I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last week, wearing Carhartt jeans and a bright-red gimme cap in the mezzanine of the Renaissance Hotel. But when he moved into the light, I saw the initials on the cap: RNC (Republican National Committee). Far from being the ghost of a martyred union organizer, Charles Curley turned out to be a Wyoming operative for the American Lands Council, a group that seeks to transfer the vast acreage of public land in the West from the federal government to the states.
Curley was first drawn into Republican politics by Barry Goldwater’s crusade in 1964, and his subsequent cause was to legalize the private ownership of gold. Describing himself as “a right-libertarian,” Curley carefully distanced his group from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, last year’s poster boy for defying federal authority, whose history of racist comments eventually rendered him unready for prime time. “Bundy has a very different legal theory than we have,” Curley said.
A disciple of anarchist Murray Bookchin, Curley explained his current campaign in strategic terms: “I just see a huge, overbearing federal government, and this is something where we can maybe bring ’em down a peg. The advantage of getting in on a new issue is, you get to frame the issue.”
Which may be why, in the three days I spent hanging out with GOP activists here, I heard so little about poverty, or economic insecurity, or climate change, or police brutality, or racism, or anything at all about foreign affairs apart from Israel (good!), Iran (bad!), and Greece (the last stop on the road to socialism!). South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley even managed a lunchtime speech in which she recounted the events leading to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol—and was warmly applauded for her declaration that “this flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of South Carolina”—without ever mentioning race, an issue as old as the country.
Instead, I saw a party at war with the culture, but seemingly at peace with itself. This is a party that lost presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, failed to reverse Roe v. Wade despite decades in power, failed to repeal Obamacare, and has just seen same-sex marriage declared the law of the land by the Supreme Court. Rather than mourn, the Republicans have organized. “The reason we can do so well in the House and in the Senate,” Sean Spicer, the GOP’s chief strategist, told the delegates at the RNC Summer Meeting, “is because we have created a party that is taking care of people almost from the student-government level.”
This was no idle boast. For every delegate like Greg Schaefer, a Wyoming GOP official who is also a vice president of Arch Coal, the second-largest coal company in the country, or Sharon Day, a Fort Lauderdale retiree who started out as a precinct captain in 1994 and is now cochair of the RNC, I saw swarms of well-fed, well-dressed, shiny-faced young Republicans cruising the hotel corridors—and one another—like freshmen during orientation week.
According to Day, the GOP has recruited and trained 2,000 volunteers for the 2016 campaign—an effort entirely independent of any candidate. “We are already further ahead in voter ID and in our ground game than we were during the 2012 election,” said Day.
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As Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Al Gore could all attest, Ohio is not just a crucial battleground state, but a political microcosm of the whole country, coming within 4 percent of the national vote in every election in the past half-century. However, as Jim Dicke, CEO of forklift manufacturer Crown Equipment Corporation in New Bremen and a GOP national committeeman, told me, “We’re not usually that important in the primary cycle.” Hosting the first GOP candidates’ debate changed that. As did the presence of Donald Trump, whose defiant refusal in the opening minutes to pledge to support the party’s nominee showed why he is such a gift—and a burden—to Republican strategists. A gift because Trump’s very unpredictability—his manifest inability to respect the norms of party, civility, or any institution or structure not bearing the Trump name, preferably in gilded letters—makes him the campaign equivalent of crack cocaine. A burden not just because he makes the other candidates, from “maverick” Rand Paul to “moderate” Jeb Bush, look like pallid imitations, but also because, so far at least, they are imitations, too wary of offending the GOP’s deeply alienated base to risk disagreeing with Trump’s “angry white man” rants against Obama, Mexican immigrants, or government incompetence.
The blond bloviator’s boorish insinuation that Fox moderator Megyn Kelly’s forensic questioning on Thursday may have been motivated by menstrual tension offered fellow candidate Carly Fiorina (consigned to the “kids’ table” at the first debate, but rising fast in the media, if not yet in the polls) an easy chance to distinguish herself from the overcrowded GOP clown car. But as with Lindsey Graham, whose defense of his longtime friend John McCain from Trump’s earlier attacks brought the South Carolina senator a brief respite from public indifference, the mismatch between Trump’s celebrity and Fiorina’s sincerity is simply too great for the incident to provide that “peak Trump” moment. And just as Graham’s needy, slightly unhinged harping during the kids’-table debate on the need to send American troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria was a vivid reminder of why he’s languishing in the polls, so Fiorina, who on first exposure comes across as an authentic human being—the kind of Republican who listens to Aretha Franklin at home and feels bad about firing people at work—is unlikely to cause Trump more than a headache.
The campaign press likes to claim that the long slog to the White House constitutes a pitiless exposure of the candidates’ characters—a nugget of conventional wisdom that falls apart upon even a moment’s reflection. After Bill Clinton’s cigar, can anyone still pretend that Gary Hart’s dalliance with Donna Rice revealed a man who deserved to be hounded out of public life? Or that the genial frat boy we thought we were getting with George W. Bush was the same leader who saw in national disaster an opportunity to advance the neoconservative agenda in the Middle East?
What a presidential campaign does reveal is the state of our political culture—or cultures. The night before the debates, I chatted with a lively group of Cleveland Nationistas. They want to see a national debate about productivity and income, globalization, climate change, access to healthcare, and voting rights. Among the Republican faithful, too, I found a hunger for serious, detailed proposals on revitalizing manufacturing, strengthening the social fabric, and ending racial division. And both sides agree the system is rigged against people like them.
There are real, and important, differences, of course. Republicans blame Washington, while Democrats blame Wall Street. Democrats embrace unions—at least, they used to—while Republicans depict them as obstacles to prosperity. And if there is a reservoir of support for Planned Parenthood among Republican women, they were keeping quiet about it in Cleveland, where instead I saw unanimous readiness, at least among the candidates, to endorse the view that human life begins at fertilization. Maybe next year, we’ll get a real national debate. For the moment, though, the Donald Trump Show remains the only thing on.