Donald Trump’s acceptance speech last night was might as well have been the suicide note of the Republican Party. Just for fun, I compared it to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 acceptance speech and found that in the span of 36 years, the GOP went from a message based on growing the economy to one of absolute terror.
Somehow, the party that Reagan built gave up any hope for a brighter future through hard work and now follow a strongman dictator-wannabe that promises to crush their enemies. It’s clear from Reagan’s speech that there was a war of ideas between Republicans and Democrats. It’s clear from Trump’s that the war is between white Christians and everyone else. How do “Reagan Republicans” live with themselves? You can’t have supported Reagan’s ideals while cheering for Trump’s festival of hate.
Reagan focused on “a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.” Trump focused on the dangers of immigrants, ISIS, crime, more crime, terrorism, more immigration and even more immigration. In that order.
Reagan pledged to “restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people’s work without dominating their lives.” Trump pledged to “restore law and order” with a wave of his hand, neglecting to mention that “pacifying” all the crime (which are at historic lows, anyway) would require government intervention the likes of which would make the old Soviet Union green with envy.
Reagan spent a lot of time criticizing Democrats for being weak on defense and arguing that Republicans could do better. Trump spent one third of his speech convincing his followers that Obama and Clinton were actively and intentionally trying to destroy America and only he, Donald Trump, could single-handedly save America.
Reagan declared that Americans were ready to work together with “no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries.” Trump spoke about right wing churches and lamented “their voice has been taken away” by evil laws prohibiting tax-exempt religious intuitions from practicing politics. Trump ranted on and on about a woman killed by a single drunk driver that was undocumented. He railed against refugees and “sanctuary cities.” He raged about “Islamic terrorism.”
Reagan preached a bit of fear, of course. It was 1980 and the Soviet Union was a legitimate concern. But Trump preached apocalyptic terror that America was doomed to be overrun at any second by immigrants and terrorists and, good lord, what about that one woman who was hit by a drunken undocumented driver?! Trump made it seem like murder, violence and disaster were the norm instead, again, at historic lows:
Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.
Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally. Some have even been its victims.
Trump’s entire strategy for this speech was to send the audience into spasms of mind-numbing fear and blood-curdling rage because that’s all Republicans have left. Fear and hate. By comparison, today’s Republican base would reject Ronald Reagan’s speech as being too soft because even though crime was significantly higher in the 80s than it is now, Reagan did not spend most of his time trying to terrorize his audience and telling them which minority group to blame.
None of this is to say that I agree with much of anything Reagan had to say. However, a mere 36 years ago, his speech was within the boundaries of civilized discourse. Trump, on the other hand, was so far over the edge, even Republicans couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Trump has peeled away all the layers of pretense and dog whistles and all that’s left is the core of modern American conservatism: fear of the other and a visceral hatred for them. The problem is that this will never attract new voters. In fact, it will turn away not a small amount of moderate Republican voters and even more right-leaning independents. But now that they’ve gone down this road, Republicans will find it almost impossible to turn around. They’ve trapped themselves in a vicious cycle where they’ll be forced to increasingly crank up the fear and loathing or risk losing their paranoid and terrified base.
It’s unsustainable and Trump’s acceptance speech may have just been the point of no return.
Featured image via Flickr and Marc Piscotty/Getty Images