Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear and loathing in Cleveland

I resisted turning on the Republican National Convention for three nights, but last night I settled in shortly after 8pm to see the show. And what a fascinating spectacle it was. Even though you knew it was coming, witnessing Donald Trump accept the nomination was surreal and Saturday Night Live-ish.

But before that there were the speakers leading up to the big moment. First, openly gay tech billionaire Peter Thiel (the founder of PayPal) gave a rather awkward low-key endorsement. What he said about stagnant wages and the vast inequality between his Silicon Valley enclave and places such as Oakland resonated with me. Indeed much of his speech, including ripping our Middle East adventurism, could have been delivered by Bernie Sanders. Then of course there was the requisite "I'm proud to be gay" line. Last night was a decisive rebuke for any who still hoped that the GOP was a congenial home for those who still believe and practice the sexual ethic taught by Scripture and tradition.

After an avuncular address by Trump business associate Tom Barrack -- which seemed more like a wedding toast than political endorsement -- daughter Ivanka took the stage to introduce her father. I couldn't help but wonder if mother Ivana was watching somewhere in a mansion on Palm Beach. If so, she must have been proud. Perhaps the best things about Donald Trump are his children. Like Thiel's I found the specifics of Ivanka's speech appealing, especially the part about making policies favorable to working mothers, the lack of which my wife and I are wrestling with even now as she prepares to go back to work under unjust circumstances having just given birth to our third child. All in all this portion of the evening must have struck many in the convention hall as a bit off key. "Where's the red meat?" you could almost hear the hard-cores in the crowd thinking. They would soon get what they came for.

My theory is that Trump's beliefs, and the way he lives in real life, is more like the picture painted by the three speakers preceding him, but the speech he gave is characteristic of his chameleon-ish strategy for winning the ultimate validation to his insecure narcissistic ego -- becoming President of the United States. (Read McKay Coppins truly jaw-dropping BuzzFeed article for more on Trump's motivation.) Trump in his essence is representative of the Manhattan, Las Vegas and Palm Beach circles he runs in -- vaguely liberal on social issues, somewhat fiscally conservative (when it suits his interests) and reflexively pro-law enforcement and pro-military. And there's the whole power and machismo thing too. Rudy Giuliani is another who embodies this sort of Rockefeller Republicanism 2.0. And by the way, how sad to see someone who was a genuine national hero after 9/11 morph into the worst sort of political opportunist hack.

In short, I don't believe Donald Trump personally is a bigot, or even that bothered about illegal immigration. However, he's cynically appealing to the worst instincts of white blue-collar and working-class voters who have legitimate fears about immigration, globalism and the changing face of America. Thus we had the strange spectacle last night of a candidate pledging to be the great protector of LGBTQ people, while in the next breath stoking the latent fear and loathing of "the other" when that other has a brown or black face.  Any thought that he was going to pivot, or moderate his strongman rhetoric, was dispelled by last night's speech.  

I haven't the slightest clue what a Trump Administration would actually look like. But win or lose his campaign has unleashed demons into the body politic that will be hard to exorcise. Trump is the nominee the GOP establishment deserved, but whether his destruction of the Republican Party of Bush, Romney and Conservatism, Inc. paves the way for something better remains to be seen.

Will the Republic survive a Trump presidency? Probably. Will it survive another Clinton in the White House? Probably. Still, with the choice before us it's hard not to conclude that our national politics is broken beyond repair. Virtue (defined as "thinking and acting in the right way") has left the room. As a husband and father my urgent priority is to embed my family within communities in which virtue can flourish. How to do that is a daunting challenge, but as followers of Christ it's our only option.

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