When he received a draft of Donald Trump’s big convention speech, MSNBC host Chris Hayes called it “the full Buchanan.” Pat Buchanan is like the prologue to Trumpism. His anti-immigration, culture-war campaigns for the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996 helped test out the themes that have now taken over the party. His famous and controversial speech at the 1992 Republican convention ended by invoking the then-recent Los Angeles riots and saying that “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” Trump’s campaign is like a Buchanan rerun, with similar themes of nationalism, anti-interventionism and revenge on those who are said to have caused America’s decline, and a similar appeal to people who feel they are the losers of globalization and cultural change. Trumpism is, as anti-Trump conservative columnist Ross Douthat put it, “Buchananism without religion.”
Buchananism is basically a bleak worldview, and if you thought last night’s speeches were pessimistic, this one outdid them all. Explicitly defining “political correctness” as a way of telling happy lies to cover up how badly America is doing, Trump’s speech will be primarily remembered as a series of lurid tales of American doom, with crime as the major issue. He foregrounded the recent killings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as well as a recent increase in the murder rate — all of which he blamed on the Obama administration’s attitude toward law enforcement; in fact, throughout the speech, he acted like Obama is to blame for everything and that the very act of replacing Obama will fix everything. And he told the stories that helped get him the nomination, stories of murders committed by people who were in the country illegally.
Combine this with his statements that America’s economy is in terrible shape, its infrastructure is crumbling, and its international prestige is gone, and you’ve got something that makes America sound like it’s much worse off than it was in 1968 (it isn’t). The theme of the night was supposedly “Make America One Again,” but there was almost no talk of unifying the country; this was a pitch to get the bigger half of an irreconcilable divided nation. The most Trump reached out to the other side was responding to the crowd’s “Lock her up!” chant by ad-libbing “let’s defeat her in November.” Not openly calling for Hillary Clinton to be locked up passes for reaching across the aisle.
But as Douthat pointed out, Trump’s speech jettisoned most of the religious conservatism that has defined one wing of the Republican party for a long time. Many conservatives have been worried about religious freedom and the fear that the government will force them to get with the new program on issues like gay rights (many hold Mike Pence in contempt for what they see as his sell-out on these issues). Trump barely talked about that. It was appropriate that Trump, who doesn’t like reading prepared speeches, stumbled on the phrase “the altar of open borders,” mispronouncing “altar” as “order.” He didn’t promise to stop abortion, he didn’t promise to reverse gay marriage, and he tried to portray the Republicans as the gay-friendly party. No one ever believed Trump cared about social issues; there was, however, an assumption that he would at least try to reach out to social conservatives. But he didn’t, really. He even ad-libbed a line about how he’s “not sure I deserve” the support of the evangelical community. The evangelicals he had out there to speak on his behalf, like Jerry Falwell Jr., couldn’t claim he was offering them much, because he’s not.
Instead, what he seems to be doing — unless it’s just that he doesn’t want to talk about anything that doesn’t interest him — is reaching beyond the Republican base. His speech was pitched to the Middle American suburbanites who don’t care so much about social issues, but are worried about crime and violence and have a generalized distaste for things that come under the heading of political correctness. The most Trumpian speech before Trump’s came from Gawker-slayer and rare Silicon Valley Republican Peter Thiel, who is openly gay and dismissed social issues as “distractions,” much as Trump has done. And both Thiel and Trump don’t really care about economic conservatism either; Ivanka Trump vowed to work with her dad to eliminate the gender pay gap, which both economic and social conservatives have mostly dismissed as a myth. This is a culture-war campaign, but it’s culture war divorced from religion; it’s more about getting back at the smug sort of people who write for Gawker.
As an electoral strategy, this probably depends on assuming that the religious voters will turn out anyway. If someone’s top issue is abortion, who is that person going to vote for — a Democrat or a Republican who, however libertine he may be, is at least pledging to appoint conservative judges? Religious conservatives may be stuck with the Republican Party, so Trump can afford to rub it in and make a play for people whose views are more akin to Richard Nixon: not really religious or conservative, but anti-liberal.
This may also explain why the earlier part of the evening had a slight sports theme, with a surprise appearance by former NFL star Fran Tarkenton and a video from NCAA coach Bobby Knight. There was a Flyover Country flavour to the music (one song mentioned John Wayne) and the otherwise random Larry the Cable Guy reference from Rep. Marsha Blackburn. It’s a cliché that the Republicans are trying to win one last election by turning out older white people, but like a lot of clichés, it’s true.
Can it work? Of course it can work. Right-wing nationalism is a growing trend all over the world, due to a mixture of old-fashioned racial tribalism and concerns that are too easily dismissed as old-fashioned racial tribalism. I don’t know if there’s enough of it in America to form a majority. For many Americans, the country’s tradition of assimilating immigrants is part of the pride they take in the country; Trump’s nationalism is not their nationalism. Though America’s demographics have changed, the country itself has not changed as radically of late as it did in the 1960s. Trump may be running a European-style right-wing campaign for an American populace with different problems. And speaking from a prepared text makes him less effective than he is when he’s just ranting off the top of his head; his occasional ad-libs and repetitions (“believe me!”) had the self-aggrandizing, comic quality his fans are familiar with, but when he was just reading off the teleprompter, he seemed stiff and demagogic, not the greatest combination.
Obviously, the Democrats are going to say that America is doing a lot better than Trump says it is. For one thing, Democrats have been in the White House for the past eight years. And for another thing, it’s true. Trump’s portrayal of America’s cities as crime-ridden hell-holes is simply unrecognizable to most people who live in American cities, and that probably includes him. The people it’s meant for are people who have a vague memory of what American cities were like in the 1970s.
Yet the Democrats could fall into a trap by trying to be too optimistic about the future. As I argued last night, the Trump voter sees a zero-sum world, where every gain for someone else comes at their expense. While this is not a true vision of the world, so is the idea that the past was a hellscape and things are constantly getting better. Most Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. If Clinton can reassure them that things will be okay for them, that demographic and social change won’t hurt them personally, then she will win. If she repeats the often triumphalist tone around the 2012 election, the sense that old white people are on the way out and good riddance, then Trump has a shot. This may be one of the reasons Bill Clinton reportedly favours Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine for Hillary’s running mate. He might not be the one she actually picks, but the fact that he’s a top contender shows that the Clintons are conscious of the need to reassure white swing voters — to tell them, simply, that other people getting more privileges doesn’t mean they’ll have less.
It’s fitting, though probably coincidental, that Trump’s acceptance speech was delivered the same day Fox News chief Roger Ailes was forced out of the network he created. In some ways, Trump is the logical successor to the mix of politics and show business that Ailes helped popularize: like a Fox News host, you’re never completely sure if he believes what he’s saying or is just trolling for ratings, or both, and he shares the vengeful attitude and pugnacious New York media style of Ailes. But there’s one big difference between Trump and Ailes, and it’s also what differentiates Trump from Buchanan: Roger Ailes and Pat Buchanan were both loyal Republicans who cared about the future of the party as an institution. Trump isn’t, and doesn’t. He doesn’t care about the party’s future with the changing American electorate, and he definitely doesn’t care about making things easier on Republicans running in tough down-ballot races. Free from those worries, he’s able to risk it all on the chance that there is a majority that fears the things he’s talking about. If the bet doesn’t pay off, he loses nothing personally, and the Republican Party takes the fall. If it pays off, and he wins… well, let’s just say that he’ll probably run the country based on similar wild bets. And what can go wrong when a wild gambler gets the key to America’s nukes?
Pleasant dreams, all.