“Make America One Again.” That was the stated theme of the last night of the Republican National Convention. In the welter of analysis of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, few have commented on it, but it’s worth taking it seriously.
Liberal commentators have dwelled repeatedly on Trump’s “dark” and “dystopian” view of America. Apparently, you’re not supposed to think badly of our nation when we have a black Democratic president.
This is mostly just partisan spin. The candidate of the out party invariably takes a dim view of the way things are going. Yes, they usually add more uplift than Trump provided.
But when two-thirds of voters think the nation is not moving in the right direction, pessimism does not go against the grain. You heard similar pessimism, although about different things, in the campaign for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders depicted the nation as if we were in the seventh and eighth years of a Bush presidency.
Unlike other recent acceptance speeches, Trump’s made almost no mention of history, except for a reference to a Lyndon Johnson IRS regulation, and made no attempt to put his candidacy in historical context. There was no mention of Ronald Reagan.
Nevertheless, the theme of “making America one again” is in line with the historical character of the Republican Party, which has always had a central core of people seen as typical Americans but are never by themselves a majority. They must attract others to their cause.
In contrast, the Democratic Party has been a coalition — sometimes fractured, sometimes a majority — of disparate minority groups: white Southerners and big city immigrants in the 19th century, black churchgoers and gentry liberals today.
Hillary Clinton is trying to reassemble the 2012 Obama 51 percent majority by offering something to blacks, something else to Hispanics, another thing to millennials and LGBTQs.
Trump is doing something different. He seeks to appeal to different kinds of people as all being Americans. On Thursday night, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Mississippi native, quoted an 1861 Abraham Lincoln speech in Cleveland: “If all do not join now to save the good old ship of Union this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”
Thursday night speakers included the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who proclaimed himself proudly gay, proudly Republican and, most of all, proudly American.
In his acceptance speech Trump promised to protect LGBTQs (he charmed the audience by stumbling over the acronym) from a “hateful foreign ideology” and thanked evangelicals (while admitting that he is far from being one himself) for their support.
The message is that the culture wars are over. As for “who uses which bathroom,” the latest cultural brouhaha, Thiel’s answer was: “Who cares?”
Other arguments have become stale. Abortion won’t be criminalized, but abortions have been rarer and the number of abortion clinics is declining, and not just because of restrictive state laws.
Same-sex marriage has been legalized everywhere by the Supreme Court, saving Republicans from the task of opposing majority opinion. But you don’t have to participate (I haven’t seen any recent cases of bakers sued for refusing to making wedding cakes for gay couples). This is in line with basic etiquette, which says you can decline a wedding invitation without giving a reason.
The debate over these issues seems stale, and it’s not clear that Democrats’ efforts to pump up their constituencies’ enthusiasm or arouse their fears will work; we’ll get some idea in Philadelphia. But it may prove hard to provoke alarm in those who have been mostly winning on these issues.
Democrats have a more target-rich environment in attacking Trump as volatile and unreliable, as presumptive vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine did Saturday. More difficult will be attempts to present a sunnier alternative to Trump’s “dark” narrative.
It’s true that, as Barack Obama said Friday, crime is down compared to 30 years ago, and increases in urban homicides may just be, as he said, an “uptick.” But Trump’s numbers are accurate also. A president who people thought would be something like Martin Luther King has sounded more like Al Sharpton.
It’s hard to make the case that things are not really as bad as you think they are, and that sophisticated people realize that terrorist incidents are less common than bathtub accidents, that murders of police are less of a problem than bathroom issues. We’ll see how the Democrats do.