Republicans Can't Praise Trump, So They Bash Clinton
Tuesday was supposed to be “Make America Work Again” day at the convention. This had led journalists to expect that there would be some discussion, by the speakers, of, you know, work. The economy. Stuff Americans might want to know about how Donald Trump’s policy plans will make them better off.
Instead, the evening could be more accurately described as a “Two Hours of Hate” against Hillary Clinton. Sharon Day, the attorney general of Arkansas, said: “And as first lady, you viciously attacked the women who were sexually abused by your husband!” Chris Christie presented indictments of Clinton on everything from Libya to her private e-mail server. After every charge was laid out, he asked “guilty or not guilty?” while the crowd chanted “Lock her up!” Ben Carson, in the weirdest turn of the night, drew a strange line from Clinton to Saul Alinsky and straight on to … Lucifer.
My colleague Jonathan Bernstein has expressed how weird all this was. But having spent much of my afternoon running around the convention floor in search of rumors of a rebellion that never materialized, I suspect the political logic is sound. This convention is so divided that people seeking comparisons had to reach back to the 1976 battle between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, or perhaps the Democratic convention in 1968. During the nomination roll call of the states, as alternates in the stadium seats screamed Trump’s name, the actual delegates seemed curiously flat -- there were cheers for Trump, yes, but also a lot of somber faces and head-shaking. Meanwhile, when states cast their votes for Rubio or Cruz -- as directed by the voters in their states -- the Trump supporters among the alternates frequently booed. This seemed strange to me, but it is, after all, my first convention, so I asked a regular attendee if this was normal. This earned me a sad chuckle and a rueful shake of his head.
“Oh no,” he said. “Oh no.”
A lot of delegates love Trump. But a lot of delegates … er, don’t. In fact, they can’t stand the man. Most nominations end with a candidate who a lot of folks consider less than ideal, but who almost everyone can at least tolerate. This year, that toleration is coming only after a lot of arm-twisting, and through gritted teeth.
What can all these folks agree on? That they don’t want Clinton to be president. That was the subtext of Paul Ryan’s speech, which barely mentioned Trump, and never praised him. All he could bring himself to say about Trump was that at least if Trump was elected, Clinton would not be president.
It was a poignant and effective plea for the party to rally together, around the only possible thing that could unite them after the bitter season of the primaries, and the resentment in the convention hall over the way the convention organizers high-handedly and ham-fistedly rolled over last minute efforts to take a roll call vote on the rules. The insurgents almost certainly would have lost that vote, so there was little cost in allowing it to go forward. Doing so would have let the insurgents feel that they’d given it their best shot, and added legitimacy to the proceedings. But presumably the organizers felt that it would have embarrassed Mr. Trump, so attempts were ruthlessly put down.
These factions are never going to come together in enthusiastic endorsement of a Trump presidency. But a Not-Clinton presidency might have enough appeal to hold this fractious convention together, however uneasily.
Nor is the broader political logic necessarily bad. Trump and Clinton are both widely disliked by voters. They’re both also widely known by voters, which means that there’s not all that much room to turn those negatives around. Since neither of them is going to have much success campaigning as the likeable, trustworthy person you want sitting in the Oval Office, the only real hope for either party is to convince voters that the other candidate is so horrifying that a Not-Them candidate looks comparatively appealing.
So far, Not Trump is beating Not Clinton in the polls. But while some of the speeches last night probably sounded a bit unhinged to the folks who don’t already have a visceral, consuming hatred for her, others, like Christie’s, struck me as quite effective. Of course, next week the Democrats will get their own chance to present the case for Not Trump. We’ll get the voters' verdict in November.
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