At their best, presidential nominating conventions are about inspiration and optimism. Ronald Reagan’s “springtime of hope” in Dallas, 1984. Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.
“We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle,” Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy told delegates at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. “As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech did not harken back to the optimism of Reagan or Kennedy, to the inclusiveness of Bush and Johnson. Instead, his speech was the most apocalyptic vision enunciated by a presidential nominee since ’96.
1896, that is.
That was the year that a populist demagogue seized control of a deeply divided party and used his campaign to rail against the powerful elites in the United States and foreign capitals. It took more than a century for a presidential acceptance speech to choose a rhetorical path that dark.
Trump’s speech angrily mourned an era of American humiliation, degradation, instability and leadership incompetence. He promised, as is his campaign slogan, to “make America great again” by putting “American first.”
In many ways, the 1896 parallels make sense. The United States and the world are being destabilized by profound technological shifts. Millions of American workers have been displaced after having lost jobs that are redundant because of modern technology and increasing globalism. Those left behind — often stuck in shriveling small towns and struggling farms — angrily grasp for the lost America of the past, blaming elites and immigrants for the changes they are ill-prepared to master.
The 1896 Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, like Trump, was the champion of dispossessed farmers and fearful Main Street merchants. His opponent, William McKinley, was a candidate with broad support among business leaders, internationalists and educated urbanites. McKinley talked optimistically about the potential for America if it embraced the changes it faced. Bryan said McKinley would sacrifice American sovereignty before the New World Order. Trump says that he would ensure that other nations treat America with “the respect that we deserve.”
Bryan’s speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention is best remembered for his vow to moneyed elites that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” That seems a bit outdated in 2016, but many of the Boy Orator of the Platte’s words ring true in Trump’s vision of America.
In his famous speech, Bryan said that McKinley and the Republicans were “willing to surrender the right of self-government and place the legislative control of our affairs in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.”
It’s a remarkable reversal. A century and a quarter ago, the Democrats were the party of the past, the voice of an idealized order. Today, the Republicans long for a gauzy past they insist has been lost by hostile and incompetent leaders in the public and private sectors. Trump promised to represent these “forgotten” Americans left behind by Big Business and Washington power brokers.
“I am your voice,” he said.
Ivanka Trump called her father “the people’s nominee.” That’s exactly what Bryan promised to be. Donald Trump rails against Wall Street capitalism. Bryan called himself a warrior against the “the idle holders of idle capital.” Unlike his opponent, Bryan said he was truly “on the side of the struggling masses” against international competitors and urban elites. Today, Trump said, the party of Bryan has become the party of “corporate spin.”
“We cannot afford to be so politically correct,” he said, choosing a phrase that did not exist in Bryan’s day.
Instead of the “bimetalism” condemned by Bryan, you have “multilateralism” lamented by Trump. If you just substitute “factory jobs” for “farms,” Bryan’s words reflect Trump’s call for a return to the old days of imagined American industrial might:
Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
Bryan’s apocalyptical version has many parallel’s to Trump’s nihilist vision. As he worked his way up to his famous “cross of gold” climax, Bryan told the delegates:
If they dare come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation… supported by… the toilers everywhere.
Trump could not have said it better himself.
>>> Read William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech here. It also contains audio of the speech. (Modern technology in 1896.)
The 2020 Republican presidential race began on a fractious and flummoxing night in Cleveland, one day after a deeply and bitterly divided party formally selected its 2016 nominee.
Four of the most likely contenders for the party’s nomination in four years spoke to the delegates at Donald Trump’s convention and laid out their cases for the post-Trump Republican Party, even before the current nominee is scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday.
The quartet — vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, presidential runner-up Ted Cruz, presidential flameout Scott Walker, and remote-control speaker Marco Rubio — all took different paths to the podium and aimed their remarks at different audiences.
Pence was the loyal lieutenant to Donald Trump. The Indiana governor once supported Ted Cruz, but he switched teams after Trump’s triumph and urged other Republicans to do it. His gracious, low-key approach will endear him to die-hard Trump loyalists and to congressional Republicans who are not (and never have been) enamored with Trump.
Walker urged the party to unite, but mostly repeated his pro-business, anti-Washington talk that has made him a hero in anti-union circles but didn’t resonate particularly well with the working-class white voters who this year seized control of the Republican Party. His praise for Trump was tepid. “A vote for anyone other than Donald Trump is a vote for Hillary,” he told the delegates.
Rubio, as has been his style during his single term in the Senate, tried to have it both ways. He didn’t attend the convention — giving him a bit of distance from Trump, in case the GOP nominee eventually self-immolates. But his brief video remarks included all the right touches to win applause from the Trump loyalists in Cleveland. “The time for fighting each other is over,” said Rubio, who famously described Trump as a small-handed “con artist” and “the most vulgar person ever to aspire to the presidency.” That was then, this is now: “It’s time to come together,” he told delegates.
That message didn’t reach Ted Cruz. The Texas senator, dubbed “Lyin’ Ted” by Trump, couldn’t bring himself to endorse the nominee. Cruz, whose father was linked to Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Trump, gave a Reagan-like conservative call to arms. He talked conservative principles. He didn’t talk Trump. He didn’t endorse Trump’s policies or his candidacy. He said to Americans, “Vote your conscience.” He was heckled during his speech. He was booed as he left the stage.
It was a calculated gamble with his national political future hanging in the balance. If Trump manages to win the election, Cruz is going to be a non-person in Donald Trump’s Washington. The Senate leadership, Republican and Democrat, despises him and the president would, too. If Trump loses, Cruz has already volunteered to lead the ragged Republican survivors.
In the meantime, he’s a non-person in Trump World. Even Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson disinvited Cruz to his convention suite, with associates telling CNN that he didn’t want to be an anti-Trump prop at this point.
The reaction from Republicans was varied, but it was almost all emotionally charged, positively and negatively.
Of note, Ted Cruz is getting praised from both the left and right of the GOP, but not from the establishment. Perfect set up for 2020.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 21, 2016
Not hard to find CRUZ delegates who think he lit his career on fire
— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) July 21, 2016
Representative Peter King of New York, an enthusiastic Cruz hater, piled on.
“To me, Ted Cruz showed America what he really is,” King told NBC in a post-speech rant. “He’s a fraud. He’s a liar. He’s self-centered. He disqualified himself from ever being considered for president of the United States.
“He took a pledge to support the nominee. Today the Ted Cruz that I’ve known — he cannot be trusted and he’s not a true Republican. He’s not a true conservative. I never saw as much outrage on the floor as I did tonight.”
King’s views are widely held among moderate Republicans and Trumpistas, but Cruz is confident there is a path to victory following a Trump defeat. Like Ronald Reagan following his 1976 loss to Gerald Ford, Cruz sent a clear signal that he will keep on running, even if it means challenging an incumbent President Trump in four years.
But not every Republican shares King’s contempt for Cruz. The Texas firebrand is hoping that people like David Frum will help him rebuild the Republican Party from the rubble of Trump — if it is indeed rubble come November.
Ted Cruz earned the most honorable boos at a GOP convention since those for Nelson Rockefeller for condemning the John Birch Society.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 21, 2016
I have never been more proud to work for Ted Cruz that I was tonight. This speech will survive the test of time-historically courageous.
— Chris Wilson (@WilsonWPA) July 21, 2016
For one day, at least, Ted Cruz got what he wants. We’re talking about him and not about Donald Trump. And we’re talking about him as the post-Trump voice of the GOP. That’s what most reporters are writing today. But remember the other three 2020 candidates who also auditioned for the next nomination on a crazy night in Cleveland.
Day 2 at the Republican National Convention was billed as jobs night: “Make America Work Again,” in Trump-speak.
But there only seemed to be one job that convention speakers cared much about: Donald Trump’s.
More precisely, the theme was to make sure that one American is unemployed come January: Hillary Clinton.
Benghazi, Lucifer, Clinton emails, Harry Reid, Barack Obama, even recycled 1960s radical Saul Alinsky. “Lock her up,” the delegates serenaded Hillary Clinton, again and again.
A long night of primetime speeches, but not a single plan from Trump to create American jobs. Except at Trump Winery in Virginia.
That led a former Ted Cruz staffer to tweet this:
Unless Trump is going to make America work again by making Republicans prison guards for Democrats, I don’t know what the big jobs plan is.
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) July 20, 2016
Some establishment speakers such as Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan barely mentioned Trump. (Maybe that’s part of the reason why they were booed by many Trump delegates.)
The ongoings in Cleveland led Erick Erickson, founder of RedState.org, to write that GOP establishment Trump apologists have been reduced to declaring that their nominee is “better than Clinton.”
More to the point, they mean “less bad than Clinton.”
Time management of the convention continues to be dreadful. Some of the most effective speakers — Tiffany Trump (who used anecdotes to humanize her father), National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox (who built a policy case for why electing Trump matters) and McConnell (who skewered Clinton time and again with embarrassing examples from her past) — were pushed out of the live-TV 10 p.m. hour for a soap opera actress and 2016 also-ran Ben Carson. And the winery woman. That looked more like an infomercial than a political convention.
“Whoever organized this event would be fired from a regional sales conference,” tweeted Andrew Sullivan.
By the way, did I forget to tell you that Donald Trump and Mike Pence were officially nominated for president and vice president?
That got lost in the ad hoc scheduling stew.
It’s important to note that candidates are only graded by the media for hewing to political traditions. Trump is unlike any other presidential nominee ever, so it may not be fair to judge him by historical standards. After all, he has turned history on its head over the past year. So I think it’s necessary for all of us to put ourselves inside the heads of undecided voters or reluctant Republicans.
What is the best way for Trump to defeat Hillary? It’s to destroy her. He’s the most unpopular presidential nominee in the history of polling, so he’s not going to convince the doubters that he’s a good guy. That’s why he’s enlisted Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie and Shelly Moore Capito and Mitch McConnell and Scott Baio and many more, to try to shred what’s left of Clinton’s credibility.
That process takes more than one speech. It is an accumulation of days (or weeks) of disciplined attacks.
Does Team Trump have the skill and the discipline to pull it off? Can establishment figures such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus and McConnell play constructive (or is it destructive) roles? That’s what the rest of Trump’s convention week is about.
A national presidential nominating convention is supposed to help the party’s candidate win the general election.
Since I started watching political conventions in 1968 (and attending at least one each campaign since 1976), there have been only two exceptions: the 1968 Democratic disaster in Chicago, and the 1972 Democratic chaos-fest in Miami.
After one day, I’m prepared to say that the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland could join this short and ignominious list.
Day One of the GOP convention did nothing to help Donald Trump appeal to undecided voters. It did nothing to reassure wavering Republicans or independents who dislike both GOP nominee-to-be Donald Trump and Democratic nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton.
And that was before the plagiarism thing.
From the early morning, the Trump campaign seemed to be trying its best to sabotage its stated Day One message of national security. At a breakfast meeting with reporters, its campaign chief picked an unnecessary fight with Ohio Gov. John Kasich by insulting the popular governor of a state he needs to win to have any plausible shot at an Electoral College majority. Paul Manafort’s unforced error drew a fast and furious rebuke from the Ohio Republican Party chair. Suffice it to say that Ohio Republicans will concentrate their efforts and passions on re-electing endangered incumbent Sen. Rob Portman now, rather than the presidential race.
Later in the morning, in an episode I missed until it was pointed out on Twitter by ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, Team Trump forced the GOP to tear up its platform to excise a section that might ruffle the feathers of one Vladimir Putin. Kowtowing to the Russian leader is not exactly the image of strong American leadership. Hard-core Trumpistas won’t care, but undecided voters won’t be impressed.
To further alienate Jewish voters, the Republican National Committee had to shut down a convention live chat during a speech by former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (who happens to be Jewish) when it was bombarded by pro-Trump, pro-Hitler, profanely anti-Jewish ranters, according to a report in the Times of Israel.
And then there was a white supremacist riff from Iowa Congressman Steve King, who belittled all contributions to global civilization from non-white, non-Christian humans. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” he asked on MSNBC, setting off a hourlong tweet storm in the Twitterverse.
Before the prime-time speeches, Republicans had a Democrat-like rumble over convention rules. It reminded me a little of Chicago 1968, when Mayor Daley had the microphones turned off on anti-war, anti-Humphrey delegations. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus’ team played hardball to prevent an actual recorded vote that would have shown the world the level of dissatisfaction with Trump among convention delegates.
You have to divide the evening session into three parts: pre-Melania, Melania and after Melania.
Pre-Melania was red-meat rhetoric for Trump Lovers and Hillary Haters. Also birthers. One speaker said Obama was certainly a Muslim. Several called for throwing Clinton in jail. Rudy Giuliani is passionate, and he hates Hillary Clinton, but there’s nothing he said that would convince wavering voters why they should vote for Trump. Indeed, I didn’t hear a single Trump policy initiative from any speaker.
Post-Melania was a sleeping pill for America. Rising star Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa was pushed out of prime time by a rambling, never-ending speech by an obscure military guy named Flynn. Don’t think this will launch a speaking career for him. And Ernst, speaking to a mostly empty auditorium, gave her normal stump speech, evoking the parallel political worlds Republicans live in. Just watching the early lines to the exits, you can see that this is not a Republican national convention, it is the Trump national convention. Many Trump delegates don’t care about Republican rising stars. Only Trump.
Finally, Melania, the most important speaker of the night. I liked the speech. It was well-written. It was human. It was plagiarized.
The part about honesty.
To all the Trump backers who tweeted that Melania will bring class back to the White House after eight years of Michelle Obama, all I can say is … I don’t really have anything to say.
I had forgotten that Mrs. Obama said many of the same words in a similar introduction-to-the-nation speech eight years ago. In the afternoon, Mrs. Trump boasted in an interview that she had written almost all of her speech. By the end of the evening, Team Trump released a curious statement citing a “team” of speechwriters.
As the aforementioned Hubert H. Humphrey once remarked, “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.”
Day Two. What else could go wrong?
I will be analyzing the convention on CCTV’s World Insight program at 10:15 a.m. EDT/9:15 EDT on Tuesday. Tune in for a live discussion.