A few hours before Donald Trump took the stage in Cleveland to accept the Republican nomination for president of the United States, I paid a fraternal call on the comrades in the Commentary press box. As Nation readers will know, Commentary is the house organ of American neoconservatism—a reliably truculent foe of most of the values we hold dear. But, as you may not know if you haven’t been reading it lately, the magazine has also been a clear, consistent, and at times corruscatingly effective critic of the Trump crusade. I found editor John Podhoretz and, after identifying myself, complimented him on the trenchancy of his coverage. He was poring over the text of Trump’s speech, which had just been leaked.
I pointed to the passage in the center of his screen and made a lame joke: “Maybe it sounded better in the original German.” This was the section where Trump said: “I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I AM YOUR VOICE.”
Shaking his head, Podhoretz replied: “Actually, I think the original was in Italian.”
He had a point. Trump’s bombastic manner, the theatrical pauses in his delivery, his sideways poses and disapproving little pouts all owe more to Mussolini than to Hitler. There’s also the absence of overt racism—the Nazis didn’t invite Jews to speak at their rallies—or any “master race” mythology.
But whether you think the political roots of Trumpism lie in Italy, Germany, or the rank seam of American nativism that stretches from the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings of the 1850s through to the “America First” movement in the 1940s seems to me less important than the recognition of the obvious danger that Trump represents. Not just because he would set back the progressive movement by a decade, forcing us to play defense on union rights, economic equity, racial justice, and climate change. Or because his picks for the Supreme Court would haunt us for a generation.
In a normal election, those would all be good reasons to vote for the other side. But as every day of the Republican National Convention made glaringly obvious, this is not a normal election. From the very first night—which saw personal tragedies not just cynically exploited but weaponized to focus blame and hatred—this was less a convention than an insurrection designed to depict the Democrats not as political adversaries but as usurpers, criminals, and callous accomplices to the murder of innocent Americans. Trump has already made clear his contempt for democratic norms like freedom of the press and an independent judiciary. He has shown his eagerness to scapegoat Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants. He and his vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence, might rail against big government, but their election would mean an overweening state that is at constant war with enemies external and internal, deciding which citizens are loyal and which are not.
Individually, the Republicans I met were kind, often charming. Apart from a woman who told me that immigration “endangers the herd” and needs to be shut down, and a man with a “Socialism Sucks” button who shouted “Who made your clothes, then?” when I told him I was a socialist, the delegates were neither threatening nor grotesque. (And though they were, as a rule, white, there were other kinds of diversity beneath the surface. There was a sizable contingent of Jewish Republicans who refused to let any reporter—not even a columnist from London’s Jewish Chronicle—into their meeting. And if the New York Post is to be believed, Cleveland’s male-escort services enjoyed record-breaking business during the proceedings.)
But for all of the outrage and anger on the floor over the manipulation of the rules (to inflate Trump’s margin of victory) and the treatment of Ted Cruz, I met just two Republicans who were considering voting against the nominee: a Cruz delegate from Washington State and a Kasich supporter from Connecticut. Everyone else I met echoed the Utah delegate who, when asked whom he’d be voting for, responded: “Trump… [profound sigh]. Hillary will take positions I strongly disagree with.”
Trump’s policies—on abortion, immigration, climate change—are indeed repellent. But the real danger comes from the normalization of his political style, a ready acceptance of menace and ridicule as substitutes for political debate, and a disdain for argument, or facts, or evidence.
As Bernie Sanders says, for the safety of our country, Trump needs to be “defeated and defeated badly.” That won’t happen so long as the Democrats remain unable to speak up for workers (including white male workers) instead of preaching down at them—because when Trump pivots, he pivots left. And if Cleveland is any indication, it won’t happen by relying on the conscience of moderate Republicans—or Republican women, either.
The morning after his humiliation on the convention floor, Ted Cruz told the Texas delegation, “If we can’t convince the American people that our candidate can be trusted to defend the Constitution, then we will lose and we will deserve to lose.” I’ve always thought of Cruz as Trump without the charm. Maybe, though, he’s just a cockeyed optimist.