When the Republican Party formally nominated Donald Trump four years ago at the national convention in Cleveland, I thought the GOP was making huge mistake. It seemed Trump would certainly lose in November, and that every Republican officeholder who climbed aboard the Trump train that summer would be purged from whatever came after his inevitable defeat. It would be the end of the GOP as we knew it.
I was wrong about all of that—and in hindsight, I’m glad I was wrong.
Like a lot of observers at the time, I thought Trump had no real policy agenda to define his campaign beyond a vague pro-America sentiment and a withering disdain for the political establishments of both major parties. I thought his political inexperience was a liability, that his penchant for insulting his opponents would turn voters off, and that the GOP had missed an opportunity to defeat Hillary Clinton by nominating someone else—anyone, really, besides Trump.
But it turned out Trump was the best candidate to beat Clinton because Clinton embodied nearly everything voters had come to hate about America’s political class: the falsity, the naked hypocrisy, the barely disguised disdain for ordinary people. For all his obvious faults, Trump wasn’t a professional politician, had no record to defend, and was unconstrained by the conventions of ordinary political rhetoric. He was uniquely positioned to call out and exploit Clinton’s faults and shortcomings, and expose the contradictions at the heart of the Democratic Party.
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For Republican voters, Trump offered the promise of something different from the seemingly endless pattern of politicians who promised one thing and did another, especially on immigration and free trade. For decades, incessant Republican boasting about “securing the border” never actually secured the border as mass illegal immigration continued apace. Expressions of sympathy for the American working class never produced policies that might actually help the working class. Trump zeroed in on these things, and his message resonated because it was true (and still is).
On foreign policy, Trump was nearly alone in his unequivocal condemnation of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The other GOP candidates, especially Jeb Bush, were loath to litigate those wars or criticize Bush-era foreign policy, but Trump jumped right in, saying over and over what most Americans really thought: the wars were a mistake, the U.S. military was overstretched, Americans were getting a raw deal.
There was a purge in the GOP, but the ones who were purged were pols like former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the kind of Republican leaders who spent their entire careers politely touting plans for entitlement reform and balanced budgets while ignoring the things voters actually cared about. There’s a reason the newly announced list of two dozen “Republicans for Biden” is comprised of former GOP congressmen, and that Flake, who made a name for himself by criticizing Trump and backing the Democrats’ impeachment fiasco, tops the list.
There’s a reason Kasich was one of just three Republicans to speak at the Democratic National Convention last week. Trump didn’t destroy the GOP, he saved it from people like Flake and Kasich.
Trump’s policy agenda in July 2016 might have been ill-defined, but it was clear enough for ordinary Americans to see they had a stark choice before them: continue being ruled by a political class that hates them—supported by a media establishment that hates them, too—or try putting someone in office who will fight the establishment on their behalf.
Four years later, that’s still the basic choice facing Americans as the Republican National Convention gets underway this week. In Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democrats have a ticket that represents nearly everything the Clinton candidacy represented, only this time their line is that Biden will be a “return to normalcy”—as if Americans didn’t reject the normalcy of the political establishment four years ago.
The intervening years since Trump won the White House have done nothing to inspire a renewed confidence in our political and expert class. The coronavirus no doubt represents challenges for Trump’s reelection, as it would for any incumbent. But Democrats in Congress and in governor’s mansions across the country have not exactly covered themselves in glory during the pandemic. Nor have they inspired confidence by their inaction in the face of widespread rioting and urban unrest in recent months. Amid the chaos, they appear weak and confused, afraid of the mob and the virus alike, oftentimes unable to articulate a vision even for re-opening schools.
Biden inspires no confidence. He now leads a party riven by internal tensions and contradictions, a coalition that will not likely hold together in defeat, and will certainly crumble in victory. His presidency would be dominated by Harris and bullied by the ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party. His pitch to America, such that it is, seems to be more of a plea that at least he isn’t Trump, he’s just a kindly old man who will be decent and do whatever his advisors tell him to do.
None of this is to say that Trump is a shoe-in come November. But win or lose, he has done something for the GOP that Biden cannot do for Democratic Party: he has helped clarify what the Republican Party is about and whose interests it serves, and by taking on the GOP establishment, he has done much to save the party from itself.