I had just arrived in Cleveland Sunday when I read a jarring column in the New York Times by Peter Wehner, a conservative thinker and former aide to George W. Bush whom I’ve always liked and respected. Here’s how it began:
“For my entire adult life I have listened to the invective leveled against the Republican Party by liberals: It is a party sustained by racist appeals, composed of haters and conspiracy nuts, indifferent to the plight of the poor and the weak, anti-woman.
“I have repeatedly denied those charges, publicly and forcefully,” Wehner went on. “Then along came Donald J. Trump, who seemed to embody every awful charge made against the Republican Party. Later this week he will become my party’s nominee.”
Wehner asked himself how this had come to be. Among his conclusions:
“It is fair to say that there existed in the Republican Party repulsive elements, people who were attracted to racial and ethnic politics and moved by resentment and intolerance rather than a vision of the good. This group was larger than I ever imagined, and at important moments the Republican Party either overlooked them or played to them.”
I’ll let you read the rest yourself, but Wehner’s reflections resonated with me, because I’ve been asking myself a lot of these same questions.
To be clear, I’m not a Republican (or a Democrat), let alone a religious conservative like Wehner. I’m suspicious of parties and ideological dogmas generally. I want nothing to do with chanted slogans of any kind, unless I’m sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium.
But for many years, as a magazine writer at the New York Times, I traveled the country and wrote about politics for a mostly liberal audience. And one of the arguments I often made — and that often infuriated readers and vitriolic bloggers — was that the caricature of a Republican Party dominated by racist, nativist rubes was both misguided and condescending.
In my experience, most rural conservatives did not, in fact, carry the enduring torch of Southern segregationists (who were, it should be pointed out, Democrats). What they felt was that their own considerable struggles — with job loss, substance abuse, fraying communities — didn’t seem to rate the attention of urban liberals, simply because they were white. And often they were right.
Yes, Republican candidates had exploited racial tensions, but I believed white, conservative voters would still respond to a more positive vision of renewal if anyone bothered to offer it. That Barack Obama did better among white men and independents than either of the white Democrats nominated before him seemed to validate the point.
Writers and critics who push a point of view — or who, like me, try simply to make sense of the moment — can become so invested in our theories that we look for any shred of a justification to uphold them. We can pound away at the same idea as if there existed a unified string theory that could explain every political nuance. Like they say: When all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail.
And so, for the last several months, I’ve tried not to see a loose nail in every creaky floorboard, but rather to take a step back and look at the structural integrity of the intellectual house I’ve occupied.
Is it really a so much darker country than I thought it was? Are nativism and misogyny so much more powerful forces in the Republican Party than aspiration or patriotism?
I agree with much of Wehner’s analysis on these questions. Like him, I am forced to reckon with the idea that the proportion of the party fueled by nostalgia for a fading social order is larger than I thought it was.
I also agree that Republican leaders gave vent to some of the baser emotions in American life at moments when it most suited them, assuming they could simply shut off the valve when they needed to. It was reckless, and it was naïve.
But before we resign ourselves to the idea of a new civil war in America, a conflict between angry white traditionalists and everyone else, we should also acknowledge that Trump’s nomination reflects, in large part, other changes in the political culture having nothing to do with bigotry.
For one thing, the primary process really is broken. Oh, I know, that sounds like whining because some of us don’t like the results. But the fact is that way fewer Americans are engaged in party politics now than they were 20 years ago, which means that a sizeable minority of highly passionate voters can overwhelm the system at any given moment.
Trump doesn’t represent the majority of Republican voters, but he does represent the party’s most aggrieved and motivated supporters right now. He has not, in fact, exposed the true nature of the Republican Party as liberals always portrayed it to be; he’s actually taken the party over and made it reflect his own persona.
A lot of Trump’s voters in the primaries supported him not because he bashed immigrants or mocked women, but because the character he created on stage — the freewheeling billionaire who refused to bow to decorum or political correctness, who made the politicians feel small, for once — compelled the viewing audience.
Alone among nominees in any of our lifetimes, Trump didn’t sit down with voters or bother to answer their questions. Like Bill O’Reilly or the Kardashians, he gave us televised antics punctuated with tweets, and a large number of Americans binge-watched.
All of which tells us as much about the viability of the American political system — at least as we’ve known it — as it does about the darker impulses of the Republican electorate.
I’ve often posited that an independent presidency is probably inevitable, and Trump is a significant signpost along the path. A glance at the speakers list this week, or at all the Trump hats and signs around the arena, will tell you that his convention is all about Trump, his family and his personal coterie. The party itself feels marginal and passé.
To Wehner, Trump represents the struggle between two competing segments of the party, one enlightened and the other ignorant.
To me, he represents the decline of parties altogether, and the growing window of opportunity for any protagonist who can hold our attention.