar. It was a direct update of Richard Nixon invoking “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” and “sirens in the night” at the 1968 convention, with some 1996 Patrick Buchanan thrown in.
His performance in the role of the indispensable Great Man, the television-personality cult that led to him bellowing “I alone can fix it” and “I am your voice,” is essentially a self-started version of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project and the accompanying party mythology. His confusion about basic facts and his accompanying reliance on untrue parables—lying so brazenly that it’s not clear whether his grip on reality is slipping—likewise mark him as a definitively Reaganesque figure.
But Reagan, the story goes, was sunny and positive. That depended on who you were. But if Trump’s specific combination of belligerence and laziness doesn’t quite match Reagan’s style, it closely echoes the outlook that got George W. Bush elected, running against the Clinton-Gore nerds and their endless hard work for big government.
Does Trump go out of his way to take contemptuous potshots at his enemies? So did Antonin Scalia, from the Supreme Court bench. Is Trump dredging up the most toxic racist elements in American thought, in the name of opposing political correctness? So did would-be apostate pundit Andrew Sullivan, now interrupting his warnings about Trump’s danger to call Black Lives Matter a fraud. Is Trump playing dangerous games by lifting coded messages from anti-Semites? Listen to the nasal, mocking “liberal voice” right-wing radio has deployed for decades.
Americans have been warned that if we tolerate Trump’s crude and dangerous whites-only campaigning now, it could come back later, with a more smooth and polite candidate speaking to his base. This gets the history backward. We already saw the mannerly version of the Trump campaign in 2012, with Mitt Romney complaining about the parasitic “47 percent” demanding government handouts. Eighty-eight percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were white.
Trump is just targeting that demographic even harder. That effort is aided by his party’s long-term effort—running from state and local Republican officials up through the Republican-appointed arm of the Supreme Court—to suppress black voter turnout.
The result was a peculiar lapse in the logic of the convention’s message. The Democrats reminded voters of how much the public admires Barack Obama and appreciates his presidency. The Democrats also let viewers know that the party sympathizes with the public’s anger at the government’s failure to give people the help they need.
But the argument connecting those premises—that the Republican majority in Congress has blocked the president you love from helping you as much as you deserve to be helped—went mostly unexpressed. Instead, Hillary Clinton declared that she “will be a president for Democrats, Republicans, and independents...for those who vote for me and those who don’t.”
It was a fine sentiment. It was the same sentiment people liked hearing from Barack Obama, before the Republicans took to heckling him when he addressed Congress, shutting down the government to try to defund his legislation, and eventually denying him the power even to have his appointments considered. After eight years in which Republicans’ admitted policy goal was to spite and thwart the president, in the hopes of defeating him, it seemed a little misplaced.
Whether or not the Democrats denounce the Republican majority, though, it still exists. And Donald Trump—angry Donald Trump, anti-immigrant Donald Trump, curdled with his hatred of Obama—is ready and eager to lead it.