It’s tough judging Donald Trump on a historical continuum. We’ve never before seen an unsmiling nominee hectoring and fear-mongering for more than an hour. William Jennings Bryan came close as the Democratic nominee in 1896, though at least his Cross of Gold speech was eloquent.
But there are echoes across the generations. Trump’s speech was a cross between Richard Nixon’s “law and order” code words for race, Pat Buchanan’s gross distortion of immigration and trade, and Bill Clinton’s clever effort to shift the focus of the campaign from him (a flawed candidate) to “you.”
The ugliness at the core of the Trump candidacy—perfumed by his attractive children—came through in his Mussolini delivery and of course when his Banana Republican Hillary-hating audience couldn’t resist what for many onlookers became the signature line of the 2016 Republican Convention: “Lock Her Up!”
But for me, the key line of the convention came not from Trump or his angry mob but from his wife. It was a fraudulent line—in more ways than one—and it symbolized everything that has happened to the GOP in this fateful political year.
On the first night of the convention, Melania Trump said that her husband has always believed that “you treat people with dignity and respect.” This was in the part of the speech that was plagiarized from Michelle Obama, but as long as they were at it, the Trump speechwriters should have stolen the whole Michelle Obama quote, which was: “you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them.”
The active toxic agent in the poison infecting our body politic is lack of basic respect for people outside his family and close friends. Even an incomplete bill of particulars is very long, from Trump telling Larry King on the air in the 1980s that “you have bad breath,” to offering a reward for Barack Obama’s college transcripts to “prove” that the president wasn’t smart, to mocking a disabled reporter, to sliming a fine Latino judge, to suggesting the Republican director of the FBI is corrupt for protecting Hillary Clinton, to insulting a billion Muslims, which is not exactly the best way to improve American intelligence in the Middle East, the only halfway specific policy proposal in Trump’s entire acceptance speech.
The sea of vulgarity has numbed us to the truth—that the Grand Old Party under Trump has drifted far away from the party of John McCain, who in 2008 admonished a supporter that while Barack Obama was wrong on the issues, he deserved our respect. It has drifted far out of bounds, and flouted the norms of a civilized society. Today’s GOP is the Gauche Old Party, sometimes even the Gross Old Party.
At least the “old” part is consistent. As usual at a Republican convention, the delegates were overwhelmingly white and affluent. But they were also awfully long in the tooth. Only 2 percent of the delegates were under 30. The “again” in “Make America Great Again” is all you need to know that Trump’s party is a party of the past, not the future.
But is it even really the party of the past? We’ve seen surges of xenophobia going back to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. And authoritarian demagogues—preaching a narrow “Americanism”—occasionally catch a wave. William Randolph Hearst, Douglas MacArthur, Ross Perot, and Buchanan were all mentioned as Republican candidates. (Bigots like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace afflicted the Democrats before bolting for independent bids).
But none of these men managed to win a major party nomination.
For most of the postwar era, the GOP has resisted demagogues and helped build a bipartisan structure of civil rights, respectful debate and collective security through global alliances that Trump—if his interview this week in The New York Times is to be believed—would casually cast aside after 70 years of success in preventing another world war.
The GOP has a grander history than many liberals would admit. In 1940, Republicans meeting in Philadelphia rejected isolationist politicians and—contrary to Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America—weren’t tempted by Charles A. Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic “America First” campaign, the slogan now adopted by Trump. The nominee that year was Wendell Wilkie, a businessman, and that’s where the similarities to Trump end. Wilkie was a cultured internationalist who later wrote a book titled One World.
The nominee in 1944 and 1948 was Thomas E. Dewey, a former prosecutor and governor of New York who attacked Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman but left the conspiracy theories and personal nastiness to fringe elements in the party. In the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower set a moderate tone and, belatedly, made sure the party steered clear of demagogues like Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (McCarthy’s top aide and sleazy doppelgänger—Roy Cohn—became Trump’s mentor in New York in the 1970s).
Richard Nixon used Roger Stone—the smash-mouth agitator now at Trump’s side—Charles Colson and others for the skullduggery that cost him the presidency. But his public persona, even as a red-hunter, wasn’t nearly as nasty and personal as Trump’s. (His speechwriter, Ray Price, always strove for a civil tone in his public speeches.) Barry Goldwater embraced “extremism in defense of liberty” but avoided personal attacks. Ronald Reagan was extremely hard on Jimmy Carter, but it was on issues like the Panama Canal. George H.W. Bush hired Lee Atwater, who convinced him to turn his 1988 opponent, Michael Dukakis, into something vaguely unAmerican.
But when Pat Buchanan gave a Trumpian speech at the 1992 convention, the party recoiled. The consensus, as one pundit famously put it: “It probably sounded better in its original German.”
All of which means we are in terra incognito— a new place where authoritarians (Trump told the Times he doesn’t care at all about human rights), grifters (convention speakers who made their fortunes selling nutritional supplements, sketchy real estate deals and extreme fighting), opportunists politicizing tragedy, and conspiracy-mongers have moved from the fringes to the doorstep of huge power.
Lost amid Ted Cruz’s politically suicidal gambit was that Cruz had a point. Are we really going to elect a president who peddles the theory that Cruz’s father was on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963, part of the Kennedy assassination?
In accepting his party's nomination, Trump thought he was moving to the center on LGBT rights, women’s rights, and trade.
But he was more palpably moving down, into the murky depths of demagoguery where we have all feared to tread before.