Say what you will about Donald Trump’s sinister speech at the Republican National Convention, it achieved one of its primary goals: Trump now owns the mantle of “change” in this election.
Trump confirmed his candidacy not only as a break from the political status quo, but also from U.S. presidential rhetoric and democratic norms as they’ve evolved over more than two centuries. His speech deliberately exhumed Richard Nixon’s darkest impulses while divorcing itself, utterly, from Nixon’s intellectual depth and creativity.
Trump departed not only from politics as usual, but American history and culture as usual, offering himself as a man of destiny, Putinesque or Peronist, and as the singular, heroic, unrebuttable answer — “I alone” — to every national question.
How does Hillary Clinton follow that?
Just as Cleveland was largely cast as a prosecution — replete with the creepy, oft-shouted refrain of “Lock her up!” — the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week can’t help but be something of a defense.
Clinton is a famously defensive politician. She abhors the news media. She detests the Republican operatives and politicians who have made her the witch in countless witch hunts.
Through circumstance and personality, the first female nominee of a major American political party has incongruously ended up as the cautious caretaker of the status quo. As ABC News polling director Gary Langer wrote in June, “she’s a status quo candidate in a year with considerable anti-status quo sentiment.”
There is no way to spin away from this and no real point in trying. Clinton’s selection of an unrepentant moderate and experienced politician, Senator Tim Kaine, as her running mate acknowledged as much. She is a longtime pillar of the nation’s political establishment and the obvious heir to Barack Obama’s two-term presidency.
She is not well-liked, and doesn’t generate widespread trust. She can improve her favorable rating, somewhat, but there is only so much give built into the current, highly polarized political context. And there is only so much Obama can do to assist her (though he can do something).
Since Trump represents a break not only with Washington but with the values and norms that built American government, he has provided Clinton with a way to embrace what comes naturally to her — continuity and incrementalism — and recast it as patriotism and promise.
In his speech, Trump mounted a Harley-Davidson (would-be autocrats from Queens eschew white horses) and left history stranded by the roadside. His speech raged for more than an hour yet almost never made time to touch a spiritual or philosophical or historical home base. The Founders and great Republicans past were absent. His campaign harks backward but its roots are short and desiccated.
Trump is symptomatic of the loss of confidence in democracies. Promising to operate outside the political culture, he has said that we can no longer “afford” the niceties of this standard or that ideal. Respectful discourse, submission to norms and rules, democratic process itself — in time of war you don’t wear such baubles to the front.
Americans think the system is corrupt and unresponsive. But the ideals and values that built it still have resonance. Clinton can’t renounce the political establishment that made her, so she must recast it, showing the strength of its foundation, the relevance and vitality of its core. She faces strong headwinds, of course.
But the American system produced more than two centuries of tangible results, by balancing interests, widening liberty, distributing power, sharing prosperity. Pluralism proved cohesive enough to win wars. Public investment and immigration powered wealth and progress. Even globalism has comprehensible rewards as well as challenges. What has the Trump system produced?
The ideals and values that made America successful (well, OK, along with a massive, unexploited land mass protected by vast oceans) went unclaimed at the Republican convention. There was only Trump.
Elizabeth Warren, arguably the sharpest rhetorical tool in the Democratic drawer, said Trump “sounded like a dictator of a small country, rather than a man who is running for the highest office of the strongest democracy on the face of this Earth.”
If Clinton is unsure of her instincts, she should trust Warren’s. The Massachusetts senator is not shy about attack politics. But she’s not calling for revolution, a la Bernie Sanders. She wants to bolster the system, not bury it, while acknowledging that the “strongest democracy on the face of this Earth” still counts for something.
An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. They believed the same, by more than 2 to 1, in October 2012. Weeks later they re-elected the president, suggesting they understand that “track” doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of governing, or the consequences of the Republican turn from conservatism to anti-government obstruction.
Clinton is not Obama. But she shares his faith in politics and government as forces of good, and she has inherited his coalition, which is the collective face of the nation’s future. It’s a coalition that, however dissatisfied from one moment to the next, has much to gain from an American political system properly deployed to advance its interests in health care, education, child care, infrastructure and a stable world. It’s also a coalition that understands well that Trump is no alternative; his campaign is the seed of destruction.
Clinton will not become a trusted figure by November. She will not become a visionary. But she can become the vehicle for American ideals threatened by the racial and cultural grievances on display in Cleveland. And she can be the champion of policies that pitch the nation forward instead of into darkness. That should be enough.
She can do one more thing: remind those voters not yet sold on her candidacy that the system she represents, and promises to renew on their behalf, will also constrain her, and hold her to account (no matter how much she may resent it).