The most successful presidential candidates are always optimists. John F. Kennedy embodied his "new generation of Americans," ready to accept its torch. Bill Clinton in 1992 sang "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." And of course, the maestro of sunny politics was none other than Ronald Reagan, whose 1984 "Morning in America" set the bar for presidential optimists going forward.
So why was the Republican National Convention on Monday such a bleak affair?
The GOP's headline for its first night was "Make America Safe Again"—a worthy goal, after eight years of the Obama administration's bumbling and overly interventionist foreign policy. But in practice, the actual theme seemed to be "Make America Scared Again," as fraught raconteur after fraught raconteur told of a dystopian America under siege by an army of terrorists and mullahs, like Rome at the mercy of the Visigoths and Vandals. Listen to the speeches for long enough and "Flight of the Valkyries" inevitably started playing in your head.
The most grievous offender was America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The unflinching face of our post-9/11 resilience was reduced to hollering at a rogue's gallery of nightmares. Giuliani referenced both the San Bernardino terrorist attack and the Fort Hood massacre; he made no mention of anything remotely resembling conservative principles. As policy proposals went, he offered only this: "You know who you are!! And we're coming to get you!!!" And it had to be done soon: "There is no next election," he pronounced, "this is it!" I can't speak for the thugs in Mosul, but his speech certainly had me hiding under my bed.
Also on deck was retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, long rumored to be on the shortlist of potential Donald Trump running mates. Flynn has a knack for commonsense foreign policy criticisms, but he discarded all that last night in favor of steel-boiling rhetoric about how we're teetering on the edge of destruction. Obama is a failure, no doubt, but to Flynn he's "singlehandedly brought continued mayhem, murder, and destruction into our neighborhoods and onto the world streets." Seconds later, he scorched the Democrats for engaging in "senseless hyperbole."
The gloom grew thicker as the night progressed, until it culminated with Senator Joni Ernst's warning that "terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states"—a misleading claim: the FBI has only acknowledged it's investigating cases of radicalism in every state. By comparison, Melania Trump's speech felt like an oasis. It might have been slightly cribbed, but at least it focused on the positive for a few minutes before the war drums throbbed anew.
It's impossible to imagine Reagan screaming that the Soviets will "come here and kill us!" as Giuliani did. The Gipper's appeal was that he did precisely the opposite, chuckling about the USSR and ridiculing communism like they were mere jesters on the geopolitical stage. When Reagan told the joke about the Russian haggling over the exact time his new car would be delivered ten years in the future because "the plumber's coming in the morning," you could feel his confidence that the Soviet Union would fall, thanks to the immutable fact that our system was better than theirs. He met Soviet bluster with a smile and a sparkle; he made victory over them seem inevitable and effortless.
Rather than reduce Islamic extremism to the butt of jokes, the Republican Party on Monday inflated it into a formidable threat—exactly how the jihadists want to appear. Worse, having constructed an unprecedented enemy, the GOP speakers offered no concrete ideas for how to slay it. What should be done about the Syrian refugee crisis or the upcoming battle in Mosul or the poisonous drip of jihadist ideology out of Saudi Arabia? The only proposed solution was elect Donald Trump president and he'll take care of everything.
Perhaps Trump will implement a more coherent foreign policy than Obama, and it's certainly true that terrorism is on the rise right now. But America is an ocean away from the Middle East, with the strongest network of national security infrastructure on earth and a relatively assimilated Muslim population. That doesn't mean we don't have challenges, but it does mean the GOP's Monday night terrors were the stuff of apocalyptic fantasy. Republican foreign policy used to be premised on national strength; today, it's being defined by quivering insecurity.