Republican Convention 2016

A Republican Party of Emotions, Not Ideas

How will the newfangled GOP make America safe again? By blustering like the last 15 years didn't happen


"War is not about bathrooms," former Gen. Michael Flynn said near what should have been the end of Opening Night at the 2016 Republican National Convention. "War is about winning."

Forget plagiarism—this confident non-sequitur was a concise and timely reminder that when it comes to ideas, the GOP has gone to shit.

Monday was officially "Make America Safe Again" day at Trump's RNC, so let's recap some of the tautologies, taunts, and threats put forth to accomplish that goal:

* "To defeat Islamic extremist terrorism we must put them on defense. If they are at war against us—which they have declared—we must commit ourselves to unconditional victory against them." – Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

* "Ever heard of a place called Gitmo? Let's just say that I'm personally acquainted with many of the individuals now experiencing those accommodations. Let me tell you, they need to stay there forever." – Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana).

* "There is no adversary the U.S. military cannot defeat if we unbind them from the restrictive, ludicrous rules of engagement they've been forced to fight under for the past seven years."—Karen Vaughn, mother of a killed Navy Seal.

* "[Elect] a commander-in-chief who speaks of winning wars and not merely ending wars, calls the enemy by its name, and draws red lines carefully, but enforces them ruthlessly." – Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

* "The question I hear time and time again is 'Where is America's leadership?' There's a void in the world, a deficit that cannot be filled by others. Our country and the world of which we are a part simply cannot afford four more years of this lack of leadership." – Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

* "We are in the crosshairs. Our own city streets have become the battleground….Instead of protecting Americans, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the danger. Let's cut through the suffocating political correctness and call the threat what it really is. The enemy is radical Islam." – Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas).

To translate, in order: 1) Win, 2) Permanently incarcerate without due process, 3) Erase restrictions on killing, 4) Talk tougher and back it up, 5) Lead, and 6) Use different words. These aren't policies, they're authoritarian slogans (with a little editing aspiration thrown in). And in many cases, they were the closest thing to constructive suggestions given through the whole speech.

This collection should give many people pause, starting with a thing that exists (at least as a headline) called "Libertarians for Trump." I know those people don't take advice from the likes of me, but one would hope seeing their new political crush flanked by Rudy Giuliani and the Great Neoconservative Hope might talk them out of the fantasy that the belligerent foreign-policy naif is "the peace candidate."

Beyond those margins tonight's performance was a near-perfect illustration of—and maybe even test case for—Business Insider Senior Editor Josh Barro's perceptive tweet in February that, "Most voters don't have opinions about policies. They have feelings about issues." What mattered most in Quicken Arena tonight was not solutions about anything much at all, but rather that President Barack Obama is "a weak, spineless president who is more concerned about issuing apologies than in protecting Americans" (Mike Flynn), that he's guilty of "leading from behind" (most everyone else), and even that he might have his fingerprints on some Malevolent Design, at least according to Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas):

Our country's national security is at risk. After eight years of weak leadership, our city on a hill is now a city under siege….This did not happen by accident, it happened by design. It happened because of the failed policies of President Barack Obama and the architect of his foreign policy, Hillary Clinton.

These words, like so many of Trump's during his successful road to the GOP nomination, has been about connecting with voters on negative feelings, not laying out a blueprint to solve something hard. The approach has certainly succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of most of the political class (including me), who tend to be wedded to the importance of capital-I Ideas.

But tonight's undisciplined amateur-hour of a broadcast possibly illustrated the limitations to that approach as well. Having Rudy Giuliani bark about defeating enemies can be enormously satisfying to a Republican Convention audience, as we have learned over the long years, but translating those emotions into policies create new clusterfudges that will produce tomorrow's frustrations. (One of the best moments tonight was Rudy actually trying to get mad at Hillary Clinton for being too interventionist in Libya.) The Jacksonian impulse to remove real and imaginary shackles from Our Brave Men and Women as they fight radical Islamists is the kind of mindset that brought us Abu Ghraib, which frankly wasn't very helpful in the War on Terror.

And of course we know all this. We've had 15 years of public policy (especially of the foreign variety) in the form of crudely translated emotional impulses. And so here we are. Responding to all that dysfunction with some of the exact same habit of dysfunctional mind, and even featuring some of the exact same dysfunctional characters, is not some kind of exciting new break from a tawdry past. It's the same blueprint of woe, with a bit more amateur unpredictability thrown in.