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There’s the naked self interest, the lying, the controlled chaos, the cutthroat conniving, the backstabbing, the made-for-television “reality” meticulously packaged and presented as authenticity. They make it difficult not to think of Donald Trump’s campaign, and with it the Republican National Convention where the GOP faithful have gathered this week to crown him the sole survivor, as the perfection of the form that revived Trump’s career a dozen years ago — reality television.
So it was appropriate that Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, an alum of MTV’s Real World: Boston, which aired in 1997, was on the program for Monday’s RNC kickoff in Cleveland. All these years later, Duffy works “to reduce government spending, lower taxes, promote individual freedom, and limit government intrusion,” as a bio put out by the GOP noted, summing up most of the party’s major themes since the Reagan administration.
Whatever Duffy’s own commitments, Trump himself has shown limited interest in those themes, or in fact in any conservative principles and pieties that don’t serve his needs in the moment. Hillary Clinton was almost criminally wrong for supporting the Iraq war, Trump often notes. But then again, his vice-presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also supported the war, as did most conservatives. And Trump’s signature policy proposal, building a wall across the southern U.S. border, would be a massive public-works project, whatever else it might be.
Such ironies and heresies don’t go unremarked, of course. The Bush family has explicitly and publicly declined to support Trump, as have the politicians associated with the “Never Trump” movement, along with GOP elders like Mitt Romney. “It is clear that this election will have far-reaching consequences for both the Republican Party and our exceptional country,” as Jeb Bush recently wrote in the Washington Post. “I do not believe Donald Trump reflects the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party. And I sincerely hope he doesn’t represent its future.”
Despite Bush’s protests, Trump is in some deep sense the fulfillment and celebration of Reagan conservatism’s libertarian idols: its worship of profit, private enterprise, and radical individualism. Trump deserves GOP support, from that perspective, simply because he is the survivor of the war of all against all. Those are the rules of the game.
Yet the hard truth of the reality show playing out right now is that it’s not certain what holds the whole thing together — if indeed anything does, or could, beyond just the unstoppable force of Trump’s personality and media savvy — or where the whole thing might be heading. That, of course, is the addictive appeal of the genre. What will happen next?
Many of the self-identified conservatives at the convention have not only made their peace with Trump’s deviations from orthodoxy; they’ve found ways to enthusiastically endorse him. The explanations of the latter tend to focus on the presumed evils of Trump’s opponent.
“There’s no way in hell that I could ever vote for Hillary Clinton,” a delegate from Delaware, Hank McCann, told me outside Quicken Loans Arena. McCann is a retired general in the Army National Guard and chairman of the Kent County GOP. He originally supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “In some of his views, [Trump isn’t a conservative]. But Hillary is a socialist, and so there’s no way I could ever support her.”
Ironically, and portentously for Clinton, Trump’s heresy on free trade is one issue that many of his supporters bring up when the explain themselves. “A lot of big corporations — the manufacturers — have have left the U.S.,” said Dana Carroll, a delegate from Indiana. “The trade agreements like NAFTA have stripped a lot of [jobs away], and now there are no jobs for workers, and they have to go on welfare … Donald Trump is opening up the Republican Party, and more and more people are getting off the couch and joining because they’ve had a lot taken from them.”
“He’s going to close that border,” said Willie Feinster, a Republican convention observer from North Carolina. “He’s going to make jobs when he closes that border. Black people can’t get a decent job because of the illegals coming across the border. Trump’s going to put a stop to that.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“I’m not won over yet,” said Keith Trullinger, an alternate delegate from Iowa who supported Ted Cruz in the GOP caucus. “It’s going to be difficult, frankly. He’s got a long history of not being conservative and a short history of saying he’s conservative. So I don’t know.”
I asked him if Trump and the divisive campaign over the past year would change the Republican Party over the long run. “I think, ultimately, good things will come out of it, but we’ll see,” he said. “It’s painful. Change is hard.”
Such silver-lining explanations are a common theme at the RNC this year: We’ll get through this and unify, Republicans say, because what are the alternatives? Electing Hillary Clinton? Yet the chaos of the Trump reality show also seems to have sown a subtle disquiet about the future of conservatism, the character of the man the party has chosen and what it means to be a Republican. After all, some of his most potent talking points — on trade, on the war in Iraq, on the corruption of politics by wealthy donors — are to the left of Clinton.
The whole system might be rigged, like Trump claims, just like the scripted reality show that revived his career? But maybe the weirdest thing about this convention, and indeed this political moment, is that it feels like anything is possible and in fact might happen — which is rare in our politics, and can be reason for either hope or deep foreboding, depending on which way you look at it.
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