Four questions in Cleveland

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by Michael Sean Winters

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The show begins in Cleveland, as the coronation of Donald Trump as Il Duce, I mean as presidential nominee, of the Republican Party gets underway. Here are some things to look for over the next four days.

First: What story lines will emerge? The pre-convention buzz has focused on the many prominent Republicans who will not be in attendance. It is remarkable that neither of the party’s two living president will be in Cleveland, nor will the party’s last two nominees show up to join the festivities: Papa Bush and W. are staying in Kennebunkport, John McCain will be campaigning for re-election in Arizona, and Mitt Romney, whose animus to Trump has been exceedingly pronounced, was probably not even invited! Yesterday's Washington Post featured an essay by former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, which described Trump as a candidate who "continues to grotesquely manipulate the deeply felt anger of many Americans. Trump's abrasive, Know Nothing-like nativist rhetoric has blocked out sober discourse about how to tackle America’s big challenges."

Once the show gets going, however, the absences will recede for the simple reason that reporters on the ground need someone to go on camera. The "Never Trump" movement suffered a crushing defeat at a meeting of the convention's Rules Committee last week: Turns out that while the GOP stands four square in favor of legislation supporting conscience rights, that concern does not extend to the consciences of convention delegates. They are bound to vote for Trump if their home districts voted for him. Still, look for those delegates who refuse to get behind the winner to receive a disproportionate amount of attention. If they sound sane and compassionate, they may provide solace to those who are troubled by Trump. If they rant, they will squander their chance to make the important point that needs to be made: Electing Donald Trump as president would be the greatest moral step backwards by the electorate in our nation’s history.

Second: Will Trump’s supporters scare the undecided voters? In 1992, Patrick Buchanan delivered a speech at the GOP convention that named the phenomenon at the heart of our politics:

My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. 

The culture war was named. The crowd went wild, and the cameras showed them standing and cheering, each person more white than the last. When he referred to "our people" there was little doubt who was not included, and his metaphor of taking back the streets of Los Angeles from gangs removed even that little doubt. Buchanan then, as Trump now, compiled all the grievances he could, then flailed at as many straw men as could be found, and finally offered a set of non-solutions, not to the grievances but to the problems. In 1992 and since, the Republican establishment has always beat back efforts to kidnap the party and hand it over to the nativists that represented the core of Buchanan's support. Until now. Buchanan’s speech, and the reception it received, was not the only nail in George H. W. Bush’s re-election effort, but it was a big one. Check out what makes for the biggest applause lines in Cleveland. I anticipate we are in for four days of dog whistles.

Third: Who is Mike Pence? People outside the Hoosier state will be getting to know Pence this week. It is not so much about Pence himself: Veep candidates rarely play a key role in electoral outcomes. It is about whether his selection eases or heightens concerns about Trump’s decision-making. I was surprised to learn that Pence had been raised a Roman Catholic, but drifted away into evangelical waters and attended a megachurch in the 1990s. My friends who are firmly in the traditional camp of Catholicism call such people apostates, but I stand with Pope Francis and believe we should build bridges not walls with our evangelical brothers and sisters, and everyone else. Now it is not clear he attends any church on a regular basis. In 2013, he said he and his family were "kind of looking for a church." I was in Indianapolis in May. There was no shortage of churches.

For Pence, whatever his private and familial Christian commitment, the political value of his religion has been obvious and consistent: Just as Islamicism is a political aberration of the Islamic faith, Pence adheres to Christianism, a political distortion of the Christian faith. As Sr. Simone Campbell, founder of the advocacy group NETWORK, said this week, "While Governor Pence has said he is a Christian above all, his voting record in Congress and many of his actions as Governor belie this identity. In Congress, Governor Pence voted consistently to leave the needs of low-income families out of his concern, which is not a Christian response to the huge income and wealth gaps in our nation. We at NETWORK urge Governor Pence to get to know the struggles of our people and to recognize that Pope Francis is correct when he says that politicians need to build bridges, not walls."

Pence showed how little he grasped the biblical command to care for the stranger, the example of the Samaritan, when he barred the use of state funds in relocating Syrian refugees. To its credit, the Indianapolis archdiocese went ahead with its plan to settle a Syrian family and Pence, to his credit, took no punitive actions against the archdiocese. Still, the idea of banning Syrian refugees in response to a mass murder committed by an American-born Muslim is like throwing out the dog because the charcoal in the grill did not light. Here was crass, dog-whistle Christianism, in which the old hymn, and biblical verse, is explicitly contradicted: In Christianism, there is an East and a West, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. It is always us vs. them.

I suspect that Trump wanted to go with Chris Christie because he sees in him a kindred spirit. I never thought Trump would pick Newt Gingrich: Trump is savvy enough to know that when the two of them sit down to chat, Gingrich is thinking to himself how much Trump doesn't know. Pence likely does not have that sensation with many people. His mishandling of the religious liberty bill in his state had a "deer in the headlights" quality to it once events forced him off-script. 

Fourth, and most important: To whom are they talking? This article in ProPublica by Alec MacGillis looks at the rise of Trump through the lens of the Republican Party in Dayton, Ohio. The last four graphs should put the fear of God into us all, certainly into every pollster and every Democrats. Trump is appealing to people who felt they had no political home in either party, not in the ideologically pure wing of the GOP nor in its country club wing, certainly not in the Democratic Party of the coasts. "They came to party headquarters at the Mandalay to pick up Trump signs," MacGillis writes. "But, he said, marveling: 'These are not Republicans.' Or not Republicans as he'd known them. They were no one's constituency, until now." Trump has motivated them to come out and vote. Are there enough of them to offset those he is alienating? His abysmal numbers with Latinos should doom a normal candidate, but he is not a normal candidate and the 270 electoral vote question is whether he can motivate enough angry, disaffected people who previously did not even turn out to vote to support him in November. No one, not even Nate Silver, knows whether there are enough of them and whether or not they really will turn out. My hunch is that most of the speakers in Cleveland will be speaking to some slice of the electorate that has voted for the Republicans in the past: social conservatives, libertarians, big business types. But, Trump himself knows how to speak to these Daytonites, and those like them nationwide, who had given up on politics and my hunch is he will be speaking entirely to them. And it just might work.

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