The Republican convention at last begins this week, and much of it will be virtual, which makes it very 2020. Yet as strange as it is to say — and bear with me here — something about this moment brings to mind the Republican convention of 1992.
Does anyone remember that dark pageant of apocalyptica? The parallel circumstances are worth noting. Like Donald Trump, George H.W. Bush was a Republican incumbent with pitiful approval ratings and terrible poll numbers compared with his moderate challenger (then a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton); like Trump, Bush presided over a nation scarred and exhausted by a recession.
They were very different men, Trump and Bush. A decadeslong public servant, Bush believed in international alliances and the power of our institutions; he was a hard worker, a courteous colleague, a modest fellow — the superego to Trump’s id, the string trio to Trump’s death metal band.
But he always had a goon squad on hand to fire up the party’s base of religious conservatives and social reactionaries, which lived in a curious coalition with the party’s elite cadre of internationalists seeking lower taxes. In 1988, he got himself elected thanks in large part to a race-baiting campaign ad. And in 1992, knowing he didn’t have a cheerful economic message to peddle, he turned over his convention to the socially conservative wing of his party, in the vain hope he could energize those same core supporters.
The convention devolved into an atom-splitting culture war. Speakers decried the dangers of radical feminists (Hillary!). The evils of socialism (Bill wanted health care for all). The depredation of the “homosexual rights movement.” Ted Kennedy was their Bernie. HRC was their AOC. The Los Angeles riots — also sparked by a videotaped act of police brutality — were today’s civil unrest.
Pat Buchanan was the headliner on opening night. It was entirely fitting. He was the proto-Trump, a nativist-reactionary-white-identitarian who’d just run a populist primary on the slogan “Make America First Again” and would proceed to make two more runs at the White House, each more hostile to immigrants than the last. He closed his address with an image of the U.S. Army finally reclaiming the streets of Los Angeles. “My friends,” he concluded, “We must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”
Columnist Molly Ivins later decided the speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”
Cut to today. Faced, as Bush was, with lousy poll numbers, extravagant unpopularity, and a recession for which he has no salable response or plan, Trump, an atom-splitter by nature, is set to take to the stage every night this week, on the theory that he’ll set off the chain reaction that drives his base to the polls.
The sole difference is that he’s not the fringe wing of the party. He is the party. This is what the party has become: The party of Pat Buchanan, cubed.
Republican officials may claim that this week’s convention will be an uplifting, inclusive event, featuring a wide coalition of affinity groups. (Chaldeans for Trump!) I doubt their messages of unity will stick. If the party were serious about bridge-building, it would not make Trump a recurring character each evening. He is constitutionally incapable of conciliation, even if the future integrity of the U.S. Constitution depends on it, and he has gravitated his whole media career toward genres that reward provocation, escalation and ginned-up fury: pro-wrestling, reality TV, Twitter.
The convention guest list is a reflection of this. Three of the featured speakers are viral social media stars, part of our new cottage industry of outrage; their place on the stage is the ultimate retweet. We’ll hear from Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the Missouri couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters cutting through their gated community. (Message: They are coming for your suburbs.) We’ll hear from Nicholas Sandmann, the student from Covington Catholic High School whose videotaped interaction with a tribal elder won him 15 minutes of uncomfortable fame and settlements from The Washington Post and CNN. (Message: Fake news.)
Have I mentioned that two producers of “The Apprentice” are working on this spectacle? And that Rudy Giuliani is another speaker? Neither bodes particularly well for that spirit of harmony that convention planners keep talking about. Nor do the president’s recent speeches and tweets, not that they ever do. But these days, he’s been channeling the spirit of George Wallace, making racially coded appeals to white suburban women.
That, as David Axelrod has noted, is what this week may truly have in store.
Trump has been asked at least twice what his plans are for his second term, each time by friendly interviewers. He responded with his trademark verbal incontinence. There was no decipherable answer in either reply.
The most Trump can imagine selling is himself, and what that self is is merely a hologram, a weightless shape. He play-acts at being a businessman. He play-acts at being a president. The only thing that’s authentic about him is his comic-book worldview, one divided between heroes and villains, us and them.
During the 2016 convention, peddling grievances may have worked. But as I’ve written before, grievance politics are much easier to sell in times of stability and prosperity. Hate is something you can ill afford when citizens are losing their livelihoods and their lives. “You cannot bluff a virus,” as Garry Kasparov, the political activist and chess grandmaster, likes to say. And you certainly can’t chant “lock her up” with the same gusto when the key players of your 2016 campaign team have been arrested or sentenced to prison.
An us-and-them strategy certainly didn’t serve George H.W. Bush in 1992. On Election Day, Clinton ground him into a fine paste. That may be one indicator to go by this week.
But I’m going to offer one more. In late 2018, The Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult did a survey that showed Americans had seriously soured on reality shows. It was the only television genre to poll negatively. And it was the only genre in which respondents found there was simply “too much.”
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.