The GOP Throws a Tampa Tantrum
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves to delegates after speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican conventions didn’t always used to be like this. They used to be only partly like this.
For generations, GOP national meetings were sites for one of the longest-running ideological blood feuds in the nation. In 1952, the Grand Old Party’s moderate and conservative wings almost fought to a draw. The right-wing partisans of Senator Robert Taft marched into Chicago’s International Amphitheater locked arm in arm, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and left united in the dubious conviction that the convention had been “stolen” from them by the better-organized supporters of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower—just one more instance, many of them went on to insist, of what Joe McCarthy called a Communist “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
In 1960, the battle was joined once again when Richard Nixon’s endorsement of a civil rights plank was decried by Barry Goldwater as “the Munich of the Republican Party.” Thrilled conservatives tried to draft Goldwater instead. By 1964, Goldwater’s partisans succeeded in winning the nomination, but the civil war continued unabated on the convention floor when the moderates’ innocuous plank opposing “the efforts of irresponsible individuals and extremist groups to infiltrate our party” (endorsed by a governor named George Romney, who had a then-17-year-old son named Mitt) was shouted down in a voice vote.
In 1976, the first GOP convention since 1952 when the nominee’s identity wasn’t known at the outset, the moderates prevailed on the final roll call, but not in the show on TV, which was ruined when the convention band had to play “God Bless America” four times in a row to silence the shrieking air horns blasted by churlish partisans of the defeated Ronald Reagan. But the civil war didn’t die with Reagan’s ascension four years later. It was just displaced—for instance, into back-room fights over platform planks on the abortion issue: “one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” the platform read in 1976; a “complex” issue with “differing views…among Americans in general,” it said in 1980; then finally the bat-shit assertion in 1984 that the “Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
And in 1992, when the moderates had the upper hand with the renomination of party elder and incumbent president George H.W. Bush, the shriekers won the keynote speaking slot—and Pat Buchanan declared “a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the cold war itself.” The ghosts of the Republicans’ civil war were even in evidence at the 2004 convention, when, by most accounts, the party had become a vehicle for conservatism tout court: recall the claim, repeated in speech after speech there, that a key reason George W. Bush deserved re-election was that he’d increased the rate of minority homeownership.
Well, that war is over and done with. A major American political party, shorn of all moderating influence, has finally, unalterably, gone insane. The striking thing is how many of the estimated 15,000 journalists who were with me in Tampa for the 2012 convention were missing this story of a lifetime—one sixty years in the making.
To be fair, the dramaturgy confused a lot of observers. After all, when I arrived inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the fellow onstage singing “God Bless the USA” was such a big black teddy bear of a man—and “God Bless the USA” seems like such an ideologically neutral, innocuous, goose-pimply kind of tune—that it would be easy to miss the blindingly reactionary stanza with which this anthem, featured at every last Republican and Tea Party rally, begins:
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife,
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today,
Because the flag still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away.
And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…
Think about that lyric. A man’s security is wiped from the face of the earth. That passes without further comment: shit happens. In any other civilized nation, government protections—decent unemployment insurance, national healthcare, good public education, childcare—make such a thing unimaginable. But in America, Old Glory is the only consolation a patriarch needs. It’s almost a privilege to be wiped out here.
Mitt Romney’s father, whom Mitt claims to revere, called this cult of rugged individualism a “political banner to cover up greed.” President Obama made a mild feint toward a more robust vision of collective obligation in a speech in July, when he pointed out that “if you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help”: teachers taught you, infrastructure served you, firefighters protected you, government research gave you tools like the Internet. “Some things we do better together,” the president added, like building “the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.” Obama also uttered the fateful line “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Republicans willfully misheard the “that” to refer to the businesses themselves—which meant Obama was crapping on every American entrepreneur who’d ever lived. And upon that rickety claim, the 2012 convention built its entire rhetorical appeal. God bless the USA.
Mia Love, a small-town mayor running for Congress from Utah, kicked it off: “This is the America we know,” she said, jabbing her finger, “because we built it.” It got a solid thirty seconds of applause, as delegates waved their party-provided “We Built It” signs. “Yes, we did,” she punctuated, Obama style, letting another eight seconds of rapturous applause ride. Country singer Lane Turner sang a brand-new song written for the convention, “I Built It.” The titanic job creator Janine Turner—a radio host who played Maggie on the TV show Northern Exposure, last on the air when today’s 18-year-old voters were in diapers (for connoisseurs of D-list celebrity, a Republican convention is the place to be)—cried, “And President Obama, I’m here to tell ya, government didn’t build it. God and the American people built it!” (That Palin-style “ya” is in the remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery press release.) She said this in front of one of the set’s recurring images, an inspiring earth-toned collage that included the government-built Gateway Arch.
Yes, the entire theme was a lie, and that shouldn’t pass unremarked. More extraordinary, however, is this: if you’re not among the small percentage of Americans who own a business, or don’t aspire to become one, you were invisible to the people on that podium in Tampa. That applies if you are a first responder, a social worker, a carpenter, an airline pilot, an artist, a lawyer—even a soldier (Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech never mentioned the word “Afghanistan”). But especially if you are a worker.
The only time workers were mentioned, as best I could discern, was during the speech by Rand Paul. “When you say they didn’t build it,” said the Kentucky senator and scion of the libertarian superhero Ron Paul, “you insult each and every American who ever got up at the crack of dawn. You insult any American who ever put on overalls or a suit. You insult any American who ever studied late into the night to become a doctor or a lawyer. You insult the dishwasher, the cook, the waitress.” Which makes not a lick of sense, except in the context of what Paul said a few minutes later: “When you seek to punish Mr. ExxonMobil” (Corporations are people, my friend!), “you punish the secretary who owns ExxonMobil stock.” In other words, you hardly qualify as a citizen if you don’t own a business, unless you are an adjunct to, a supplicant beneath or an investor with someone who does.
The story was told over and over again: the speaker’s forebears started out with nothing. (The father of Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, for example, fled Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear—a veritable 1 percenter to Mia Love’s folks, who came with ten bucks.) Their family started a business, asking nothing, sacrificing everything—and then, as their reward, got security for their loved ones. And, as a bonus, got to make America great.
So when the child of Sher Valenzuela, the Republican candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor, was diagnosed with autism, she and her husband, a second-generation Mexican-American, “realized quickly” that their paychecks “wouldn’t pay for the professionals that Simon needed to overcome the odds.” So they chucked it all and started their own business. Which—happy ending—now has more than seventy employees. Because only entrepreneurial heroes deserve care for their disabled kids.
It’s crazy, and yet another part of the convention metanarrative was crazier still: that all was going along swimmingly for these entrepreneur-patriots until Commissar Obama conspired to take it away. Now, the convention is a TV show, and the pretty pictures make their impression on the national limbic system too fast for fact-checking to matter all that much. But doing so is one of the few fun things that liberals have left in politics these days, so let’s do it anyway. Valenzuela called the supposed “regulatory uncertainty” brought on by Obama—especially the “109 million new paperwork burden hours” his administration has allegedly imposed—“an all-out assault on free enterprise.” As BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski discovered, however, Valenzuela has given PowerPoint presentations to aspiring female entrepreneurs. One of her slides reads: “Myth #1: It will take too much time to complete all the paperwork necessary to work with the government. The Truth: Bidding on government contracts has never been easier, and it’s getting easier all the time.”
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