October 26, 2021

Trump’s Land of Opportunity and Darkness


The Republican convention returned to roots on policy and put on quite the show. But it may be the rioters who decide Trump’s fate.

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) reacts as he stands with his family members after delivering his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Who was your favorite speaker at the Republican National Convention? Mine was Rachel Maddow. The left-wing cable host wasn’t technically on the convention schedule, but she may as well have been, given how often she butted into MSNBC’s coverage with an epic fact check! Certainly the RNC, like any other political convention, had plenty of lies and exaggerations. But that’s also why every major newspaper now has a battalion of fact checkers, all of whom, rather importantly, leave you alone until after the speeches have finished. Maddow’s annotations were like watching Star Wars with that one friend who interrupts every ten seconds to point out some prop inconsistency on Tatooine.

But that’s just so much kvetching. This was the 2020 Republican National Convention, dammit, and were you not entertained? If you weren’t during the proceedings, you sure were afterwards, as the Washington skyline exploded with color while patriotic hymns blared over the loudspeaker. America hadn’t seen that many fireworks since Gavin Newsom tried to ban them. The pyrotechnics were as much about spectacle as they were about braggadocio: I can do this and Joe Biden can’t. It was a theme of the convention, the devil-may-care exercise of ostentatious power, the flaunting of our national monuments before the camera. It gave a weird monarchical overlay to what was otherwise a very American affair, as the showmanship of the Trump family was conflated with the power of the state and with our national health. It was all a bit unseemly, not that anyone cares in this year of our edgelord 2020.

Last week, I said I didn’t so much mind the conference call feeling of the Democratic National Convention. I still think that, as it turns out, yet it’s also impossible to deny that the Republicans put the Democrats to shame. This was exactly how you’re supposed to host a pandemic-era pageant, dispensing (mostly) with the live audience while still maintaining a star-spangled, date-with-destiny feel. Incredibly, not only did the GOP claim the entertainment advantage, they also came equipped with far more substance than the Democrats ever mustered. This can be difficult to do in politics: you have to advertise your policies and accomplishments through the stories of others, lest you come off as too wonkish or too egotistical. The Democrats had the second part down but not the first, spinning personal narratives without ever seeming to cohere them into a concrete agenda. The Republicans, over and over again, pulled off this vertical integration with aplomb.

This was a convention that somehow made political hay out of right-to-try, a libertarian health care hobbyhorse that Trump signed into law two years ago, mostly unnoticed. Yet out to the podium came a bone cancer survivor who said she owed her life to this oft-overlooked reform. A lobsterman from Maine hailed a recent negotiated reduction in European Union tariffs on lawbstahs. Alice Marie Johnson, whose sentence to life in prison was commuted by Trump, spoke of the need for criminal justice reform. It all made for compelling viewing, with far more salt and earth than, say, Andrew Yang awkwardly throwing to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Indeed, one of the RNC’s accomplishments was to get Trump out of his own way, to remind voters that he’s implemented more policy than his endless Twitter soap operas would suggest. Association health plans, opioid prescription reform, funding for HBCUs—Trump might not be on a Macron-style reform blitz, but he’s done more than he gets credit for.

The convention mostly took place outside the GOP’s comfort zone. Anyone who’s ever been to CPAC knows the familiar litany of causes that dominate the speeches and B-roll: protect our guns, protect our borders, protect Israel, protect Israel’s borders, protect our guns, have you heard about the guns? And while the RNC did subject us to the dreary and mildly appalling spectacle of Mike Pompeo cutting in from Jerusalem, it also made a real bid for political independents and others outside the conservative base. This was no “Fox News prime-time segment,” as the New York Times sneered after night one. It was surprisingly heterodox, which led to some accusations of inconsistency. How could Republicans thunder about law and order one minute, then tout criminal justice reform the next? The answer is that the public tends to support both and the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I thought the bit where Trump pardoned convicted bank robber Jon Ponder was a fine attempt to reconcile them, with Ponder declaring that “we live in a nation of second chances,” while a former FBI agent he’d befriended heralded Trump’s “support for law enforcement.”

Yet despite all these divergences, it was still in many ways a very traditional Republican convention. The American carnage of 2016 was retired; wink-wink dissenters like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz were excommunicated. Instead, there was the O-word, once scrubbed into every Republican convention mouth right down to the janitorial staff: opportunity. You heard it often, and with Senator Tim Scott, the event’s best speaker, you almost felt it, as he told of his rise from poverty to the Senate. Republicans have gotten much wrong over the past 20 years, but one thing they’ve always seemed to understand, one thing that sometimes eludes their opponents, is that Americans want to get where they’re going on their own. They don’t like being nudged by government, even if it’s in a direction they need to go; they don’t want to feel like they’re taking handouts, even if they’re on federal assistance. Hence opportunity. The GOP’s social contract was: “we’ll provide the school choice, the fair trade, and the low taxes; you do the rest.” While Democrats touted the American idea of progress, Republicans tapped into our independence and self-reliance.

That wasn’t necessarily appealing in every corner of the political right. Some economic nationalists and workers’ rights types griped that the convention had stiffed their pet issues, talking up tax cuts and deregulation while ignoring tariffs and trade. That might be true, though it’s likely because support for free trade has risen and the GOP is eager to avoid spooking farmers, who have been hurt by Trump’s trade war and whom Biden is courting. The Republican approach was instead to place American businesses and workers on the same side, in opposition to the government and the Chinese, rather than pitting them against each other. Though Trump’s headline speech did spend plenty of time on his trade policies, even threatening to slap tariffs on any company that sent jobs overseas. I thought that address, by the way, was among the weakest at the convention, not because of its substance but its style. It was flabby, at 70 minutes long, and lacked the brute force that got the president elected in the first place. By the end, its hyperbolic tropes seemed stale. “This is the most important election in the history of our country!” Mmm. Joe Biden is a Trojan horse stuffed with socialists! Maybe.

Yes, this convention—before Rachel Maddow starts tracking changes in my column—had its falsehoods. It is not true, as Trump claimed, that the Iran nuclear deal was “one-sided” in favor of Tehran; it imposed on the Iranians one of the strictest arms control verification schemes in history. It is also not true, as another speaker declared, that “President Trump has accomplished more for the American people in four years than any other president in history.” Yet the RNC also grasped at an important truth, one Democrats have spent weeks trying to avoid. It is this: the riots in our city streets are not some flare-up at the margins, “fiery but mostly peaceful protests,” as a CNN chyron put it. They are real, violent, prevalent, and damaging to people’s livelihoods. For Trump, this is a risky issue to harness, since it’s happening on his watch. Yet for Biden, torn between his personal instincts and a political base that literally wants to defund the police, the challenge is arguably much greater.

And then it happened again, as demonstrators gathered in D.C. and mindlessly attacked Rand Paul, the most prominent advocate for criminal justice reform in Congress. If there’s any issue that can save Trump, if there’s anything that can mitigate the political damage caused by the coronavirus, it will be this.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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Matt Purple
The American Conservative 2020-08-29 04:01:00

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