CLEVELAND — It wasn’t as surreal as Clint Eastwood interviewing a chair in Tampa in 2012, but David A. Clarke’s address to the Republican National Convention this week ranked right up there for its chutzpah, and it summed up the GOP’s state of mind right now about as well as any brief speech could.
Though he’s largely unknown among the general public, Clarke, who is the Milwaukee County Sheriff, is a superstar at the RNC, where the audience knows him from Fox News and other conservative outlets, and where his entrance produced half a minute of cheers and rapturous applause.
It’s not just that he’s an African-American in a party that is embarrassingly short on people of color. It’s that he’s an African-American who isn’t afraid to speak the “truth” to a nation that, presumably, can’t handle the truth.
Last fall, for example, Clarke explained that systemic racism doesn’t cause crime and dysfunction in African-American communities.
“Let me tell you why blacks sell drugs and involve themselves in criminal behavior instead of a more socially acceptable lifestyle,” Clarke offered during a podcast produced by right-wing pundit Glenn Beck. “Because they’re uneducated, they’re lazy, and they’re morally bankrupt.” Clarke has claimed elsewhere that police brutality ended in the 1960s and that Black Lives Matter will collaborate with ISIS to destroy the nation. “You heard it here first,” he tweeted.
Clarke cleaned up his act for the RNC, and his speech was significant in part because the naked racism of his not-ready-for-primetime screeds was completely absent. Instead, he invoked the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., in a not-so-subtle attempt to occupy the moral high ground.
“In 1963,” Clarke said, King “wrote passionately about the interrelatedness of all communities and states and about our inescapable network of mutuality tying us in a single garment of destiny. He spoke of the basic morality of the rule of law provided that it is applied equally to both the wealthy and the impoverished, to both men and women, and, yes, to the majority and the minority.
“What we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order. So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcend peaceful protest and violate the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy.”
Promises to restore law and order have been a defining theme of GOP politics since at least Richard Nixon, so in that sense, there’s nothing new here. Even so, Clarke’s comments reflect an important shift in the way conservatives are coming to understand themselves and their relationship to American politics. Their old belief that their cause is winnable is fading. They seem resigned to losing the culture, and to the triumph of what Clarke perceives as anarchy. The primary task left to them is to slow the spreading moral rot.
Nixon cast his appeal to the “silent majority,” and when Jerry Falwell initiated the political mobilization of conservative Christians in the late 1970s, he named his organization the Moral Majority. Ronald Reagan followed that script as well, appealing to the decency and goodness of average Americans. Legions of subsequent conservatives have done likewise.
Until recently, the GOP coalition contained enough multitudes that this claim to represent “the silent majority” seemed plausible. It wasn’t primarily a party of older, white evangelical Christians. Now it is. And the final triumph of conservative Christianity within the GOP is the party’s sense of itself as a minority set apart from, and against, an oppressive mainstream.
We see this in recent battles over religious liberty, in Christians who believe that their civil rights are violated because they can’t refuse to do business with sexual minorities. Those battles have been mostly a public relations disaster for the GOP and conservatives. In 2015, for example, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which seemed to open the door for corporations to refuse service to certain people for religious reasons, faced a backlash by the state’s business community. To placate the bill’s critics, conservative governor and future Trump vice-presidential pick Mike Pence pushed for amendments to protect LGBT people.
Anti-gay groups accurately protested that the reforms gutted the bill — the whole point was to discriminate against LGBT people, after all — but at some level, conservatives have lost their confidence that “the moral majority” is with them in such battles. Instead, they view themselves as the new, genuine “social-justice warriors,” though it’s a phrase they often use to mock progressives. That is, they are an oppressed minority that speaks truth to power and must fight for its basic civil rights. This is in great part the source of Trump’s appeal to the GOP. Like Clarke, he is a truth teller in a world turned upside down.
“Trump says out loud things that a lot of people are thinking in their heads — that’s what I like about him,” an alternate delegate to the RNC from Georgia, John Gamble, told me Tuesday. “It needs to be said, a lot of it. Does he go too far sometimes and say things that I would never say? Yeah. But then, on the other hand, he got where he is by doing what he’s doing.”
What does this mean for our politics? It means that the GOP has decisively rejected any attempts to broaden itself and reach beyond its very narrow base of voters. It will win elections, if it wins them, by turning out higher percentages of the older, white evangelical base — which it will do by ginning up their fears of those outside of that base. “Our city on a hill is now a city under siege,” as Texas Rep. Michael McCaul put it on Monday, summing up the RNC’s undercurrent this year: dug in, defensive, frightened about the future, and fighting, at least in the minds of the faithful, for civil rights and sanity. We are a long way from Reagan’s “morning in America” GOP.
That’s one takeaway of Trump’s nomination. Another is that the distance between conservatives and progressives in their understanding of truth and justice — what those concepts mean, how we should honor them, and where the solutions to our problems might be located — grows ever-wider. “We are at a crossroads unlike anything we have ever witnessed in our lifetimes,” said Karen Vaughn, RNC speaker and mother of a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan. But it seems closer to the truth to say that our choices have already been made, and our paths have already diverged.
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