Something smells foul in Cleveland, and for once, it isn’t Lake Erie fish die-offs, the polluted Cuyahoga River, or the Indians’ post-All-Star Break performance. Nope, the stench wafting above the city’s majestic brown and gray skyline came from the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Republican Party officially coronated its own version of a mid-20th century authoritarian Strongman on July 21, 2016.
Historically, America’s conservative party has been no stranger to political scare-tactics, but in his speech to officially accept the Republican presidential nomination, Donald J. Trump — he of the bombastic ego and even more bombastic roadkill coiffure — laid out an apocalyptic vision of America that was beholden less to Ronald Reagan that it was to Immortan Joe.
If any single word defined Trump’s dialed-to-eleven Republican National Convention speech, it was fear: raw, primal, creeping FEAR. With nary a positive vision to promote, Trump instead invoked a dystopian American landscape wracked by urban crime, beset by an invasion from the murdering Mexican hordes and the menace of international Islamic terrorism, and roiled by the collapse of law and order. The latter phrase — “Law and Order” — was the core of Trump’s horrifying vision of American decline, a phrase that intentionally linked the bloviating billionaire’s candidacy to the 1968 “Law and Order” campaign of Richard Nixon.
The spectre of the tumultuous late-1960s hung over the RNC like swamp gas over a fetid bog, as Trump, like Nixon before him, attempted to present himself as the last moral bulwark against total societal collapse. Beyond outwardly declaring himself the “Law and Order” candidate, Trump’s other allusions to Tricky Dick were direct. “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” the great orange demigod proclaimed, “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.”
Contrast the latter warning with Nixon’s description of a chaotic America at the RNC’s Miami convention in 1968: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.” Trump, like Nixon before him, presented his candidacy as the final line between order and chaos; the only political choice that could stitch back together America’s splitting seams.
But as historian Rick Perlstein notes, beyond superficial rhetorical allusions, Trump is no Nixon — and that’s a compliment to old Tricky Dick. Nixon, Perlstein reminds us, “reinvented himself in the image of America’s hopes instead of its fears.” Beneath the doom and gloom of Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign lay the promise of hope for renewal. “Nixon was fond of a spiritual ideal he learned in his Quaker youth: ‘peace in the center,'” Perlstein writes, “that a God-spark of grace lay buried underneath America’s currently, temporarily degraded circumstances.” This vision of American grace came through in lines that seem almost hippie-esque when stacked next to Trump’s apocalyptic bluster. “We shall work toward the goal of an open world — open skies, open cities, open hearts, open minds,” Nixon vowed, “so let us have order in America…the order which guarantees the right to dissent and provides the basis for peaceful change.”
Such a charitable conception of American grace was nowhere to be found in Donald Trump’s dark vision of an America hanging over Hades’ ghoulish pit. “To all Americans tonight, in all our cities and towns, I make this promise,” Trump concluded, “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again!” On the surface, these might seem like traditional reassurances of American strength, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll notice a crucial admission at the heart of conservatism’s obsession with American Exceptionalism: it’s a sham. It doesn’t exist.
How else to explain a nation so purportedly rooted in the ideal of strength, yet so perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse at the hands of every imaginable threat? America as defined by Trump and the entire conservative movement is hardly exceptional, in fact, it’s decidedly ordinary, vulnerable to the same types of forces that have sundered so many nations before it.
While conservatives pay endless lip-service to American strength, the America that they actually invoke is characterized by incessant weakness. Just consider the litany of things that Trump — in the course of his 76 minute RNC speech — claimed were a threat to the United States. These threats include, in no particular order: urban crime, bad trade deals, trade deficits, government bureaucrats, Islamic terrorism, government regulations, excessive taxation, assaults on law enforcement, political correctness, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, stagnating wages, falling incomes, crumbling infrastructure, drugs, corrupt business leaders, and the elite media, to name a few. Refreshingly, the only thing he didn’t label as a threat to America was the LGBTQ community.
It’s no coincidence that the America which conservatives tout as a pillar of strength in an otherwise dangerous world is paradoxically a nation so weak that it constantly finds itself threatened by a litany of forces — both domestic and foreign — that are always, ALWAYS close to destroying it. There’s nothing exceptional about this America. This is an America not above or outside of history, but very much a part of history. Whether they realize it or not, the conservative movement has, for decades, perpetuated a vision of the U.S. that is far closer to historical reality than it is to their nationalistic fantasies.
To protect this constantly besieged America, Donald Trump offered no specific policies, only the power of himself. Only through the sheer force of his own will could America be made great again. This is the only way to make sense of the schizophrenic mishmash of contradictory ideas Trump unabashedly laid forth.
He promised a New Deal-style commitment to rebuilding American infrastructure while also demanding Reagan-style tax cuts. He promised an end to incompetent, intrusive government regulation while simultaneously calling for the biggest expansion of government power in American history to police the borders, round up illegal immigrants, build his great wall, and punish companies who skirt American laws to pad their bottom lines. Then there were the travesties he would end and/or “fix” — Obamacare, the TSA, the “depleted” military, the VA, the energy sector, NAFTA — without any specific policy suggestions about he would accomplish such a smorgasboarde of lofty goals.
The only solution that Trump offered to address the combustible cavalcade of chaos that engulfed America was he, himself, Trump. In terms of world history, there could hardly be anything less exceptional than a Strongman’s promises to provide security in exchange for power, to right all wrongs in exchange for the chance dominate his peers, destroy his opponents, and build up walls to keep the rest of the world at bay.
This does not, as some have suggested, signal the end of the Republican Party; rather, it signals the logical fulfilment of Movement Conservatism’s decades-long attempt to turn reactionary anarchism into American politics’ new third rail. In America today, fear Trump’s everything else, and there’s nothing exceptional about being afraid.