Last week, as Donald Trump’s poll numbers declined and he continued his unusual campaign strategy of dwelling on self-destructive controversies and attacking other Republicans, there was talk that some GOP party leaders were getting increasingly concerned about having him as their nominee and speculating about the possibility of replacing him if he should choose to quit the race. I would be ecstatic should such an unlikely event come to pass, but it’s quite strange to hear about this resurgence of Republican dissatisfaction with Trump. After all, one of the main things that the Republican National Convention just a few weeks ago made clear was the appalling degree to which the GOP has thrown itself behind Donald Trump. Far from a political organization trying to make the best of an unfortunate outcome to the primary season by giving qualified support to the outsider who crashed their party, they turned over the keys to him and became his dutiful, often fawning, minions.
Not only has the Republican Party become the GOT (Glorifiers of Trump), it seems that no dissent, or even skepticism, whatsoever is to be tolerated. This was made all too evident throughout the convention by the dubious methods used to steamroll those making a last attempt to force a roll call vote on the rules, the exhortations from speaker after speaker that everyone must vote for Trump or be guilty of committing the horrific act of giving support to Hillary Clinton (who should instead be “locked up”), and the overwrought angry reaction to Ted Cruz’ non-endorsement ot Trump (to which I’ll return shortly.)
I’m sure that The Donald and his supporters enjoyed the four-day pep rally for his campaign, but, for me, the convention in Cleveland just brought ever more reasons to feel disappointed and dispirited.
I will confess that I couldn’t force myself to suffer through large doses of the convention proceedings themselves. I did read and listen to quite a bit of coverage about them and watch a few speeches, including those by some of our prominent Wisconsin officeholders (Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Scott Walker, and House Speaker Paul Ryan) and former leading presidential contenders (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.) From the outside, it seemed that the dominant common themes of the week centered on a) Hillary Clinton being utterly terrible so that b) it is therefore imperative for Republicans and conservatives to unite in support of the election of Donald Trump. Governor Walker added in some mentions of the success of his conservative reforms here in Wisconsin, but, overall, his speech was a pretty typical example of this basic formula.
Now, I can certainly understand that it is a lot easier to provide right-leaning voters with reasons to be against Hillary Clinton than arguments to make them excited about being for Trump. Still, one would normally expect a party’s convention speakers to devote considerable time to communicating the beliefs, goals, and policy ideas of the organization to the audience in the hall and at home. Not only was this missing to a large degree, but, when conservative substance did make an appearance in a few addresses, the context or response gave it a bittersweet (to say the least) effect. For me, this only added to the sense of frustration and exasperation caused by the GOP’s nomination of someone who does not represent traditional Republicans or conservatives at all.
For example, Paul Ryan’s speech did attempt to put forward a vision for moving the country in a better direction, and it’s good that someone was actually discussing things like freedom, tax and health care reform, and a government that protects liberty and respects Constitutional limits. Normally, Ryan’s statement that politics should not seek to divide people into groups and play one against the other and his expression of the ideal that “everyone is equal... no one is written off” would be fine arguments to use when attempting to persuade voters to choose Republicans. However, the GOP nominee this year has hardly avoided rhetorically lumping people (Mexicans, Muslims, the media, politicians, etc.) together, has been leading a campaign often described as some sort of populist uprising of the working class versus the “elites,” and is rather fond of deeming certain people “losers,” “weak,” “chokers,” or assorted other lovely nicknames that don’t exactly emphasize the inherent equality and worth of every individual. Trump also is much more likely to share his thoughts about poll numbers, his admiration for various authoritarian dictators, and his plans to punish people who say things that he doesn’t like than to spend time talking about the Constitution or any of those other mundane conservative topics brought up by the House Speaker. Considering all of these unpleasant factors, Ryan’s assertion that “only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way” doesn’t exactly seem like the most logical of conclusions.
On a similar note, even though Marco Rubio only appeared to the RNC in what was basically a 90-second campaign commercial and spent most of that limited time criticizing Clinton, I found the remarks he did make in support of Trump less than convincing. Rubio asserted that Trump would make conservative appointments to the courts, which is at least something that Trump has said, even though I’m skeptical about the worth of any commitments made by someone so completely unreliable. Rubio’s claims that dealing with terrorism and bringing debt under control are good arguments in Trump’s favor were even more questionable. Trump may recognize that there are problems in these areas, but his comments about foreign policy and terrorism (including his bizarre praise for Saddam Hussein as a fighter against terrorists) have not inspired confidence in his ability to lead on that issue. During his presidential run, he’s suggested plans that would require even more government spending (for infrastructure, healthcare, etc.) while opposing any reform of entitlements and proposing various versions of tax cuts, so it’s difficult to see how he could avoid making our national debt worse -- not that he’d necessarily mind that, as someone who’s said that he “loves debt.”
Ted Cruz’ address to the Republican convention was notably different. For one thing, rather than just delivering some “rah-rah, vote for the GOP team” remarks, Senator Cruz actually aimed to give a well-crafted speech that went somewhere and made a case for his brand of conservatism. I can’t say that I personally loved everything in the speech, like the criticisms directed toward the political establishment and trade policies, but those notes should have appealed to the Trump supporters in the crowd. Overall, though, Cruz did a good job in describing some of the big ideals that are part of his vision for our country’s future. He advocated more freedom in many forms and aspects of life, more limited government, and leaders who follow the Constitution and defend the rights and liberty of the people. In the portion of Cruz’ presentation that received the most attention, he encouraged listeners to vote in November’s election and offered up the advice to people to “vote your conscience; vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and be faithful to the Constitution.” Ordinarily, Republicans would be expected to cheer someone stressing these themes, but in this backwards year, Ted Cruz received boos in the convention hall and plenty of criticism afterwards even from people who had been his supporters. Why? Because, while Cruz said nothing bad about Donald Trump, he did not give an endorsement to the man who spent months attacking him and his family.
I don’t actually see why Trump’s fans had such a problem with Cruz’ comments, unless even they know that their favored candidate would not meet the qualifications to be the choice of conscientious voters. Cruz deserves credit, not blame, for declining to proclaim that Trump is an example of the type of leader he believes should be elected. To me, attempts like those from Ryan, Rubio, and others to positively present traditional conservative policies or values and then imply to members of the public that they’ll be getting someone who believes in those things if they elect Donald Trump are highly inaccurate. They seem like “bait and switch” efforts, aiming to convince voters of something that plainly is not true, even if those doing the talking sincerely want to believe in it themselves. Considering the nominee’s history of deceptive business endeavors like Trump University and the Trump Network, this might be a fitting approach to take, but those trying to justify and promote Trump’s candidacy, however reluctantly, shouldn’t be surprised and upset if polls show that, at least for now, large segments of the voting public aren’t falling for the con (or slick sales pitch, to be more generous.) It’s too bad that, thanks to the poor judgment of primary voters, Republicans don’t have the chance to offer the general electorate a much more appealing and higher-quality candidate. Going forward, we’ll have to see if the party even attempts to showcase thoughtful, genuinely conservative politicians in the future or settles into its new role as the latest acquisition of the gaudy, celebrity-focussed Trump brand and likely heads for intellectual bankruptcy. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but the signs so far do not look very promising.