Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the Trump show at the Republican National Convention, Ailes’s ouster, and where the GOP goes from here.
Party conventions traditionally offer candidates a chance to reach voters who may not have paid close attention to the primaries, and to sharpen their tone for the general-election campaign. Was Donald Trump’s RNC acceptance speech noticeably more presidential than his primary campaign? And if so, does that improve his chances against Hillary Clinton?
An angry tirade, devoid of facts and policies and delivered in a nonstop shout, is not presidential. It wasn’t really a speech, even though it went on for some 75 minutes. (If Trump had been listening to it instead of delivering it, he would have left before halftime.) But none of that really matters in the case of Trump, who has created his own reality and gotten untold millions of Americans to buy into it. Last night, he wasn’t trying to reach out to fence-sitters, centrists, or independents and convert them. What he wanted instead was to ratchet up the fears of any racists, nativists, Second Amendment zealots, and garden-variety hard-right Republicans who had somehow slept through the primaries and still might be rallied to register and vote. The speech was one long piercing dog whistle. And it just may have penetrated the mad dogs he wanted to reach and mobilize.
Watching it, I was struck once again by how ill-prepared the so-called liberal press is to deal with the Trump phenomenon. Commentators on CNN and MSNBC noted some of the downsides of his speech but gave high marks for style (“very forceful,” according to Wolf Blitzer; “rousing” at its conclusion, according to Chris Matthews) as if it were just another business-as-usual political speech to be graded (on a curve). There was lots of in-the-moment fact-checking by our top news organizations — no mean task given the dense web of deceit Trump was spinning — but the appeal of the Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with facts and will not be countered by facts. Trump is about anger, resentment, hatred — stark emotions that override rationality and are immune to its niceties. Trump is utterly ignorant about any issue you can name, and always has been, but those who will vote for him don’t care. He is their voice — of rage — as he reiterated constantly from the podium.
No, the only defense we have against Trump is his opponent. She must make sure that the other America, the America that is appalled, victimized, and scandalized by Trump and what he represents, goes to the polls to vote “no.” Is Hillary Clinton up to it? I don’t know. Yes, she could win by a landslide. But she could well lose, and to believe otherwise is to live in the cocoon of, yes, the liberal media — the cocoon that gave us all of those poll analysts who said Trump could never win the nomination and who kept saying it was only a matter of time before the Republicans’ “best candidate” (that would be Marco Rubio, remember him?) would emerge from the pack to save the day.
A chilling article by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post tracking Clinton’s downward trajectory as the convention convened makes it clear how close this is going to be. While 49 percent of registered voters “strongly dislike” Trump, 47 percent feel the same way about Clinton — in other words, a statistical dead heat of detestation. She has got to rise above that — with a vice-presidential pick, to be announced imminently, who will rally voters rather than bore them, with a convention that isn’t a smug and relentlessly rational legal brief but a fierce rallying cry that also speaks to the emotions, if higher emotions than Trump’s. This is a war in which the country hangs in the balance. You don’t win wars with civility and bullet points.
And speaking of war: Trump’s speech did everything it could to incentivize an ISIS attack. Not only did it offer the provocation of sustained Muslim-bashing, but it set Trump up as the strongman America needs to stamp out terrorism overnight. Nothing could be more helpful to ISIS than a chaotic and self-immolating Trump presidency that weakens America, and little could be more helpful to Trump’s prospects than a terror attack this fall. You felt he was rooting for that last night.
The unexpected ousting of Fox News’ Roger Ailes cast a shadow over the convention events this week. How much will his absence at Fox affect the power of the conservative Establishment?
The conservative Establishment has been in disarray from the moment Trump declared his candidacy, no matter what Fox News or anyone else had to say about it. But the constituency so brilliantly brought together by Fox News — essentially the Sarah Palin–tea party–Trump base of the GOP — is not the Establishment and will not be affected by Ailes’s departure. The network is financially essential to the Murdoch empire, not only because of its own huge profits but also because of its value as leverage to promote and monetize other Fox channels in the cable-satellite ecosystem. So it’s hard to imagine that any Murdoch heir with an eye on the bottom line will change its overall identity. Clearly the 85-year-old Rupert Murdoch appointed himself temporary leader in order to bar the door should any of the network’s most highly rated personalities try to bolt.
What will ultimately erode Fox News over time has nothing to do with politics: It will fall victim to the slow but inexorable death of television as we have known it, and particularly of cable news, which has an old audience (average age 68, and overwhelmingly white, in the case of Fox) and is increasingly obsolete as either a news or opinion delivery system in the new age of social media.
But while we wait for that, much more needs to be known about Ailes’s behavior and those who covered it up. Greta Van Susteren, Sean Hannity, Bret Baier, and Bill O’Reilly (who settled his own 2004 sexual-harassment case out of court) all stood up publicly for Ailes after the former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit. Did none of them have a clue as to what was going on? I imagine that’s what they’ll assert. As you may recall, the Murdochs claimed utter ignorance of the criminal phone-hacking done on behalf of their newspaper empire in the U.K. Can they get away with this in America — in a case that may have involved multiple instances of predatory sexual behavior over years in their workplace? If Ailes was the Bill Cosby of Fox News, the full story can hardly be swept under the rug by his resignation. It must be adjudicated in a court of law.
From the roll-call shouting match on its first day to Ted Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his party’s candidate, the convention has shown the deep divisions remaining within the GOP. Where does the party go from here?
The notion that the GOP is deeply divided is based on a conceit of the mainstream media: that the #NeverTrump crowd — roughly speaking, the defeated Jeb Bush–Marco Rubio–John Kasich political class, their donors, and the elite conservative Times–Washington Post–Wall Street Journal op-ed columnists who echo them — represent one-half of the supposed divide and that the insurgent Trumpists represent the other. But the two camps in this ostensible civil war are not evenly matched. The #NeverTrump crowd is actually the party’s fringe. Trump did win the Republican primaries decisively, and his voters are the true GOP.
That party is all white — only 18 of the convention’s 2,472 delegates were black, in the estimate of the Washington Post. And Trump’s absurd expression of LGBT solidarity notwithstanding, it’s a homophobic party — its platform not only opposes same-sex marriage and same-sex civil-rights protections but endorses reparation “therapy” for young gay people. And it’s a nativist party that has corporate backers who talk about immigration reform but that in reality has done nothing to advance that cause even when a president sympathetic to it (George W. Bush) was in power.
Whatever Ted Cruz’s fate within the GOP, it would be ridiculous to say he differs from Trump on any of the issues so attractive to the base; even in his supposedly rebellious convention speech, he made a point of endorsing Trump’s signature issue, a wall along the Mexican border. Let us also remember that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Rubio, Newt Gingrich, Sheldon Adelson, and nearly everyone else with true power in the Republican Party has signed on to the Trump GOP even if they make a show of holding their noses while doing so. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, once a platform of principled conservative opposition to Trump, is now rationalizing any outrageous thing he says or does on the grounds that Hillary Clinton would be worse. They are all selling their souls to the devil — but in truth they did so the moment John McCain cynically put Palin, all but indistinguishable from Trump, on his ticket eight years ago.
So what is the future of the GOP? Win or lose this fall, it will remain, as it has been for some time, the last outpost of old white America. Riding in on a wave of anti-Obama rage, Trump has made explicit the racial animus that was implicit in the Nixon-Reagan-Bush years. He not only wants to be the new Nixon, but the new Spiro Agnew, Jesse Helms, Lee Atwater, Pat Buchanan, and all of the rest combined. Even if he goes down, his followers are going to be creating havoc for years to come, doing their best to make real the horrific Armageddon-tinged portrait of the nation that Trump drew in his dark and corrosive acceptance speech. The white dead-enders are doomed by demography in the end, but not at the pace one might wish.