For conservatives like myself, the 2016 presidential election cycle has been heartbreaking.
Not only have we watched a fraud successfully take over the Republican National Convention and dupe millions of voters, but we’ve watched it happen at such a critical time for the world, our nation and our society.
Instead of being a triumphant and inspiring convention which models a real alternative to the flaws of Obama’s administration, the deception of a potential Clinton administration, and the lingering dissatisfaction with the big-government and hawkish G.W. Bush, this year’s RNC was a painful reminder of how low a political party can descend given the right moment.
The foreign policy challenges facing the next president are tremendous. After 15 intense years of combating Islamic terrorism, we seem to be no safer today than in 2001. Vladimir Putin has been leading Russia into an increasingly aggressive, nationalist power. There are even some signs that Japan may be rejecting the constitution we helped them develop after WWII in favor of a more nationalistic one. Mass immigration from predominantly Muslim nations is changing and challenging European society and to a lesser extent the United States. Now more than ever, we need a strong, prudent, moral leader capable of building coalitions to address global crises and humanitarian disasters without needlessly dragging us into extended occupations of foreign land. We need a president who understands the threat of Islamic terrorism but is discerning enough not to play into their hands by insulting or targeting or banning Muslims and who understands that modern terrorism does not need a strong chain of command or infrastructure or even deep theological commitments in order to inspire mass killings. Anyone with an internet connection can be radicalized.
Whatever Obama’s other foreign policy failures, he understood the great danger of alienating moderate Muslims by curtailing their civil liberties in the U.S. or by harming their families abroad. He has tended to be realistic about the challenge of fighting a tremendously defuse ideology.
But instead, in the major speeches at the RNC, Republican leaders talked about the need to achieve “victory” over Islamic terrorism while giving the occasional reassurance that not all Muslims are like that. VP hopeful Mike Pence promised that Trump would “confront Islamic terrorism at its source [whatever that means] and destroy the enemy of our freedom.” Still, even if the majority of Muslims are good people, Trump and other speakers said or implied that letting in refugees would mean letting in ISIS terrorists.
These speeches, combined with Trump’s recent New York Times interview, gave the impression that the GOP is simply not a serious party when it comes to foreign policy. They are more concerned with making vague and silly promises to end terrorism than with dealing with the reality of it.
Nationally, we are struggling from economic stagnation, especially for the lower and working class, from a broken health-care system, from an over-burdensome tax system, from ineffective and excessive regulations, from a poorly funded and confused education system and from mounting debt. On these issues and others, Hillary Clinton has struggled to convince voters that she has meaningful solutions, making this election an easy win for any somewhat-decent GOP nominee. But conservatives have Trump.
As the speakers addressed domestic issues, they focused on the problems many Americans face and offered vague solutions. More than anything, their focus was upon offering a vision for voters of a “better” America. In this vision, greatness is just around the bend, all we have to do to reach it is to stop allowing the government and lobbyists and special interest groups to hold us back. We just need to get outside forces out of our way and then we can each achieve great things.
While there is some truth to this vision of America, it does not account for the role of communities and institutions, or acknowledge that human flourishing requires more than simple freedom. It also takes knowledge and habits and capital and opportunities. For those of us blessed with these things, the message of the RNC was attractive, but what about those born without such advantages? What policies will the GOP adopt to help the underprivileged? And if they do not believe the government should invest in such policies, how will they encourage private organizations, institutions and communities to help those in need?
As a conservative, I am skeptical of the State’s ability to always efficiently and humanely assist the disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean we can pretend that America will become “Great Again” simply by getting out of people’s way. This is why I was left unimpressed by the domestic policy discussion: it cast a vision of human flourishing framed by individualism, not communities, and ignored the real challenges facing many poor Americans.
The most troubling part of these speeches was the way they addressed and failed to address the basic challenges facing American society. Several speakers reflected on the evil of killing police officers and were quick to add that when the police are unjust they must be held accountable, but they completely ignored the underlying, historical tensions facing our nation. No speech was more important on this issue than Trump’s, which repeatedly made reference to the violence against police officers and the need for “Law and Order” but gave absolutely no acknowledgement to police abuse and racial profiling.
We have a national crisis of trust between law enforcement and (particularly) minority communities. Some of this crisis stems from centuries of State-sponsored terrorism against minorities. Some of it stems from the living memories of those who lived and suffered through Jim Crow and reactions against the Civil Rights Movement. Some of it stems from the continued reality of racial profiling, racial disparities in conviction rates and a number of high-profile cases of police abuse. And some of it stems from misinformation, hyperbole and social media rumors. But the fact of this distrust remains and has created a greater and greater divide between those who are suspicious of law enforcement and those who are suspicious of law enforcement critics.
This crisis cannot be resolved by praising the police and promising to punish those who break the law. Trump’s “Law and Order” platform, which he has arrogantly embraced, is a very thinly coded call for authoritarian government, one that sees this crisis as entirely one-sided. By not naming this crisis for what it is, the speakers failed to demonstrate the ability to address it.
Similarly, the RNC speakers avoided traditional “social issues” which have been a focus for many years. Abortion was rarely alluded to and was entirely absent from Trump’s acceptance speech. Pornography, despite being an official item on the party’s platform this year, was not addressed in the major speeches. A few candidates made vague references to defending religious liberty, but their calls lacked the urgency and clarity of vision that we need.
Whereas many serious evangelicals are concerned about how religious organizations will be able to operate according to their deeply held beliefs in light of changing views on sex, gender and orientation discrimination, Trump focused on pastors’ ability to make political endorsements from the pulpit. As an evangelical conservative who pays close attention to politics, I can say with confidence that we don’t have a problem voicing our political opinions. But this statement by Trump perfectly reflects how he understands evangelicals and people in general: they are driven by power. And so he offers us what appears to be more political power.
The most pressing issues facing our country all involve widening differences between different groups: religious and secular, working and lower classes and middle and upper classes, middle America and the coasts, millennials and baby boomers, those who see evidence of systemic racial injustice and those who believe it’s all imagined. The president we need is one who sees these conflicts and is committed not to flattening all distinctions, but pursuing policies based on some shared principles that allows for difference. I saw none of that at the Republican National Convention. Particularly in Trump’s speech, what we witnessed was a man selling Americans on selfishness and nationalism.