America’s Great Task: Rejecting Donald Trump
I deplore hyperbole and sensationalism in politics. I am quick to remind people to keep our politics in a broader, historical perspective. I respect people from both parties, and while some Presidencies have been better than others, I have believed that, whether America is under Democratic or Republican leadership, our country will broadly be fine.
Thursday night, watching Donald Trump accept the nomination for President, I was the most genuinely frightened I have ever been in my life.
A year ago, I predicted that Trump could be the Republican nominee. I didn’t realize how frightening of a prediction I made.
I have routinely dismissed outlandish comparisons of Trump to fascism. After Thursday night, no longer.
I regularly mock the notion that “this election is the most important one in a generation.” This time, I’m not so dismissive.
Let’s talk about that convention.
From night one, I realized this was not a normal convention. Usually, conventions are upbeat, take some jabs at the record of the opposing nominee, and then present a positive vision of change. This was different.
On the first night, Pat Smith called Hillary Clinton a murderer, holding her responsible for her son’s death. It felt reminiscent of Cindy Sheehan calling Bush a murderer due to her son’s death in Iraq; except the DNC never put her on stage. I’m not sure if the RNC thinks Bush is a murderer due to the 84 American deaths in embassy attacks during his presidency. Then, Rudy Giuliani, a once self described liberal Republican, gave a speech where he screamed at the top of his lungs, warning America of the dangers of terrorism, like an apocalyptic preacher. What America ought to do beyond our current 13,000 airstrikes launched against ISIS? Make sure we say the word Islamist more often.
The next night, Chris Christie conducted a trial of Clinton. The crowd all week chanted “lock her up.” This Republican Party makes Ken Starr look like Mother Theresa. Chanting for the arrest of your political opponent and accusing her of murder without substantiation feels like something out of a fledgling dictatorship, not a country where Jefferson once said “we are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”
The words said along the margins of the convention may have been more startling. Congressman Steve King argued that whites have contributed more to civilization than any other “sub groups.” Convention speaker Antonio Sabato said Obama “absolutely is a Muslim.” Trump advisor Senator Baldasaro called for Clinton to face a firing squad. I’d be startled, but I’ve heard right-wing people I know say identical statements before. To be clear, however, this kind of rhetoric never occurs at a typical convention.
On the third day, Ted Cruz gave a speech that was both a courageous stand for principles and a political power play (yes, it can be both). He gave an eloquent defense of Reagan conservatism. He was booed off stage. The outsider Senator was not radical enough for this convention. Conservatives got to watch on live TV as their conservative party was officially taken over by right wing populist nationalists.
Watch the last RNC and compare it to this one. See the difference in policies proposed, along with the difference in tone. There was no conservative message of optimism, little mention of the founders, Reagan, or other conservative staples. The primary focus was tearing down Clinton and the status quo. Rarely was it mentioned how Trump would achieve his goals, though that is to be expected, as cults of personality rarely do nuance or specifics.
It seems almost pointless to fact check this convention. Trump is using the general public’s fatigue with ‘political correctness’ as a blanket to cover his routine factual incorrectness. Why bother pointing out Clinton is no more ‘abolishing the 2nd Amendment’ than Reagan did with his gun control bill, that Iran is dismantling its nuclear missile program and is helping fight ISIS and not the other way around (the notion that Shia Iran would aid Sunni ISIS is amusing), and that Clinton opposed Assad while Trump has supported him. Would Trump’s supporters care if they read that Trump’s tax slashing plan would explode the deficit, that crime is falling and not rising, that America is enjoying increased respect abroad not less, that Obama has overseen historic periods of job growth not job loss, that illegal immigrants and refugees are less likely than white Americans to commit violent crimes, and that illegal immigration is actually at historic lows? Probably not. Facts are stubborn things, and apparently were too stubborn to endorse Trump or attend the RNC.
Still, I did not know whether the convention, with all its unconventionality, would be effective. And then Trump delivered his speech, the longest acceptance speech in at least 48 years. There was no softening, no effort to make up with conservatives and no pivot towards the general election. He doubled down. He painted America in apocalyptic terms, as a once great nation undermined by politicians and Democrats seeking to weaken this country. This America was lawless and under siege from terror. This America had left behind the ‘forgotten people,’ the ‘great silent majority,’ who work hard, love the country, and aren’t politically correct. He would be their voice. He would be their champion. He would make America great again. It’s not difficult to read between the lines of his Nixonian address. The fear Trump is tapping into doesn’t line up with facts but, rather, with a feeling. He’s tapping into the feeling that an America where white heterosexuals were the basic conception of what it means to be an American is slipping away. That’s why they are the real Americans. That’s why they wish to “take the country back”-take it back from the others. Certainly, there are other reasons people support Trump: party loyalty, disdain for Clinton, or frustrations with being left behind by globalization, but the ethos behind Trump’s references to his white masses as “real Americans” and his desire to “make America great again” is, at its core, the cry of a displaced social class wishing to reassert its dominance.
People have asked me if we have seen anything like this before: Nixon’s Silent Majority and calls for “law and order” as a response to increased racial integration and liberal social policies is an obvious comparison, though Nixon was oddly both more conservative and liberal than Trump. Trump, like Nixon, thrives off of victimhood: both loathed the media and intellectual elites, claiming they were biased against them. They relished in a “one man against the world” attitude, shared by their white supporters who believed they, not minorities, were the real victims of oppression. Trump is unique insofar as he is less experienced and qualified than Nixon, more radical in his policies, and is in a media-reality TV culture that helps sustain his efforts. Whether Trump believes in the fears he’s outlining or not, I don’t know, but he’s instilling them in others, and exploiting them effectively. As he gave his vision, easy to grasp, and hard for his crowds of cheering followers to resist, I felt what I felt the day he announced he was running for President: it is hard picturing him lose.
The greatest tragedy of Trump is not that he says what he says, but that people were ready to embrace his words. The tragedy of Trump is what he reflects in us. Sadly, his success should not have surprised anyone. Some in the GOP (though not all-just many of its loudest voices) have been playing with compromising facts and playing into fears for short term political gain for years. There was Nixon, after all, but there were more to come. In 2009, the GOP invoked fears of ‘death panels’ in trying to stop the Affordable Care Act, even though that law was originally the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation and Newt Gingrich. The NRA regularly raises fears that the government will ban all guns, even as Democrats propose watered down gun bills that pale in comparison to Reagan’s proposed gun control legislation. For a generation, right wing talk radio and Fox News made the case that Democrats don’t just have different means than Republicans at helping our country, but that they actively wish to weaken this country and are a threat to America. Liberals aren’t just of a different political stripe; they are “not real Americans,” to borrow from Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin.
Surprised that John McCain was called “not a real war hero” the moment he disagreed with Trump? Remember that John Kerry was not a real war hero to the right wing the moment be questioned the policies of President Bush. You shouldn’t be shocked that Trump wants to target civilians and increase the use of torture: after all, Rush Limbaugh already told us that Abu Ghraib was just soldiers “blowing off steam” and Palin already reminded us that “water boarding is how we baptize terrorists.” For the right-wing nationalists, President Obama isn’t a typical center-left politician: no, he is a radical with a foreign worldview who is deliberately trying to weaken America, and is not a real Christian. When millions are convinced that their political opponents are less American, and want to purposefully weaken this country, then of course they will turn to someone like Trump to give them what they deserve. No, not a conservative agenda, but a man who will take their country back for them. In this respect, even though Trump is not a conservative, the Republican Party, and many conservatives in that party, laid the groundwork and enabled him, creating the environment that allowed him to take over and reshape the party in his image. Conservatives are not being honest if they do not recognize their complicity in that.
This is scary for liberals and conservatives alike. We are witnessing the most illiberal candidate in our history launch a dismantling of conservatism. The Republican Party was transformed from a conservative party into a right wing populist nationalist one. The new answer to problems is not limited government, but the power and anger of a strongman. Gone is the caution, the religious deference and the love of freedom that defined conservatism, and that I respected. Republicans who think that, four or eight years from now the voters Trump persuaded will repudiate their steadily entrenched dogma are naive, particularly if Trump wins. Meanwhile, Trump’s nativism, intense illiberality on virtually every policy question makes him an equally atrocious affront to liberals. Liberals should take no glee in battling Trump: a strong America is one with two sensible parties. Furthermore, it should be concerning to all voters that Trump is an affront to both of the most dominant American political ideologies.
Trump’s greatest affront may be, ironically, to the American identity itself. Trump claims to be for the people, but that claim is as farcical as his assertion that he believes all lives matter. He is for the silent majority of people, the people not in Steve King’s subgroups: to his supporters, he’s saying ‘I’m for people like you.’ Surely he’s not the voice for the disabled, for liberals, social conservatives, Hispanics, refugees, or Muslims. He is ‘for us’ and ‘against them,’ an admittedly persuasive stance. He is relying on the simplest of feelings: fear, anger and strength.
But ignore his inexperience, his predilection for falsehoods, and gross narcissism. Ignore his thin-skinned and vindictive pettiness, his lack of knowledge on issues or understanding of our democratic-republican government, his school yard bullying and shoddy business record. Ignore his destructive policies, like his prescriptions on trade, his wall with Mexico, withdrawing from NATO, his willingness to assist the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or ban on Muslims, and his inability to explain how he will implement any of them. Ignore that he is, in my view, the single most unqualified nominee of a major party in our political history-and I don’t say that without examining all the other nominees in our history. By Trump trumpeting that America is the domain of ‘real Americans,’ the silent majority, and by implying that his opponents are less American; whether that be by banning Muslims, mocking the disabled, denigrating women and Hispanics, calling into question the patriotism of war heroes, and censoring reporters, he is pulverizing something integral to us as Americans: E Pluribis Unim, out of many, one. This “America first” candidate is assaulting what has been embedded in America: that all of us are first among our fellow citizens, no group of us is more entitled to the blessings of liberty than another, and that this country is too vast for one opinion or just one kind of “real American.” That is the greatest danger Trump presents: even if he cannot pass any of his agenda (which is wishful thinking) if elected, Trump has the ability to change the very fabric of democracy in America. Trump being the voice for “real Americans” and standing against the “others,” whether they be political opponents, reporters or racial and religious minorities, marks an unraveling of what our founders intended our democracy to be. The result is a mob rule at best and an authoritarian state at worst, where our great leader, the strongman, determines who is and who is not part of his real America. Already, Trump ally Newt Gingrich has called for Muslims to be rounded up and forced to pledge their loyalty and deported if they don’t fall in line. Conservatism may have helped create the political climate; populist nationalism may have been the Trojan horse he used for his rise, but make no mistake: with Trump as President, America is flirting with fascism. The backdrop of crisis and calls for order are already there. The common enemy of the state, the others, has been identified. The cult of personality around a leader who will make them great has been established. All that is left is the oath of office.
I love this country. In spite of what is going on, or perhaps because of it, I want to get involved in our politics, and I’d encourage all of you in suggesting that this election speaks to the need for more people to get involved in politics, not for more people to become cynical. In this beautiful country of ours, yes, we are great because we created the world’s largest economy, boast the greatest fighting force, and because of the achievements of our inventors and scientists, but we are also great because of our character. Embedded in us as a people is an optimism that tells us that we need to believe that things can get better, and that it’s our job to make that so, even if it means sticking our neck out to fight for justice for others. That’s how we first declared our independence. That’s why colonies from the south and Mid-Atlantic stood with Boston in 1775. That’s why we fought a bloody Civil War to makes others free. That’s why we fed Europe after World War One, saving a continent, and why we saved a continent from fascism two decades later. It’s why men and women came together to secure women the right to vote. It’s why we marched across a bridge in Selma. It’s why we banished smallpox and vanquished polio. It’s why we signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and PEPFAR. It’s why both gay and straight people can cheer that love wins.
That is how we have boldly answered the call to history: with optimism and wide eyes, with big hearts and hard work, with heroism and with hope. That’s how we carried the cause to which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. That’s how we built a more perfect Union.
History calls us again. America faces the greatest challenge we have faced in a generation; whether or not we can overcome our baser instincts and heed, what Lincoln called, the better angels of nature. America has been put to the test, the test of whether it can reject Donald Trump. That is the great task remaining before us.
Trump must be defeated. The damage to both liberalism and conservatism he presents may be irreparable: the damage he threatens to the soul of America, unconscionable. Conservatives, defeat him by voting your conscience and voting for Johnson or a write in, and save your party. Don’t be fooled into doing otherwise: the notion that Trump could pick a qualified Supreme Court justice ended the moment he said Gonzalo Curiel is unsuited to judge a case because of his Hispanic heritage. Furthermore, his ignorance in regards to the Constitution, disdain for the separation of powers, and the real threats he poses to conservatism in the long term should make clear that Trump asking for conservatives to ignore his flaws because he will stop Clinton from appointing Supreme Court justices is a poor Faustian bargain. Conservatives, content yourselves with controlling the senate, and forcing Clinton to appoint moderate justices. For liberals, this is more simple: defeat him by uniting behind Clinton and elect her this fall.
Alexis De Tocqueville once observed that “America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Don’t make America great again. Keep it good, and we will continue to be great. The world is watching us. Let them say that, in this time of turmoil, we faced this challenge, and became a new “greatest generation.” Let it be said that we answered the call of history. Let it be said that we remained dedicated to continuing the work of building a more perfect union.