If you fear Donald Trump, you should be afraid of what happened at the Republican National Convention on Monday night. Instead of base pandering and fan service (as Trump almost exclusively does at rallies), the focus was on bringing home suburban Republicans who have become disenchanted by him—something he will probably have to do if he is to be re-elected.
I’m probably more sensitive to this shift. As a conservative, this is a demographic of which I am very familiar.
Here’s an example: Coming into the convention, I thought I would be making fun of the gun-wielding McCloskeys’ predictably lame speech at the Republican National Convention. Instead, I realized just how well their story would play to a lot of folks I know. Now, if you’re a liberal Democrat who lives in a cosmopolitan area, you probably won’t appreciate this. But if you’re a suburban college-educated mom who voted for Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, you probably found yourself nodding along more than you might have imagined. You might even be a little embarrassed to admit it, but they touched a nerve.
Mark and Patricia McCloseky were not the pasty-white, out-of-shape racist caricatures we saw in the original video and photographs. Nor were they politicians. Nor were they giving a convention “speech,” for that matter. They were a smartly-dressed married couple, sitting in a well-lit room, delivering what looked to be a pre-recorded conversation. They could have been lawyers. Hell, they are lawyers.
Sure, if you knew more about the couple, and the circumstances in which they pointed loaded firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters walking across their lawn, you might be skeptical. But the story they delivered Monday night, in their own words, resonated.
They came across as people many viewers could identify with. Indeed, that was part of their message: "What you saw happen to us, could just as easily happen to you in quiet neighborhoods across the country."
And, in many ways, that was the theme of a night I’d expected to be all about hurling red meat to the base. Instead, it was one geared toward suburban Republicans who might be tempted to vote for Biden or stay home.
Just as Nikki Haley (someone who is also hard to cast as a racist) talked about “riots and rage,” and Tim Scott warned about a “cultural revolution” and a “socialist utopia,” the key here is that suburban Republican voters—not the hardcore Trumpers—were fed some fear in a package that was not overtly racist or obviously demagogic. (Now, the line between racist fear of the “other” and legitimate fear of violence and unrest can be hard to draw. Indeed, it’s better for Trump if that line is blurry.)
Unlike the McCloskeys, I’m not keen on the idea of brandishing weapons outside my house (inside, it’s a different story), but here’s what would scare me (and a lot of other people, if they’re being honest): the idea that you’re home with your family, and a mob of angry protesters show up in your yard. I don’t know how scared the McClosekys really were (I have my doubts), but imagine waking up to chants “Wake up motherfucker,” as captured in this video. Or being in a car that gets surrounded by a mob that has shut down traffic? These are the fears that a lot of Americans are having, whatever their nominal ideologies.
But the McCloskeys weren’t content with just telling their story. They connected it to the Democratic Party. "[T]hey want to abolish the suburbs all-together by ending single-family home zoning,” Patricia said. “This forced re-zoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods. President Trump smartly ended this government overreach, but Joe Biden wants to bring it back.” Again, the left is coming for you, too—at least in their telling.
There’s an old saying, that “logic leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to action.” I think that’s true. And while Trump can’t inspire swing voters with a positive message, he did a masterful job Monday of instilling anger and fear, and having that message delivered by more effective messengers.
There was a subtle theme Monday night: average Americans who had a personal experience as a victim telling their story. There was the cancer survivor advocating for the right to try. There was Rep. Steve Scalise, who told the story of being shot on a baseball field, before attacking the left and praising Trump. There were hostages who Trump helped bring home.
The message seems to be, yes, Trump has a lot of bluster, but he is making a difference in real people’s lives. This is a much more appealing message than what Trump himself pushes day in and day out including in an hour-long speech earlier on Monday.
This raises a question: Why can’t Trump’s messaging always be like this? He’d be on a much easier path to re-election if it was.
Regardless, if you thought Donald Trump was just going to let Joe Biden waltz to election day, you have another think coming. If Monday night was any indication, this culture war is just heating up.