Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Republican Convention (2016)

The Republican Party convention is over and I’m sure you have read, heard, and/or watched plenty of commentary on it.  What I have read has been entirely negative, even from conservative sources.  I suppose this only confirms the law of karma.  Anger and hostility will naturally produce ill feelings in those who witness it, but it was a bit chilling to see how the law of karma did not seem to apply to the delegates at the convention.  They clearly relished the animosity pouring from the podium.  The important question to be answered in November is how representative of the American electorate are the Republican delegates?  My expectation is:  not so much, and that Donald Trump’s acceptance speech has only made his election less likely.  Two surprising remarks and the overall theme of his speech stood out that bring me to this conclusion.

The first surprising remark was Trump’s reference to “LGBTQ” people.  (That he included queers goes beyond even what the mainstream LGBT press tends to countenance.)  Describing the victims of the recent mass murder in an Orlando gay night club as “wonderful Americans,” Trump promised to protect them from the “violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”  Additionally, he scheduled Paul Thiel, the openly gay founder of Pay Pal to speak earlier that night, but Trump’s remarks show him walking a fine line between a genuine endorsement of the civil rights of LGBTQ people and a tepid gesture toward inviting them into his coalition.  One should note that later in the speech he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices in the image of Antonin Scalia, who can hardly be called an ally of LGBTQ rights.  Furthermore, Trump was careful to fold his remark about LGBTQ people into his promise to protect all Americans form foreign terrorists, but describing that threat as a “hateful foreign ideology” surely must have rankled American homophobes.  It would be hard to know if Trump distinguished American homophobes from foreign homophobes.  Add to this the absence of any mention of restrictions on abortion, and social conservatives must be wondering about his commitment to their causes.

Trump did promise to overturn the restriction on tax exempt organizations (particularly religious organizations) which prohibits them from directly advocating political candidates.  The rationale for the restriction was that tax subsidies should not be available to fund partisan politics.  Overturning this restriction would certainly be welcomed by many politicians as it would open up a vast new source of campaign funding.  It would also we welcomed by church leaders who seek greater political influence, but I doubt that this is an important issue to grassroots social conservatives.  

Social conservatives have long been skeptical of Trump.  So Ted Cruz’s prominent refusal to endorse him, Trump’s failure to call for abortion restrictions, and his seemingly tolerant attitude toward LGBTQ people might well have widened a fissure in the Republican Party.  This year, gay rights may have become a potent wedge issue for use by the Democratic Party and that wedge soon might be driven deep enough to cause havoc in the Republican Party for years to come.

The second surprising remark has not been noted in any commentary I have read, but I believe it too will have a lasting impact on the Republican Party.  In a long and sometimes rambling speech, short on specifics, Trump spent a great deal of time condemning multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilateral agreements that he promised will benefit American workers.  So this second surprising “remark” was actually a surprising paragraph or two in the course of his speech and Trump provided unusual detail to support his position.  He specifically named NAFTA and the TPP as bad agreements.  Both have come under fire from labor Democrats and populist Republicans, but they are favored by the neoliberal, free traders in both parties, including Barak Obama, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Tim Kaine, and until recently, by Hillary Clinton.   The popular sentiment against the TPP has led many politicians to withdraw or moderate their support for the TPP, but it is hard to imagine that their hearts are really against it after so many years of extolling these agreements and “free trade” generally.  

Certainly Trump’s long denunciation of NAFTA and the TPP might have been intended to appeal to working class voters, particularly Sanders’s supporters, and I suspect he would welcome the chance to be the primary negotiator of a host of new bilateral “deals,” but it isn’t clear to me that he genuinely opposes the substance of these agreements.  His critique of NAFTA and the TPP must have struck neoliberals in the Republican Party like Thor’s hammer.  Rejecting these agreements makes possible precisely those protectionist policies and trade wars that free traders fear most.  If Mike Pence was meant to assuage the doubts of establishment Republicans, Trump’s speech surely must have resurrected and enhanced those doubts; and if his supporters come to see rejecting mulitlateral trade agreements and adopting protectionist trade policies as important planks in their political agenda, the division over trade in the Republican Party could easily become the cause for the irreversible separation of populist Republicans and its neoliberal establishment.  We then have three feuding factions in the Republican Party:  social conservatives, populists, and neoliberals.  How they come together in the coming months and years isn’t clear at all.

However, the overall theme of Trumps speech – “law and order” – is politically and culturally the most important aspect, not just of his speech, but of the entire convention.  I think Trump now understands that this, more than anything, has brought supporters to his campaign.  His appeal for law and order began early in his campaign with a call to build a border wall and deport “illegals.”  It was followed by a call to establish domestic order by prohibiting the admission of Muslims to the country.  It has recently incorporated outspoken support for our police in the face of widespread accusations of violations by police of the human and civil rights of Americans and of the excessive use of force by police.  Howevver in his speech, Trump refined his pitch for law and order in what appears to be an attempt to make his positions less controversial.  Regarding his wall, Trump insisted that it would be merely one element in a larger immigration policy – one which would permit, even welcome, immigration through legal means.  Regarding his ban on Muslim immigration and refugee resettlement, Trump reduced the scope of the ban to only those countries that are experiencing political turmoil.  Both policies – even unqualified – have achieved significant support among many people.  Trump and his convention presented them as methods by which America could be made safe again.

Trump’s support for our police is likely to become a mainstay of his future campaign.  Perhaps more than anything, police shootings of citizens and citizen shootings of police in a context of racial division and escalating protests will promote within voters the sense of insecurity that the Trump campaign has been attempting to foster.  Providing unconditional support for our police is likely to seem to a lot of voters the necessary response to an unravelling social order.  Most of all, it plays into the public image that Trump has been cultivating – that he is a strong leader.  He seeks to reinforce this image at nearly every chance he gets.  This came out in full force during his speech.

Building his wall, destroying ISIS, and bringing law and order to America’s streets are all to be accomplished “fast,” “quickly,” and even “immediately” through tough and, if necessary, violent measures.  Against ISIS, there appeared to be no measure that would be too violent.  The degree of violence would surely amount to a massive commitment of resources tantamount to a full scale war.  With regard to his immigration policy, Trump promised that his measures would take effect immediately upon his inauguration and become effective quickly.  This suggests that he would issue an executive order to increase significantly the deportation of “illegals.”  As there is an estimated 10.9 million undocumented people in the U.S., the deportation force and its legal apparatus would need to be enormous.  Finally, with regard to bringing law and order to our cities, Trump again promised immediate action that quickly would make them safe.  Given Trump’s description of the state of our crime in our cities, this would require an unprecedented enhancement of police operations and resources.  Indeed, even hoping to accomplish this from the Oval Office could only mean mobilizing the National Guard.  If we take each proposal in Trump’s speech seriously, we should expect a new, potentially endless war in the Middle East with profound global repercussions and martial law at home.  The most important question now is how many Americans would welcome this?

Trump’s call for this kind of action might be nothing more than posturing to rally his base.  In office he might be different, but the anger and hostility that animated the Republican convention and the machismo on display by Trump himself is a reflection of currents in our society that pose a grave threat to peace, freedom, and even prosperity.   Perhaps nothing better illustrated Trump’s macho arrogance as when he periodical interrupted his speech to present his profile to the television camera, with a scowl and jutting chin.  It seemed to be a calculated imitation of Benito Mussolini.

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