The GOP Convention: Race, Identity, and Power
Call it a universal rule of politics–when a movement is obsessed with means rather than ends, it’s impotent. For decades, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been obsessed with the forms through which power is exercised, rather than what it’s actually used for. We are all familiar with the slogans and abstractions–“limited government,” “constitutionalism” and a vaguely defined “freedom.” Not surprisingly, the more these words were invoked, the less “freedom” Americans enjoyed and the further away conservatives moved from their ostensible goals.
Last week, the Republican Party was reconstituted as a nationalist party. Instead of the tired clichés long bereft of meaning, we heard about identity, populism, greatness, and power. But these messages could be sensed only by those with ears to hear them. The convention was only the beginning of a historic shift as a crumbling empire grapples with the reality of race in a country where there is no longer a dominant ethnic core.
Donald Trump’s opponents received a lesson in power at the very beginning of the convention. Delegates who opposed him joined with those who were simply seeking reforms of the nominating process to try to force a full floor vote on the convention rules. Of course, this would have given the so-called #NeverTrump movement an opportunity to try to deny Mr. Trump the nomination at the last minute. Their efforts were swatted aside when Rep. Steve Womack twice ruled against them even though the voice vote seemed to lean towards the dissidents. It was a painful lesson for delegates–ultimately, there’s no such thing as a government (or a convention) of laws. It always comes down to men and who is in power.
And this was Mr. Trump’s convention, at least when it came to the parts that really mattered. On opening night, rather than featuring random party officials, the family members of Americans slaughtered by illegal immigrants addressed the nation. Speaker after speaker mourned the loved ones who were stolen by invaders who shouldn’t even have been in the country. As one speaker noted, “no one listened” until Donald Trump.
Laura Ingraham was hailed even by the left-wing website Vox for showing how “Trumpism will survive Trump” after a fiery speech highlighting trade, immigration, and media bias. She was also accused of having done a National Socialist salute after the speech. Actually, it was simply a wave, but this is what we would expect from the press after Miss Ingraham channeled Mr. Trump’s tactic of calling out reporters during her speech.
“To all my friends, they’re way up there in the press, I see you,” she said. “You all know in your heart why Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. You know it . . . because he dared to call out the phonies, the frauds, and the corruption that has gone unexposed and uncovered [pointing at the reporters] for too long!” She blasted reporters as covering for the Democrats and refusing to do their jobs. This received one of the longest and loudest bursts of applause of the convention. She praised Mr. Trump for advancing his agenda even in the face of “sheer hatred.”
Peter Thiel shocked Silicon Valley by appearing to support Mr. Trump. In the New York Times’s inimitable prose: “[P]eople here pride themselves on a kind of militant open-mindedness. It is the kind of place that will severely punish any deviations from accepted schools of thought.”
Yet Mr. Thiel also stunned Republican delegates who still remember the Bush years. The media focused on Mr. Thiel’s forthright defense of gay rights, themes we expect them to celebrate. But Mr. Thiel also had something genuinely subversive to say about America’s decline and how the nation has become incapable of great accomplishment.
“Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East,” he charged. In Mr. Thiel’s view, Mr. Trump could unleash America, reversing the “incompetence” that characterizes our government. This story of American decline is “problematic” (as the kids say) for the anti-white Left, because a shared idea of national greatness built on new technological conquests and wealth contradicts the image of national redemption that can come only from apologizing for America’s white past.
Even Ted Cruz, whose refusal to endorse Mr. Trump rocked the convention, mentioned immigration and called for building a wall. Thus, the champion of the #NeverTrump delegation has a position on immigration far to the right of what George Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney would endorse.
Still the main highlights were Mr. Trump’s family members. Donald Trump Jr. announced himself as a political force in his own right with a powerful speech praised even by the likes of Rich Lowry at National Review. Interestingly, Donald Trump Jr. framed his opposition to mass immigration both in terms of an appeal to minorities and as something progressives should support. “It was Bernie Sanders himself who warned that a large tide of new workers keeps wages low and poverty high,” he said. He also said America will be greater than ever before–once we elect his father President.
Eric Trump struck similar notes. He said his father would redeem America’s “humiliation.” He said Donald Trump was running for the American laborer “forced out of a job by undocumented workers” and spoke of Americans killed by illegal immigrants. And of course, he spoke of his father’s ability to accomplish great tasks.
While Donald Trump’s daughter Tiffany also spoke, her speech was largely apolitical, and was meant to humanize her father. Ivanka’s speech softened her father, praising him as a champion of women, who is “color-blind.” However, she also said Mr. Trump would implement policies that would make it easier for working mothers to afford child care. As Greg Johnson noted, this policy, while mocked by movement conservatives, would have the dual effect of undercutting feminism and increasing the white birth rate.
But the highlight of course, was Donald Trump, whose masterful address will be pored over for generations, win or lose. Mostly avoiding his characteristic ad-libs and sticking to the script written by Jeff Sessions’s adviser Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s speech went beyond slogans and even beyond partisan differences. He set up the 2016 election as an existential choice, brutal in its simplicity–America, yes or no?
Mr. Trump laid out three critical failings of our government.
First, he called it illegitimate because it has failed to protect the lives or even the interests of citizens. “The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens,” he said. “Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.” In Mr. Trump’s view, the murdered citizens killed by illegals are nothing less than a “sacrifice on the altar of open borders.” The implicit suggestion is that our leaders know full well the inevitable consequences of their open borders policies–they simply don’t care about them. In contrast, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” said Mr. Trump. This includes taking care of American workers first–an us vs them approach which goes beyond the vague pursuit of global prosperity that has characterized Republican politics in the past.
Second, Mr. Trump suggested America’s best days are behind it (unless he is elected) because we are no longer capable as a nation of accomplishing great tasks. As he said, the American government is massively in debt, but “what do we have to show for it?” He slammed our collapsing infrastructure, “Third World airports,” and our current state of “national humiliation.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Trump argued there is a vast, hostile group that has an interest in keeping the current system of corruption intact. As he put it:
Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.
In response, Mr. Trump offered himself. “I AM YOUR VOICE,” as it read in the draft distributed to the press. Donald Trump himself, through force of will, will redeem the nation and destroy this corrupt system.
As Donald Trump Jr. pointed out, the supposedly independent journalists and newspapers in the “lapdog media” had a practically identical reaction to the speech, calling it “dark.” But what it really did was set up a lens through which the American people can interpret future events.
Even as this is written, a Catholic priest was beheaded in a Normandy church by one of the Muslim refugees Hillary Clinton is so desperate to bring to the United States to vote for her party. Donald Trump’s speech sets up confirmation bias, as each new terrorist attack, police shooting, or foreign policy disaster shows that he is right and “Crooked Hillary” is wrong. And polls show a sizable advantage for Mr. Trump when it comes to who the public trusts to handle issues such as terrorism.
There’s also confirmation bias when it comes to interpreting the attacks on Mr. Trump, who has characterized the press, media celebrities, and the financial elite as part of the corrupt system. Their attacks are increasingly ineffective. Each attack can be dismissed as bad faith, just another example of Crooked Hillary’s Establishment lashing out in fury against this interloper.
I have not mentioned Mike Pence or Paul Ryan, both of whom spoke at the convention. The reason is simple–there was nothing worth mentioning. They offered only the same banalities we have heard at every other Republican convention for decades. Indeed, aside from Mr. Trump, many of the features of the convention could have been plugged into Mitt Romney or John McCain’s conventions from years past. There were the multicultural and multireligous invocations, with overwhelmingly white delegates trying to look reverent but look confused while a Sikh hymn opens day two. Steve Deace, one of the more prominent #NeverTrump conservatives, hoped that Trump conservatives would “choke” on the Muslim prayer offered at another time during the convention.
Which bring us, unavoidably, to race, the specter which sets the contours of American politics. Despite the media’s panic, Donald Trump is not a white nationalist, nor even racially aware. His arguments (and those of his children) were framed in terms of how restricting immigration would help African-American and Hispanic workers. At no point did Mr. Trump speak explicitly in defense of European-Americans, nor identify them as a group with collective interests. He simply subsumed European-American identity into a larger “American” identity as most whites do.
Yet this still has the effect of driving the “racialization” of American politics. As the ongoing Democratic National Convention has already shown, each political party proposes an implicit racial vision. The Trumpified GOP is calling for a return to the traditional American identity–what Thomas Engelhardt called the Victory Culture of the American past. It’s not an accident that the Trump campaign is running online ads featuring Donald Trump next to a picture of a space shuttle. A Trump Administration is a return to the America that won the West, landed on the moon, and built an economy and military that stunned the world. Non-whites can participate in this, but only if they accept the traditional (which is to say, white) norms of American culture.
In contrast, the Democratic party has a different vision in which white men are essentially excluded from the history of the country they built. Michelle Obama told her audience she lives in a house “built by slaves,” but America is somehow redeemed because her daughters now play on the White House lawn. Rather than exploring space or creating new wonders, the great crusade outlined by the Left is the conquest of America’s past. Amnesty for illegal immigrants, gun control, and “electing a woman” are ways to replace and atone for America’s white history. Thus, when Democratic politicians assure us America is already great, what they really mean is America was never great until it became non-white.
Neither vision can succeed in the long run. Thus far, despite some excited talk early in the primary about how he would win the black vote, Mr. Trump appears to have almost no support from black voters aside from his former employees and prosperity preachers like Mark Burns. Nor is there any reason to believe Mr. Trump will be able to fulfill his early promise to win the Hispanic vote.
Meanwhile, in order to rally minority turnout for their all-white ticket of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, the Democrats are ratcheting up the racially inflammatory rhetoric. The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and other blacks killed by police will address the crowd at the DNC on Tuesday night, even though in none of these cases were the police (or George Zimmerman) ever convicted of wrongdoing. While Donald Trump is talking about “law and order,” the Democrats are lining up behind Black Lives Matter, even though it’s been only a few days since police were ambushed in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Both sides are essentially promoting a lie. Donald Trump says America can be made great again if we unite behind his civic nationalist vision, even though non-whites largely want no part of it. The Democrats say we are “stronger together,” even though the headlines every day show us diversity is a weakness and racial tensions are at the breaking point. Regardless of who wins, the regime will face a crisis of legitimacy, as the losers will regard the government not just as opponents, but as enemies and occupiers.
Donald Trump’s Republican convention obviously did not recognize this reality. But it was a step closer. It had the effect of gently awakening millions of Americans to the fact that they live under the rule of a hostile elite, that their government does not care about them. The convention reminded them that politics isn’t about promoting gauzy universal visions or playing by the rules but about triumphing over opponents. The fear Mr. Trump creates in journalists and left-wing politicians is justified. But they should realize that Mr. Trump is only the beginning. What should really frighten them is what happens next.