Friday, July 22, 2016

Economic Populism, America First, and Cheers for Gay People at the RNC

Source: The New York Times

Republican National Convention
We watched the final night of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Donald Trump's acceptance speech so you didn't have to. Here's what you missed:

First, a Positive Disclaimer
I have a fantastically low bar when it comes to watching the two major parties. In effect, I'm expecting it to be uniformly bad. When it's not, I'm pleasantly surprised and those are the things that stand out to me. Naturally, that's what I emphasize in the analysis below as well. It's not that I don't notice the horrifying parts as well; I just take those as a given. If you'd prefer a more balanced or negative take, there is no shortage of apocalyptic overviews for you to seek out. Like this one.

Cheers for Gay People
One of the most encouraging aspects of the evening came from a risky inclusion in the speaking lineup--billionaire entrepreneur and libertarian-leaning Peter Thiel. You may be asking, what's one more billionaire amongst friends?

Well, Thiel was risky for a Republican convention because he's an openly gay man who was expected to address LGBTQ issues--not exactly the bread-and-butter of the GOP. After raucous disapproval of Ted Cruz the night before, there was a solid chance that Thiel would be greeted with boos when discussing his sexual orientation.

The exact opposite happened.

In the speech, Thiel chastised Republicans for getting distracted by "fake culture wars" in general and worrying about the North Carolina transgender bathroom kerfuffle in particular:
When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Then, in what may have been the highlight of the night, Thiel declared his identity and received a standing ovation:
I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.
That got loud applause at the RNC. And it was followed by chants of "USA! USA! USA!" It was as beautiful as either of the two major parties can be circa 2016.

A similar moment also occurred during Trump's own remarks after he discussed the Orlando shooting and vowed to protect the LGBTQ community from hateful ideologies. Cheers broke out, and Trump explicitly acknowledged them:
And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.
This line wasn't in the original draft of his speech. Apparently, Trump was as relieved as the rest of us that Thiel and the discussion of the LGBTQ community received a surprisingly positive reception.

America First
Trump's foreign policy comments remained predictably inconsistent in his acceptance speech. He vows to defeat ISIS quickly in one breath (implying an invasion of some sort), but then opposes nation-building and regime change. He opposes regime change, but can't stand the most prominent instance where diplomacy was used in lieu of regime change (Iran). He correctly blames Hillary Clinton for advocating the intervention that destroyed Libya, but then blames her--the woman who counted Egypt's former dictator Hosni Mubarak as a family friend--for supporting / engineering the Egyptian dictator's overthrow, which is clearly false. He also criticizes Obama for not drawing a firm "red line" on Syria, but had that "red line" been more firm, it would have meant regime change in Syria--which, again, Trump is supposed to oppose.

You get the idea. He can't help but contradict himself all over the place. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, and it can't all fit together. Given how obvious many of these contradictions are, one wonders how they persist. Do his advisers really not understand this? Or maybe it's just some form of political compromise to the hawkish elements of the party? Tough to say for sure.

What is clear, however, is that Trump is pushing the America First theme. This phrase, or some variant of it, occurred repeatedly in his remarks, as an explanation of his priorities on foreign policy and immigration. The term is historically associated with a prominent antiwar movement, and we have to believe Trump knows this. Whether he truly favors this approach, or is simply using it as a marketing ploy is anyone's guess. But it does bode well for the antiwar cause in the upcoming debates. He may not be consistent, but Trump is setting himself up to take the more peaceful stance relative to Hillary Clinton.

Also worth noting here is another great line from Peter Thiel's speech: "It's time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild America."

Incredibly, that was an applause line at the RNC. One wonders if similar remarks will be heard at the Democratic National Convention, given their nominee.

Economic Populism and Outreach
Another major theme of the evening was economic populism. Trump may want to cut taxes (at least in this speech), but that shouldn't be confused with him wanting to shrink the size of government. Quite the opposite.

Trump's daughter Ivanka highlighted the (highly misleading) idea of a gender wage gap in her speech, attributing it primarily to challenges faced by working mothers. In response, Trump plans to advocate for an affordable child care system and possibly new employment laws preventing discrimination. While superficially appealing, it's not likely these will work well in practice. Do you want to send your kids to the daycare equivalent of the VA? I didn't think so.

Trump's own speech naturally focused on bad trade deals. Light on details but heavy on emotional appeal, he vowed not to sign another deal that harmed workers, and that American companies who tried to shift jobs overseas would face consequences.

Given this mood, you may not be surprised to learn that Trump was making very direct appeals to the Bernie Sanders voters, by favorably referencing the Democrat's populist candidate multiple times. He also referred to the economic plight of African-Americans and Latinos at a couple places in the speech, emphasizing how his policies would help them and all Americans suffering from the "rigged political and economic" system. Of course, this was a theme that Sanders drove home often as well.

With the exception of tax cuts and a few half-hearted nods to deregulation, Trump's economic policies will turn out poorly. But politically, that does not matter. Last night, Trump committed to branding himself as the candidate of the working man--his policies, his rhetoric, and even the personal anecdotes shared by the other speakers were all designed to convey this message.

The End of #ImWithHer
Trump concluded the evening by coining a response to Hillary's ubiquitous slogan #ImWithHer. Instead, Trump offered a different pledge to the American people: I'm with you.

Love him or hate him, this was brilliant.

In effect, it says that Hillary is in this race to just enhance her own personal power and influence and her supporters are pawns to help her achieve this end. On the other hand, Trump is the candidate who is in the race for selfless reasons, just to fight for the American people. Again, it doesn't matter whether you actually think this is true or not; it's a powerful message that fits his strategy.

And if I was a betting man--that is, if it was not illegal for me to wager large sums of money on political outcomes--I'd bet that Trump's strategy is going to work.

Hate, Rage, and "Others"
Disclaimer in mind, Trump's remarks were more moderate and more positive than I expected. The Hillary campaign already issued its verdict, which is exactly what you'd expect, summarizing it as "more fear, more division, more anger, more hate"

And to be sure, there was some of that. But not as much as you'd think.

Trump still wants a wall and is still worried about illegal immigration. He also called to stop all immigration from countries where terrorism is rampant. But in both cases, his remarks were less categorical than usual.

On immigration, he was no longer fixated on all ~11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the country. Instead, his focus was on some 180,000 who were illegal immigrants that committed crimes. One might question what crimes are included and whether this number is right, but this is clearly an improvement over calling for all illegal immigrants to be deported. Similarly, on the terrorism question, he no longer called for a ban on Muslims as such, he wanted it to be based on country. That position won't win any points with libertarians, but it is certainly better than banning people explicitly based on their religion.

In Trump's worldview, at least as expressed last night, the relevant distinction is not (legal) immigrant or non-immigrant; not black, white, or Latino; not Evangelical Christian or LGBTQ. It is American or not American. And he wants to put Americans first. 

Of course, nationalism has a dark side too. If Trump ultimately wins, we may be reminded just how dark it can be. But last night, nationalism convinced a room full of conservative Republicans to cheer enthusiastically for gay people. I say that's worth celebrating.

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