Cleveland is over, but not really. Their basketball team, the Cavaliers, finally won it all, and their baseball team, the Indians, leads its division this year. They’re pretty good. The football team, the Browns, is once again hopeless – but two out of three ain’t bad. The city itself is fine too – the river no longer catches fire and they have that Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame thing going for them. Cleveland isn’t over, the Republican National Convention is finally over – everyone has gone home – and maybe the Republican Party is over too. It may have died in Cleveland. There was a bit of a firestorm there. The party couldn’t keep on message. The first day it was the plagiarism scandal, not keeping America safe. The second day it was Hillary-bashing that got a bit out of hand, not getting America back to work with good jobs for everyone. The third day – the Meet Mike Pence Day – had little to do with Trump’s somewhat obscure running mate. Ted Cruz told everyone to vote their conscience, and not for Donald Trump. He was booed off stage and escorted from the room, but the damage was done. The final night, Donald Trump had to save the day, and the week. He shouted out one of the longest acceptance speeches ever, about how the world was awful, and how America was falling apart, and how every nation on earth was laughing at us, and how our laws and traditions were useless, and only he could save us. Just give him the power to bypass everything and he’d fix everything. That would take no more than a day.
The crowd roared. Others were a bit worried – this was pretty high up there on the Nuremburg Scale. We’d seen the movies of the rallies there, long ago. Others wondered what happened to their Republican Party, but at least they could turn to Fox News. Bill or Sean or Megyn would explain it all, but suddenly things were different there too. In the middle of the convention, Roger Ailes, the man who created and built Fox News, and who made all the editorial decisions, for all of its twenty years, suddenly resigned. The sexual harassment claims had piled up. He quit before they had to ask him to leave.
This was a bad week on the conservative side of things. In fact, Richard Wolffe – the Brit who was a senior executive at MSNBC for ten years (Ailes started that when it was first called “America’s Talking”) – writes in the Guardian that Roger Ailes built Fox News and the Republican Party and now both are crumbling in plain sight:
This is a radical time in American politics: a time the pundits and elected politicians thought would never come. After two decades of populist anger, the elderly rebels of Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork army finally stormed the barricades of the establishment and hoisted an orange leader atop the smoking rubble.
So there was clearly no better way to capture the sense of occasion than to hand the stage – and the primetime TV cameras – to a true statesman and model citizen, who could testify to Trump’s business acumen and personal ethics: Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship – because nothing truly captures the state of Trump’s Republican Party than a multimillion-dollar TV spectacle that revolves around a blood-soaked cage fight.
This has been an ugly week for American conservatives…
This is as ugly as it gets:
We are witnessing the Great Unravelling of the Republican Party. Its ideological intellectuals openly disdain and plot against the party’s nominee. Its elected officials are too busy to show up to their own party’s convention.
And now the conservative echo chamber itself is collapsing across the mainstream media it surely dominates.
The rapid demise of Roger Ailes at Fox News Channel is as seismic an event as Trump’s nomination. For Ailes ruled over a conservative media and political empire that stretched far beyond cable television.
Nixon’s former image-maker could make or break presidential campaigns, elected officials, TV anchors, talk radio and the pundit class. When Candidate Obama tried personally to woo Murdoch and Ailes in 2008, he found Murdoch far more reasonable than Ailes, who was convinced the young senator represented a mortal threat to the republic.
Ailes could single-handedly turn the Washington conversation from one concocted conspiracy to another: from the New Black Panther Party and death panels to Benghazi, destroying careers, the possibility of political compromise, and the mainstream Republican Party along the way. He left other news organizations in his wake, struggling to copy his commercial success with artificial news and freak show formats.
And now he’s gone:
Ailes has lost control of the empire he built at the same moment he lost control of the party he in effect controlled. Ailes was known to be close to John Kasich, the Ohio governor who lost badly to Trump and snubbed his home state convention this week. Somehow Ailes found himself outplayed by Trump: he clashed with Trump over Megyn Kelly, but ultimately needed him to drive Fox’s ratings ever higher.
That left no anchor, which was fitting:
If you watched Fox News on Tuesday morning, you would have no idea how the party Ailes built was tearing itself apart at the same time as his own network.
There was no extended discussion of the plagiarism scandal that had engulfed Melania Trump and her husband’s campaign. There was no explanation of how the Trumps lifted lines from the 2008 convention speech of the woman they had all spent eight years trashing on TV: Michelle Obama.
Plagiarism is, at its heart, about honesty. And the Trump campaign, constructed on trash talk passed off as straight talk, found it impossibly hard to tell the truth on Tuesday.
And the rest of the week was like that. Something was lost in the next three days, ending with Trump’s Only-One-Man Speech. The New York Times’ pleasant and thoughtful conservative, David Brooks, senses that is where the Republican Party actually ended:
Welcome to a world without rules. (I want you to read this paragraph in your super-scary movie trailer voice.) Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart.
Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.
Such has been the argument of nearly every demagogue since the dawn of time. Aaron Burr claimed Spain threatened the US in 1806. A. Mitchell Palmer exaggerated the Red Scare in 1919 and Joe McCarthy did it in 1950.
And such was Donald Trump’s law-and-order argument in Cleveland on Thursday night. This was a compelling text that turned into more than an hour of humorless shouting. It was a dystopian message that found an audience and then pummeled them to exhaustion.
But it wasn’t an outlier:
This fear builds on the sense of loss that was the prevailing theme of this convention. We heard from a number of mothers who lost sons and siblings who lost brothers.
The argument takes the pervasive collection of anxieties that plague America and it concentrates them on the most visceral one: fear of violence and crime. Historically, this sort of elemental fear has proved to be contagious and it does move populations.
Finally, a law-and-order campaign calls upon the authoritarian personality traits that Donald Trump undoubtedly possesses.
Brooks knows he has lost his party:
The GOP used to be a party that aspired to a biblical ethic of private charity, graciousness, humility and faithfulness. Mitt Romney’s convention was lifted by stories of his kindness and personal mentorship.
Trump has replaced biblical commitments with a gladiator ethos. Everything is oriented around conquest, success, supremacy and domination. This was the Lock Her Up convention. A law-and-order campaign doesn’t ask voters to like Trump and the Republicans any more than they liked Richard Nixon in 1968.
On the other hand, Trump may have the wrong strategy:
In the first place, it’s based on a falsehood. Crime rates have been falling almost without fail for 25 years. Murder rates have been rising just recently among gangs in certain cities, but America is much safer than it was a decade ago. In the first half of 2015, for example, the number of shootings in New York and Washington hit historic lows.
Trump dwells on illegal aliens killing our children. Between 2010 and 2014, only 121 people released from immigration custody later committed murder; that’s about 25 a year. Every death is a horror, but the number of police officers killed each year as a result of a crime is about 55, in a nation of over 320 million people. The number of police deaths decreased by 24 percent between 2005 and 2015.
The main anxieties in this country are economic and social, not about crime. Trump surged to the nomination on the back of his supposed business acumen, not because he’s a sheriff. By focusing so much on law and order, he leaves a hole a mile wide for Hillary Clinton. She’ll undoubtedly fixate at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia on economic pain. Trump could end up seeming strangely detached.
But he’s also detached from his own party, which Brooks finds odd:
A normal party has an apparatus of professionals, who have been around for a while and who can get things done. But those people might as well not exist. This was the most shambolically mis-run convention in memory.
A normal party is united by a consistent belief system. For decades, the Republican Party has stood for a forward-looking American-led international order abroad and small-government democratic capitalism at home.
Trump is decimating that, too, along with the things Republicans stood for: NATO, entitlement reform, compassionate conservatism and the relatively open movement of ideas, people and trade.
There’s no actual agenda being put in its place, just nostalgic spasms that, as David Frum has put it, are part George Wallace and part Henry Wallace. Trump’s policy agenda, such as it is, is mostly a series of vague and defensive recoils: build a wall, ban Muslims, withdraw from the world.
This is less a party than a personality cult.
David Brooks is sad, but Matthew Yglesias thinks Republicans like Brooks have it backwards:
A national convention isn’t just about a single candidate. It’s about an entire political party coming together.
And the truly striking thing about the Republican Mistake by the Lake in Cleveland this summer isn’t the nonsense coming from Trump, his kids, his favorite soap opera actors, and that one avocado farmer – it’s the nonsense coming from the Republican Party’s “establishment.”
A broad range of perfectly mainstream Republican Party politicians – Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida, and so forth – revealed a political party that, completely apart from Trump, is utterly debauched.
Republicans like Brooks need to wake up to that:
Not everything in American conservatism is toxic, but the convention has revealed a profound and genuinely unusual intellectual and moral rot in the Republican Party: a weakness for outlandish conspiracies and a preference for talk-radio antics over the necessarily-somewhat-dull work of practical politics. Trump is not so much the cause of this rot as the man who simply has the daring to punch the tree and send it tumbling down. The run-of-the-mill elected officials and the rank-and-file delegates who cheered them on did the damage.
Lost in the debate over the propriety of the convention’s loud and lusty “lock her up” chants, for example, has been insufficient focus on the basic ridiculousness of the argument.
Hillary Clinton’s email server, after all, has already been extensively investigated by a team of FBI agents and federal prosecutors. She’s not going to be locked up because she’s not going to be put on trial because James Comey, a Republican and George W. Bush administration veteran, determined that, given the facts, “no reasonable prosecutor would file charges.”
Under the circumstances, why on earth should she be locked up? Are Comey and the whole FBI in on the cover-up? Why?
They don’t know and they don’t care to ask. Or they do know and they just don’t care that they’re wrong. Or something.
That, however, is a minor matter:
Nothing circulating in mainstream Republican Party foreign policy is as outright dangerous as their nominee’s views on NATO and the Baltic states. But the common denominator across Trumpkins and establishmentarians is phenomenally stupid.
Speaker after speaker after speaker has proclaimed – to uproarious applause – that we need a leader who isn’t “afraid” to “call the enemy by its name: radical Islamic terrorism.”
This is fine for the peanut gallery. But knowledgeable experts broadly agree that using this phrase would be counterproductive in terms of America’s relationship with governments in majority-Muslim countries and in terms of the propaganda war in the Islamic world. It’s very understandable that Joe Republican back home doesn’t know this. It’s not really all that understandable that Donald Trump doesn’t get it, but the GOP chose to nominate an uncommonly lazy and ignorant person, so it is what it is.
But what’s Chris Christie’s excuse? What’s Pence’s excuse? Walker’s?
Did any of them ever actually ask anyone, “Hey, what is the reason Obama doesn’t say that?”
They don’t know and they don’t care to ask. Or they do know and they just don’t care that they’re wrong. Or something.
The problem is, then, more than Trump:
There is a palpable discomfort with Trump among many of the establishment politicians who are supporting his presidential campaign.
Ryan’s speech introducing Pence lavished praise on his character and commitment to conservative ideas that were entirely absent from his main address to the convention. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a rote statement that said electing Trump would be good because it would let senate Republicans govern. Even loopier speeches from elected officials like Christie or Florida Gov. Rick Scott didn’t dwell on making Mexico pay for a wall, banning Muslim immigration, opening up libel laws, abrogating NATO and NAFTA, or other signature Trump themes.
But these establishment speeches were, on their own terms, fairly bonkers.
Their slams on Clinton veered, repeatedly, into tinfoil hat territory. They were completely out of touch with the state of the economic recovery. They relied heavily on the idea that President Obama could defeat ISIS through rote incantation of magic words. And while they avoided most of Trump’s big crazy policy ideas, they did so mostly by avoiding speaking about any policy ideas at all.
And then there are the delegates themselves:
Rank and file activists reared on a generation’s worth of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News sat through a pathetic conclave in which governors and senators stooped to talk-radio antics in a desperate quest for applause, only to be trounced by Laura Ingraham – a real-deal talk radio host who, even more than Trump himself, perfectly captured the mood of a party that’s become completely indifferent to the work of governance.
Too much Roger Ailes will do that to you. Laura Ingraham subs for Bill O’Reilly when O’Reilly’s on vacation. The work of governance was never an issue there, and Heather Parton adds this:
It’s clear that the Trump phenomenon is not simply a matter of a charismatic con man dazzling a large number of Republicans into believing that he’s going to magically turn back the clock to a time that only existed in the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters. It’s about the collapse of an ideological movement and a political party. The bottom has fallen out of an entire belief system. That’s where the darkness is coming from.
She takes the long view:
The last two decades have been disastrous for the conservative movement and not just because it “ran its course” or “matured.” The three pillars of conservatism, traditional values, free market economics and a strong national defense all failed and failed in rather spectacular fashion.
Social conservatism has been reduced from what was once a dominant political and cultural force to a rear guard action fighting to roll back abortion rights in the states and tilting at windmills to ban birth control. The gay rights movement has successfully left them reeling, so much so that even Donald Trump gave an awkward shout out to the LGBTQ community in his speech last night promising to protect them from Muslim terrorists. The culture warriors are still toiling away, particularly on their new “religious liberty” legal line of attack but the fact that the large evangelical base is ardent in their support for a New York libertine with children from three different wives has exposed their heretofore unseen flexible virtue. They will no longer be able to credibly attack the Democrats for their allegedly loose morals.
The failure of the conservative national security philosophy was laid bare by the Bush administration’s Iraq war debacle. The vast majority of the people in that hall in Cleveland undoubtedly cheered George Bush’s disastrous policies at the time assuming that all wars would be glorious antiseptic (for America) successes like the first Gulf War. Their Vietnam propaganda had led them to misunderstand the practical restraints that exist around US military power and they believed that the war machine in the hands of a Republican could only bring victory. They learned otherwise and today they are supporting a man whose national security policy is completely incoherent but who promises to make the world “respect” us again.
Finally the financial crisis exposed the risk inherent in free-market economics and the idea that all you have to do is keep interest rates low, cut taxes and let the brilliant masters of the universe do their magic. It turned out that without some restraints these financial geniuses could not help but turn into degenerate gamblers and the low tax dogma resulted in dangerous income inequality. The instability of the middle class and the stalling out of traditional social and economic mobility created the environment for a flim flam artist like Trump to exploit the resultant insecurity.
And that leaves only racism, nativism and xenophobia:
That’s what Trump is running on. And it’s also failing. As you can see by the words of Ana Navarro or Ted Cruz, John Kasich or Jeb Bush or the whole staff of National Review, the party is splitting over that issue as well. The conservative movement as we’ve known it is disintegrating.
It’s possible that Trump will win the election in November in which case we will all have bigger problems and the GOP will have already morphed into something very new and very scary. But assuming that he doesn’t pull it off, it’s going to be interesting to see how the remains of Reagan’s Republican Party deals with the smoldering remains of their party. At this point there are no leaders who are untainted by hypocrisy and past mistakes, no new ideas, no “young guns.” The dark, dystopian vision we saw this week in Cleveland is all they have left. For the conservative movement it’s midnight in America.
That’s what died in Cleveland. The Indians may win the World Series again one day. The Browns may win the Super Bowl one day. But the Republican Party went to Cleveland to die, and did.
In fact, they held a wake back in Washington:
A smaller, somber affair took place just blocks from the halls of power at Dubliner’s, an Irish pub and Capitol Hill mainstay.
Past politicos, many dressed in black, gathered for an “Irish wake.” They were there to mourn the death of the Republican Party.
A memorial wreath with “RIP GOP” written on it and a guestbook welcomed attendees.
A black-draped coffin at the back of the bar serves at the display for photographs of past presidents: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. The Guinness on tap flows for those drowning their sorrows.
Andrew Weinstein, wake co-host and former spokesman for ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the 1996 Dole/Kemp presidential campaign, said the idea grew out of conversations with friends commiserating over the direction the GOP is taking with Donald Trump at the helm.
“There’s a consensus that this election cycle has brought an end for the Republican Party that we knew and worked for,” Weinstein said. “A lot of people who signed up for the party in the era of Reagan and Gingrich believe they can no longer move ahead.”
And so they have gathered tonight to mourn the “unnatural and premature passing of the Grand Old Party,” as described in the Facebook invite. Cause of death: the nomination of Donald J. Trump.
Cleveland is over, and so are they – and Roger Ailes is no longer around to spin that any other way.