We shall learn this week if there is anything left of Lincoln in the party he founded.
Political conventions used to make news, but over the last five decades, they have devolved into mere pep rallies.
The stage is set in Cleveland — “city of light, city of magic” — for the coronation of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee.
This is interesting primarily because the billionaire businessman bears little ideological resemblance to the party he has hijacked.
Normally, shared beliefs form the foundation of political affinities. Historically, Republicans have cohered around an ideology that evolved over time in logical conversation with the needs of a changing nation.
Trump breaks decisively with the past of the party and the nation. Throughout our history, politicians have sometimes strategically stoked anger and hatred for ideological fuel, but Trump recklessly spews rage and venom entirely divorced from principle, calculated solely to feed his self-aggrandizing cult of personality. His promiscuous tendency to lie and contradict himself shows how little use he and his followers have for logic, evidence or ethics. His pitch contains just three consistent elements:
- “America is a hellhole and we’re going down fast,” because our leaders are losers
- Outgroups are the problem (i.e., foreigners, Mexicans, Muslims, etc.)
- Trump will make America great again, because he’s a winner
History pretty clearly spells out the merits of basing popular movements on principles versus personalities.
The traditional ideological approach to political organization has a clear track record in this country. In its first 160 years, the GOP became one of the world’s greatest and most enduring parties.
Republicans constituted a powerful force for good for most of American history. Under Lincoln’s leadership, the GOP saved the Union, ended slavery, built transcontinental railroads, and invented land grant colleges and national parks. Early in the last century, Theodore Roosevelt and other Progressive Republicans supported the income tax, labor reforms, consumer protection, business regulation and woman suffrage. Later in the 20th century, they worked with Democrats to win World War II and the Cold War, build interstate highways, pass civil rights laws, and promote free trade and economic growth.
This is a worthy legacy, but Trump gives no hint of understanding any of it. Nor will the convention feature any living statesman who contributed significantly to any of the party’s past achievements. The Presidents Bush, Senator McCain and Governor Romney will all stay home. Senator Dole will be in town, but may not even enter the convention hall.
How, then, will Trump use the Republican National Convention to outline his vision?
The billionaire businessman had promised a “showbiz” convention featuring A-list stars from the sports and entertainment world. There is an undeniable logic to recruiting celebrities to explain the merits of our first celebrity nominee for Commander in Chief.
Unfortunately, many of those plans fell through. It was unclear how former and current NFL quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Tom Shady and Ben Rapistberger were going to illuminate Trump’s fitness for the Oval Office, but we may never find out, for they will not take the stage. (Presumably, the athletes’ agents mounted interventions to preserve what remains of their reputations.)
Evidently, a recorded statement from former college basketball coach Bobby Knight — the renowned chair-throwing rageaholic — will have to suffice as The Donald’s endorsement from the world of sports.
Trump has also enlisted fellow reality television personality Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty. This is not the unrepentant racist and homophobe from the same show—that’s his father. Your confusion is understandable, because all of the men in the family look like body doubles for ZZ Topp.
Moreover, Hollywood heavy hitters will come out in force, spearheaded by the immensely influential Scott Baio, formerly famous for roles in Happy Days, Joanie Loves Chachi and Charles in Charge. Two soap opera stars are also scheduled to speak, presumably to remind the nation that the format has not yet disappeared entirely from daytime television.
The nominee may also allow a few actual Republicans to speak at the convention. Many of the scheduled speakers are sycophants vying for Cabinet posts, like Governor Christie and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Incredibly, Trump’s staff has to date neglected to require speakers to submit advance speech drafts for review. This may increase the chance that someone might dare to defend party values against the tide of Donald worship.
There are a few potential loose cannons on the docket who might screw up the courage remind the country that the party once stood for something, and challenge Trump for trashing the GOP’s reputation. Perhaps Senator Rubio, or Speaker Ryan, or — most probably, but least credibly — Senator Cruz.
I feel nothing but sadness for the Republicans. And the country.
Because there is also a long, clear track record for political movements based on cults of personality. It is a grim roll call of evil: Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, the Peróns, Mao, the Kim dynasty of North Korea, Castro, Mobutu, Pol Pot, Marcos, Gadaffi, Khomeini, Saddam, Hugo Chavez, Putin, etc.
If there is a lesson from that nightmarish history, it is that free people need to speak out early and often against tyrants, nip bigotry in the bud, and tear it out by the roots.
Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who heroically resisted history’s most vile cult of personality, famously wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
To date, Trump has hammered Mexicans and Muslims, mocked women and the disabled, and insulted blacks and Jews. Will anyone in Cleveland speak for them?
For what does the Grand Old Party stand?
Will anyone speak for Lincoln? Or TR, or Eisenhower, or Reagan?