CLEVELAND – It was a familiar scene on the convention floor Tuesday night. The speeches were supposed to be about the economy. Apart from his racist bona fides, Trump's populist economic platform is a large part of his appeal. Remember, we're getting ripped off by all those smart politicians in Mexico and China. Trump, tough guy that he is, is going to put an end to that. He's going to cut deals and undo globalization and abracadara some sweet new trade deals.
But we didn't hear about any of that Tuesday night. Once again the show (and I use that word deliberately) devolved into an anti-Hillary hate-a-thon. “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock. Her. Up!” This was the refrain of the evening. It was the silence-avoiding chant that emerged when delegates or speakers felt the need to energize the crowd. And, evidently, the crowd needed plenty of energy.
I elbowed my way to the stage just before Gov. Chris Christie began speaking. The New Jersey governor, known for his swaggering shtick, launched into a “mock trial” of Hillary Clinton. Christie's faux charges were punctuated by cries of “lock her up,” and the audience loved every second of it. The call and response routine rarely fails at these events.
Later, Ben Carson took the stage and ratcheted up the resentment. Eschewing policy altogether, Carson instead waxed incoherently about Clinton's senior thesis on Saul Alinsky, a man most conservatives have never read but passionately hate nevertheless. But Carson really won the night by connecting Clinton to Lucifer (seriously). “Let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky,” he said. “He wrote a book called 'Rules for Radicals.' On the dedication page, it acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom...So are we willing to elect someone as president, who has as their role model, somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.”
I'm not sure anyone in the room thought about that, but they did cheer wildly. And why wouldn't they? No one can make a substantive defense of their nominee. No one in that room has any clue what Trump would actually do if elected. What they have is a shared disdain for Hillary. So they beat the hell out of that dead horse all evening.
Even the milder speeches by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were bereft of positive arguments. Like everything else I've heard in Cleveland, the pitch was negative: vote Trump in order to stop Clinton. Here in particular Ryan's shamelessness stands out. This is a man who was supposed to represent a smarter, better GOP, a man with ideas. And yet he's backed himself into a corner, acknowledging that Trump is a racist but refusing to take a stand against him – because Clinton. Ryan defended his ideas and his agenda on Tuesday night but he couldn't – and can't – mount a defense of his party's nominee. “Unity is everything,” Ryan told the crowd. Which is another way of saying we have to stop Clinton at all costs - Trump is almost an afterthought.
That Republicans invariably unite around their hatred of Clinton is telling in a couple ways. First, it demonstrates that there's not much in the way of a positive platform. Trump has coasted to this nomination by remaining a blank slate. His genius is in making himself a canvass onto which others can project their anger. So it's little surprise that Trump's intellectual vacuity is filled with anti-Hillary venom. In truth, there just isn't much else to talk about if you're a Republican. Your "law and order" candidate has dismissed the First Amendment, praised authoritarian dictators, claimed a Mexican-American judge has a "conflict of interest" on account of his heritage, and promised to kill the family members of suspected terrorists. These aren't contradictions Republicans want to discuss on national television.
Most importantly, the convention has affirmed what was already clear: The Republican Party is ideologically disjointed. Putting Clinton in prison is the only discernible plan articulated thus far. There's no consistent worldview and thus nothing from which to draw policy prescriptions. There are Republicans with internally coherent philosophies, but they've yielded to Donald Trump, a carnival barker with no political experience and no governing ethos. Intelligent conservatives are left without a party, and, as this Vox report demonstrates, they know it.
Ross Douthat, the moderate conservative columnist for The New York Times, summed up the evening about as well as anyone: “Everyone major figure who participated in this grotesquerie has disgraced themselves on a level unique in the history of our republic.” He's right. Republicans have convinced themselves that Clinton is sufficiently evil that sacrificing their principles in order to defeat her is just. But that bit of self-deception won't work for long. Eventually, they'll regret what they've done here.