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Party of Rage

Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and Rudy Giuliani, Cleveland, Ohio, 2016
Mike Segar/Reuters; David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images
Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and Rudy Giuliani, Cleveland, Ohio, 2016

The strategy and tone that lay behind this week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, and that have lain behind Donald Trump’s campaign from its outset, reflect a strain that has existed in the Republican Party for nearly fifty years, and that will likely dominate the fall contest. That is, to play on the politics of fear, hatred, and race. In identifying himself as the candidate of angry white middle-class men, Trump took on both their economic and social grievances. It was thus logical that he’d declare, as he did on July 11, echoing Richard Nixon, “I am the candidate of law and order,” and that that theme would be continued in Cleveland. As the convention was opening on Monday, Paul Manafort, who is now more or less in charge of the campaign, said that Trump was modeling his campaign on Nixon’s.

Trump’s disturbing acceptance speech Thursday echoed the menacing cast of the whole convention: Americans have much to fear. If those discomfited by the violence of the addresses on Monday thought that, well, that was just convention-opening rhetoric leading up to a statesmanlike final night, they were in for a rude surprise. The speech was reminiscent of the one Trump made when he announced his candidacy a little over a year ago: illegal immigrants are “roaming free” on America’s streets and killing its citizens. (No mention was made of Obama’s controversial—among Democrats—stepped-up deportations.) Not for Trump the lofty address. Not for him “the lift of the driving dream” or “the shining city on a hill.” His red-faced, shouted speech—longer than any acceptance speech in modern history—packed with red meat, went down well enough in the large convention hall (though one could spot some stony faces), but how it was received by those not present is another matter.

The strategy behind the speech was puzzling: it seemed mostly aimed at the people already with him. Trump was the riverboat gambler who bet that this raging performance would convince enough Americans that he should be president. It was either extremely shrewd or a profound miscalculation. Caution isn’t one of Trump’s long suits—a trait that the public may find appealing or appalling. He isn’t inclined to do what the political professionals say he should, and he made no sign of having acquiesced in the widespread assumption that once he had the nomination in hand he would have to “pivot” and be “presidential.” Or perhaps, Trump, a revolutionary of sorts, thinks he can revolutionize the presidency itself.

Those who’ve been uneasy about Trump’s apparent authoritarian instincts were given no comfort from this speech. In Trump’s mind, it seems, there’s no Congress and no governing process. (L’etat c’est moi.) He presented himself as the vessel of the angry people—“I AM YOUR VOICE” (the only phrase in capital letters in the entire speech transcript). Of course he wasn’t suggesting he was the voice of minorities and the left-out. Providing few specific prescriptions for fixing the problems he defined—crime, immigration, unfair trade deals, etc.—he said he would solve all of them. “Of ISIS,” Trump said, “We’re going to defeat them fast.” As far as Syrian refugees are concerned, Trump shouted to the cheering audience, “We don’t want them in our country.” 

As promised, “law and order” made several appearances; the phrase has carried a racial connotation since Nixon started using it in his 1968 presidential campaign. It signals black men causing trouble. Trump counted on events of the past six or so weeks to define the nation of today, though he focused much more on policemen murdered by black men than on black men murdered by police. Race was also implied in the phrase, used by Trump and earlier speakers, “school choice”: this meant white kids shouldn’t have to go to school in black neighborhoods. In talking about bringing back jobs, Trump dropped the names of important swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan. He also mentioned New York which, if it truly becomes a swing state (as Trump people keep indicating it will, perhaps to fake the Clinton campaign out), it would be a remarkable development.

Revealingly, Trump made a big thing of stating that he’d be truthful: “I will present the facts plainly and honestly…Here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” He then rattled off a series of misleading statements and statistics. He suggested that homicides and violence had increased dramatically, though violent crime is at a forty-year low. Though he hammered away at illegal immigration, there’s been no great influx in the last decade. He made an absurd assertion about the size of the increase of Syrian refugees and claimed that this country has no screening process for vetting them, though there is a rigorous one in place. He repeated his claim that “America is one of the highest-taxed nations in the world,” though Americans are taxed at among the lowest levels of any major country. In Trump’s account, there had been no recession and no Iraq war. Like the rest of the convention he aimed an unusual amount of attacks against Hillary Clinton, giving the flavor of what’s likely to come. 

Well before the convention rolled around, Trump had lifted many of the traditional political restraints on expressions of intolerance. He’d conveniently rejected “political correctness.” He and congressional Republicans had already gone to town denouncing the FBI director’s decision in early July not to recommend prosecution of Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state; at the time, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton has got to go to jail.” (No former government official has been imprisoned merely for misuse of classified information.)

The convention’s dark first night culminated in the berserk-looking Rudolph Giuliani, who in recent weeks had been stirring up already heightened racial tensions over the murders of black men and mostly white policemen, bellowing to the large hall that people should be very afraid. Giuliani cried, “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe.” He went on, “They fear for their children. They fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers, who are being targeted with a target on their back.” In the setting of the Monday night speeches, and given Trump’s previous comments, the crowd’s extraordinary cry of “Lock her up!” seemed almost natural.  

It wouldn’t have been impossible for Trump’s representatives to try to tamp down what the Republican strategist Steve Schmidt called behavior symptomatic of a “banana republic.” Convention managers send messages from a control room to whips on the floor directing the chants. If they didn’t encourage “Lock her up,” they did nothing to stop it. As the week wore on, the theme that the opposition candidate should be imprisoned—the radicalization of partisanship—became ingrained, with speaker after speaker encouraging mob anger. (Could the guillotine be far behind? It was no surprise that the co-chair of Trump’s veterans outreach and a New Hampshire delegate said that Hillary Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason,” which led to a Secret Service investigation.) Throughout his campaign, Trump hasn’t shown concern about the negative if not dangerous emotions he has set loose with his talk, his tweets, or his use of symbols (such as the Star of David).   

Paul Manafort’s thuggishness defined much of what happened in Cleveland. His unprovoked attack on Ohio Governor John Kasich, whom he described on the morning of the opening day of the convention as “embarrassing his party,” and then the unnecessarily protracted mess over Melania Trump’s speech, were further indications of the thinness and ineptitude of the Trump campaign. Manafort had been a partner of the Republican flame thrower Lee Atwater (George H.W. Bush’s political consigliere), and the deliberately flamboyant Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who, though he and Trump had a falling out in 2015, still had Trump’s ear. Characteristically, instead of owning up to the plagiarism in Melania’s speech, Manafort first denied its existence and then went on the offensive, preposterously blaming the controversy on the Democratic nominee. On no basis at all, he called it “an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down.”

It was no surprise that the thug-in-chief of convention speakers was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The Trump campaign of course knew that Christie would “prosecute” Clinton, and Christie was eager to please them. His litany of “charges,” with which he spurred the audience into shouts of “Guilty!”—interspersed with “Lock her up!”—was riddled with lies that were echoed by other speakers. Contrary to what Christie implied, Clinton didn’t negotiate the Iran nuclear deal—a good agreement that’s become the Republicans’ next Obamacare. (In his acceptance speech, Trump said that the deal had yielded the US “absolutely nothing.” That would be true if one overlooks that it will stave off Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for at least ten years. Trump even said in the speech, “Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons.”) But it didn’t matter what Christie said, or whether it made sense—for example he accused Clinton of “putting big government spending financed by the Chinese [again] ahead of good paying jobs for middle class Americans.” The fact is that stimulus spending could have created jobs (had Republicans not fought it). Though Obama didn’t recognize Cuba until well into his second term, years after Clinton had left the State Department, Christie described her as “a coddler of the brutal Castro brothers.”

Christie has allowed himself to become a somewhat comic figure, slavish in attaching his ambitions to Trump. Christie’s running out of options in New Jersey, where he’s in political (and perhaps legal) trouble. After he learned that he’d be passed over for joining the Republican ticket he called and begged to be reconsidered. Christie’s now widely thought likely to be named Attorney General should Trump win. Consider that.

The testimonies given by Trump’s children about their father came across as real, and the family is obviously close. But Trump can be a great father and also a cut-throat and exploitative businessman with a history of questionable deals and four bankruptcies. The direct involvement in the campaign of his three eldest children, Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is most unusual. If their advice has on occasion been wise—such as telling Trump to get rid of the coruscating Corey Lewandowski—it hasn’t made life easier for Manafort, though at least until now they’ve largely been his allies. The lines of authority—well, there seem to be no lines of authority.

Paul Manafort, New York, April 19, 2016
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Paul Manafort, New York, April 19, 2016

The Trump children’s influence on his choice of a running mate was extraordinary—and while Mike Pence may well have been the best option under the circumstances, Melania Trump was known to be angry at the pressure on her husband to pick someone he wasn’t comfortable with. Pence, is the conventional, traditional Republican who Trump defiantly isn’t. Trump’s last-minute bout of indecision was mixed with his fury that his choice of Pence, supposedly settled, had been leaked. Does this tell us anything about how Trump would make decisions in the Oval Office? When I say “under the circumstances” I’m referring to the alternatives.

Only in the Trump campaign’s parallel universe would Newt Gingrich be considered vice-presidential material. To describe Gingrich as erratic is to be euphemistic to a fault. I spent a lot of time around Gingrich when he became House Speaker after waging an intra-party rebellion and taking over in 1994, and while I found him fascinating and canny, his stratospheric ideas took him to his own Neverland. His manic chase of Bill Clinton into an impeachment over his sexual misbehavior in the White House ultimately hurt his own party and got him ejected from the speakership. (At the time he was having an affair of his own, though he’s now a settled married man.) Gingrich’s pattern of thinking was displayed when, after the murderous truck tragedy in Nice, he called for the deportation of believers in Sharia law and for making an Internet search for Sharia law a felony, punishable by jail time.

Though Mike Pence is a man of no great distinction or brilliance, he’s equipped with the likable qualities that make one popular among House colleagues. Born into an Irish-Catholic Democratic, Kennedy-worshipping family, over time he became an evangelical Christian and Tea Party adherent. But his lack of rough edges has softened the meanness of his message. He worked his way into the House Republican leadership, ending up in the number three position, chairman of the Republican conference; along the way, he challenged John Boehner to be Republican leader but lost badly. After serving six terms in the House he ran for governor of Indiana in 2012 and won.

As governor Pence has backed an anti-abortion bill so strict that it’s now being challenged in court. Having trapped himself in the anti-gay marriage movement that would legalize denial of services to same-sex couples, under pressure from businesses in Indiana he backed down to some extent, incurring the enmity of die-hards on the matter. In interviews at the time, Pence looked confused. At one point he had considered running for the presidency himself. Now he, too, was in danger of failing to get reelected. As an agent of party unity, a link to the traditional Republican Party (which put his previous views much at odds with Trump’s, but Pence was quickly adjusting), Pence was a good choice, and that was reportedly one of the reasons Manafort and Trump’s children urged his selection.

The “rollout” of the announcement of Pence was awkward throughout, in part because of the incompetence of Trump’s staff, in part because Trump clearly lacked enthusiasm for his choice. The two men’s joint interview on 60 Minutes the weekend the choice was announced was painfully awkward, given the differences in their positions. That Pence had voted for the Iraq war, which Trump falsely claims he opposed from the outset, was forgiven by Trump, though he said Clinton’s vote wouldn’t be. Trump, who in most of their joint appearances kept scurrying off the stage after joining Pence there, doesn’t seem to welcome co-stars; among the finalists for his running mate, he seems to have chosen the one least likely to compete with him for attention. (After his acceptance speech Thursday, Trump dispensed with the tradition of the two nominees raising clasped hands.)

Pence’s acceptance speech on Wednesday night was so normal, such a typical Republican convention address, that it came as a relief after all the talk about threats and violence. But even Pence’s competent performance was overshadowed by Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump—the latest display of the fact that he can’t resist doing something that makes more people dislike him. The Trump campaign, such as it is, knew that Cruz wasn’t going to endorse him and didn’t have to give him such a prime spot in the program. But Trump decided to let Cruz hang himself in his pursuit of the presidency in 2020—though Trump made a point of appearing in the hall just at the moment Cruz urged people to “vote your conscience”—the motto of the Never Trump movement. And so Cruz secured his own place in convention history.

While attention should have been kept on the convention, Trump gave another interview on foreign policy to The New York Times, this time saying that he wouldn’t necessarily come to the aid of a NATO nation attacked by Russia, and upending other longstanding bipartisan foreign policies. Either Trump is playing a game of chess to get other NATO members to up their contributions to the alliance or this was another example of his cluelessness about international affairs. Trump has a strange affinity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where he has business interests. His people even got a platform proposal dropped that would have advocated sending arms to Ukraine.

A number of Republican leaders, deliberately or not, colluded in the nomination of a man who appeals to everything dark in our society, a man of demagogic talents, ignorant of so much that matters in governing in this country, and of questionable soundness. A lot of people in Cleveland managed to contort themselves into supporting Trump—several said they supported “the party’s nominee,” and the Republicans’ visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton was a unifying principle. Many observers maintain that Cruz had inadvertently helped Trump unite the party. But this was as unenthusiastic a convention as I’ve observed, despite all the cheering for Trump on Thursday night. (A convention crowd wants to be roused by the candidate’s acceptance speech.)

After four nights of opportunities, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party had done almost nothing to expand its following beyond the base: token Hispanics and blacks were given minor roles in the program—fewer blacks were at this Republican convention than there’ve been in a long time—but in his acceptance speech Trump didn’t bother with outreach to groups he’s assumed to particularly need. He didn’t talk about Hispanics or women (though in her introduction of her father, Ivanka Trump said he gave the women who worked for him equal pay, and pledged that he would do the same as president). He did express support for gays, which was at odds with the convention platform’s offering assistance to parents for “conversion therapy.”

The outsider, the populist plutocrat, has captured the party, at least for now. If he loses in November, some amount of Trumpism will likely survive, but as the delegates dispersed, the party remains deeply divided on such crucial issues as trade, immigration, and foreign policy. While some Democrats are becoming nervous about the tight polls in certain battleground states, the Republicans left Cleveland with an unusual number assuming—or hoping—that their nominee will lose.     


Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.