Last summer, in the early stages of the GOP nominating process, culture warriors like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee talked about same-sex marriage and abortion. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other establishment figures talked about things like taxes and education. They believed they were competing in a traditional GOP campaign. They were mistaken. Trump made this clear at the very first debate.
“I will tell you that our system is broken,” he said last August, talking about how money corrupts our politics. “I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them — two years later, three years later — I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”
With that bracing charge, Trump sucked the oxygen out of the room. It was dumbfounding to hear a GOP candidate say in a debate, in so many words: Rich people like me have rigged the system. But most people still viewed Trump as a fringe candidate, and his presidential bid seemed like something of a lark.
Last night, accepting the Republican nomination, Trump finished what he started in the primary season, laying waste to what was left of the established political order and attacking Hillary Clinton from both the left and the right. From the left: because the rigging of our politics by elites — by “Crooked Hillary” — is a major theme of his campaign, as is her support NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump promised to withdraw the United States. From the right: because “law and order,” nativism, religious bigotry and tax cuts — the greatest cuts proposed by any candidate in the race, he claims — are also key to Trump’s program.
At the same time, Trump called a truce in the battle over LGBT rights. In his own speech, he referenced the massacre in an Orlando nightclub in June and promised to make America “safe for LGBTQ citizens.” Earlier in the evening, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a libertarian, told the crowd he is “proud to be gay.” And though two luminaries of the Christian Right — Tony Perkins and Jerry Falwell, Jr. — had speaking slots, neither mentioned same-sex marriage. It was an odd omission, given how central that fight has been to the Right in recent election cycles. At least for the moment, the GOP base is preoccupied with other perceived threats.
“Trump is more interested in focusing on the things that I think the government should be involved in, like the economy and national defense,” Laura McConwell, an alternate delegate from Mission, Kan., told me. “I don’t think he’s particularly interested in chasing the social issue rabbit trails — things that have been very divisive. I’m not sure what they have to do with functions of government.”
Voicing the thoughts of many on the left, McConwell — an attorney, a graduate of Brown and the former mayor of her Kansas City suburb — went on to say, “The level of money in politics is obscene to me. And having Congress people be elected every two years these days means that they’re just constantly campaigning from election to election.”
The havoc created by Trump’s candidacy is, to put it optimistically, a double-edged sword for progressives. It has a focusing and clarifying effect. It means that the structure of our economy — who’s winning, who’s losing, and why — will be central in the campaign.
Every presidential candidate talks about the economy and promises to create jobs, of course — typically, in the case of the GOP, by cutting taxes and deregulating the economy. But Trump’s up to something else. He has a broad vision in which economic stagnation and the corruption of the political system are inseparable. Economic growth hinges on not just lower taxes and deregulation, but a fundamental leveling of the playing field. And this is why Trump’s emphasis on border security and building a wall resonate so powerfully. The wall isn’t just about racism. Like the trade deals that Trump rails against, it’s about fairness for American workers. It’s a critique of the status quo from the left — but on Trump’s own nativist terms.
The Trump supporters who I talked to at the RNC this week heard Trump’s more radical proclamations — as when he said, Thursday night, that things are worse than they’ve ever been — as exaggerations for effect, part of the game of politics. They believe he’s mainly interested in getting the economy on track and getting things done. McConwell put it this way:
With a lot of his campaign rhetoric, he tends to hype people up. But he also seems to have a bit of a calmer message, and if that [version of Trump] is elected president, I think that’s a good thing. Because he seems to be more interested in working with people and getting things done than the whole gotcha thing.
Perhaps the one certainty about Trump is that we have no idea what he means or intends. Nor is it clear that he does. Having built his campaign by ginning up fear about crime and terrorism, he wants to be the candidate who can unify the country: “Make America one again” was the theme of the RNC’s final night.
The dire challenge that Trump poses is that he defies all conventional categories. He plays to the fears, prejudices and insecurities of the electorate, and, as an unstable hybrid of Left and Right, he freely pulls from either tradition whatever serves his immediate needs. His analysis is correct in some ways — there are reasons, beyond racism, that he won the race, reasons that have to do with growing economic inequality and political corruption. Yet his solutions are terrifyingly wrong, and it is stomach-churning to contemplate what Donald Trump’s “one America” might actually look like.