To try to deflect the misogyny rap, some of the right’s louder voices decided the best defense was a good offense. “Akin was never accused of rape—unlike Clinton,” proclaimed the talk-show host and columnist Larry Elder. Everyone else was hoping that voters’ memories of transvaginal probes and the all-male House panel on contraception would just go away if Todd Akin did. Mary Matalin and Grover Norquist talked themselves into believing Akin’s departure was a certainty. We shall see.
The right’s racial defensiveness was reignited by a Monday-morning MSNBC grenade whose aftershocks would linger for days: Chris Matthews confronted the GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, over Mitt Romney’s pre-convention birther joke, accusing the party of playing “the race card.” Once the first wave of Matthews-bashing subsided, a defense emerged: How can anyone say Republicans lack diversity when there are so many fabulous Latino and African-American speakers? This GOP refrain dates at least as far back as the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, where the blacks onstage (including a surreal bevy of gospel singers and break-dancers) threatened to outnumber those in the hall. Not much has changed. It was a Where’s Waldo? mission for even Fox to locate a nonwhite face in the convention crowd, unless the camera was trained on the delegations of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, or the District of Columbia, all of which, preposterously enough, were given prime seats near the stage in Tampa.
As the week dragged on, the right tried to put the left on the defensive about race. The liberal press, it claimed, was both overhyping Hurricane Isaac to revive memories of black Americans abandoned during Katrina and underplaying the convention’s vast diversity. A story pushed by the Tucker Carlson site the Daily Caller reported that MSNBC was deliberately cutting away from the convention’s minority speakers. The only problem with this theory was that Fox News had ignored all the same speakers MSNBC did except one (the former Democratic congressman Artur Davis). Indeed, Fox dumped the much-prized Utah congressional candidate and diversity trifecta Mia Love—black, female, and Mormon—for none other than Hurricane Isaac.
I found it hard to tell whether the GOP really believes it’s being unfairly criticized for its homogeneous racial and ethnic makeup or just wants to play the victim card for political expediency: It knows it can’t win a national election without wooing back the Hispanics it has alienated with immigration jeremiads—and without whites who like the idea of America as a place where Obama can be president (even if they don’t like Obama). But even if it’s true that the GOP is earnestly trying to reach out to minorities, it’s clear it has no idea of how to do so. Herman Cain is still running neck and neck with Condoleezza Rice to be the party’s marquee black attraction; Neil Cavuto of Fox tried to jolly him into vying for Commerce or Treasury secretary in the next administration. Even now, the GOP seems oblivious to the fact that its alliance with Donald Trump, the nation’s preeminent birther, is enough to cancel out any serious outreach to African-Americans in 2012. Were it not for Isaac, Trump might have hijacked the convention on opening night.
The only explanation for why Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians would be seen in public with Trump is that they actually think he adds the imprimatur of a cool A-list showbiz celebrity. Such cluelessness about pop culture is endemic on the right. Watching the convention through conservative media, you are constantly reminded how much the GOP is isolated from the cultural mainstream. That’s a direct consequence of the party’s shortage of diversity and youth, and some on the right are bugged by it. Conservatives may fawn over Jon Voight, Chuck Norris, and Kid Rock as if they’re superstars, or believe that Ryan’s professed iPod playlist (AC/DC to Zeppelin) has hip cred. A National Review blogger may fantasize wistfully about how “you could hold a late-1980s SNL cast reunion” of Obama critics at the convention (total guest list: Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz). But this is all protesting too much. You had better believe it wounds conservatives that Chris Christie’s adoration of Bruce Springsteen isn’t reciprocated and that so many musicians whose songs have been played at Romney rallies, from the rapper K’naan to heavy-metal singer Dee Snider to the band Silversun Pickups, have demanded that the GOP cease and desist. It’s precisely this cultural insecurity that led conservative media to devote relentless attention throughout convention week to the modest box-office success of the anti-Obama documentary 2016. (Its opening-week gross was a quarter of that of Michael Moore’s Bush-trashing Fahrenheit 9/11.) It’s also this insecurity that led the starstruck Republican faithful to overreact to the news that Eastwood would grace their gathering—and then to be slow to recognize that his act, whatever its comic merits, had upstaged and blunted Romney’s speech on his big night.