Republican Convention 2016

What Remains After Donald Trump's RNC: A Party Without a Future or a Governing Coalition

The GOP has far bigger problems to deal with than the billionare developer.


Richard Ellis/ZUMA Press/Newscom

It's the day after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and virtually all elements of the big show have already been disappeard from the town Reason and Drew Carey tried to save once. The delegates, pundits, and activists have almost all bugged out of town, leaving behind virtually no trace they had been running riot here for the past few days.

Here are three big takeaways for libertarians.

First, as my colleague Matt Welch, who has covered all the major-party conventions since 2000, notes, #RNCinCLE was marked by noticeably low energy, the same failing for which Donald Trump mercilessly mocked Jeb Bush. Nobody's expecting these things to be like Burning Man or Electric Daisy Carnival of course, but so many notable Republicans—including most of the other primary candidates vanquished by Donald Trump—were missing that Cleveland felt like an out-of-season beach town.

The RNC wasn't an exciting and super-charged Broadway production, it was dinner theater at Club Bene. Face it, when you're hauling out dwarf stars such as Scott Baio to light up the evening sky, something is seriously off. Whatever else you can say about Clint Eastwood's infamous empty chair bit at 2012's RNC, it was performed by, well, Clint Eastwood. Having big names attend isn't simply a question of political or Hollywood starfucking. It's an indication of ideological intensity, energy, and commitment, of whether your tribe is ready to spring into action or is at least engaged. Trump is the single-most disliked presidential nominee in history, with about 60 percent of us disapproving of him. There will likely be a post-convention bump (though having the RNC and DNC so close may minimize that for both nominees), but Trump is not exactly winning over new fans. 

Even if the vast majority of Republicans say they will vote for him, that's not quite the same thing as being the sort of guy who can really rally the troops. Trump's whole shtick is to be confrontational and divisive and while that may play well on TV or in a heated negotiation session, it also sucks the energy out of political movements as loyalty and unquestioning allegiance replace any esprit de corps. It may be better to be feared than loved when you're a dictator but in a free society, people can always just walk the other way. And lots of Republicans are doing precisely that by becoming independents or just packing it in vis a vis politics.

At least in terms of presidential races, the GOP has already been running on fumes for awhile, having nominated a tired old man in 2008 and the guy who prototyped the hated Obamacare in 2012. This year promised to be different but a promising slew of legitimate and serious candidates got their asses handed to them by a dilettante. That can't be good for party morale, especially since Trump was essentially mouthing exactly the same sort of policy prescriptions that the mainstream GOP has been pushing for years. He beat them at their own lame game. And while Trump has shown the ability to stage a good reality show, the simple fact is that the convention schedule wasn't just lacking exciting and big-name speakers, it was filled with obvious screw-ups. The most obvious of this was Ted Cruz's appearance, which brought the rancor of the primary season to full view. Given his treatment of Cruz's family—bringing up his wife's mental-health issues, accusing his father of being involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination—what was Trump thinking? Hard-core #NeverTrumper Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon tallies up other screw-ups and declares Trump "is actually truly, magnificently inept." You don't have to believe that fully—the guy did win the nomination after all—to agree that this convention was a total bust at glueing a shattered party back together.

Second, Trump's speech was truly awful, both in its specific content and in its delivery, which set a record for length. Focus on the delivery at first. Along with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (and who knows what fresh hell next week's Democratic National Convention will bring), Trump is one the shoutiest politicians out there. If last night was a preview of what's to come if Trump wins in November, the American people will spend the next four years being yelled at on a very regular basis (he does like to hear himself talk, doesn't he?).

Far more importantly, his actual policy proposals, such as they can be discerned, are almost uniformly and profoundly anti-libertarian. Matt Welch singled out seven of the most offensive ideas last night and Peter Suderman notes the false vision Trump paints of a world spiralling out of control serves only to justify giving President Trump more and more power:

The essence of that argument is that America is unsafe and decline, and that as a result it should be cut off from the world, plunged into fear, and managed by a simple-minded strongman who ego and bluster know no limits. This was the argument that Trump made last night. It is his pitch for the presidency.

It's easy to see where that demand for control comes from: He's a businessman and even though CEOs don't wield the sort of dictatorial powers critics of capitalism often assume, they operate very differently from most pols. Given that politics is the art of spending other people's money and forcing them to live under your preferred circumstances, that's not something a libertarian wants to see in pols.

About the only positive, optimistic notes sounded by any speaker last night were those of tech billionaire Peter Thiel who brushed aside long-standing GOP taboos by announcing he was "proud" to be gay and waved away conservative obsessions with unisex bathrooms while calling for missions to Mars rather than just another bombing run in the Middle East. Even as Trump acknowledged the "49 wonderful Americans" at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse in a gesture that was notably inclusive for a Republican politician, most of his speech was classic us-against-themism. Yes, yes, he will speak for all of us and he wants all of us to "win." But one of the reasons he talked so long is that his list of enemies is so long: Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, of course, but also Chinese money-launderers, Syrian refugees fleeing a situation in which the United States is deeply implicated, immigrants, immigrants, immigrants. We live in a world that is undoubtedly filled with problems but we also live in a world which is improving dramatically in all sorts of ways, mostly because power is being dispersed and decentralized. Yet Trump's answer to everything is a simple one: Give me more power. When he justifies that impulse by claiming that he is doing it for our own good and because he loves us all, he sounds like an abusive husband in a Lifetime movie.

Veronique de Rugy, Mercatus

Third, the GOP was fractured long before the emergence of Donald Trump. It had become, as Rand Paul once put it so poetically and correctly, "stale and moss-covered." The three legs of Ronald Reagan's legendary GOP "stool"—economic conservatives, defense conservatives, and social conservatives—haven't gotten along for years really and their ranks have been shrinking for years. Under George W. Bush, spending and budget discipline went out the window in a huge way, as spending climbing 50 percent in real dollars on his watch. Most of that—wars, Medicare Part D, TARP, etc—was done with full participation by the Republican Congress. Military hawks, who always insist we should be spending more money on defense and entering more battlefields, have similarly been discredited by an unrelieved record of failure in the 21st century. The poor conception and execution of Afghanistan and Iraq should make the biggest hawk think twice, much less the typical Republican with half a brain, and it has; add to that pushback from budget hawks who are right to ask why defense should always cost more even as everything else in our lives gets more efficient and cheaper. Social conservatives have been shrinking for years and their fears of gays, drug use, and general social chaos rally fewer and fewer people, especially among millennials, who just don't care or worry about these things.

So not only has each leg in the Republican school been getting shorter (so to speak) Reagan's formulation failed to take into account libertarians, who according to Gallup now comprise the largest ideological group in contemporary America. Gallup keys off annual poll questions to sort respondents into libertarians (27 percent), conservatives (26 percent), liberals (23 percent), and populists (15 percent). For the first time last year, libertarians were the most numerous. You can quibble with the exact numbers but the GOP has for years failed to even really acknowledge libertarians as a distinct group. When Reagan metaphorically built his stool, the Cold War tamped down differences among the groups and promises to cut taxes was enough to buy off libertarians by and large.

But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Libertarians have not just been growing in numbers and political clout, we are increasingly looking beyond how much the government taxes and spends as the biggest issues to consider when it comes to political activism or partisan affiliation. As the GOP goes mega-populist on issues such as immigration and trade protectionism, continues to insist on a "strong" (read: reckless) foreign policy, and the need for ubiquitous surveillance and incarceration, they will only continue alienating not just libertarians but moderates and millennials as well. Trump may exacerbate and accelerate those problems, but the real problem is that the party he "invaded" was already terrible on so many of these issues.

Coming out of Cleveland, then, the GOP looks very much like it did going in: It abjectly fails to match its limited-government rhetoric and belief in individualism with the actions of the party at the federal level. And its standard-bearer is a guy who cannot go half a speech without inveighing against free trade, immigration, and a (falsely) terrifying world in a way that will leave libertarians and many other Americans as cold as, well, Cleveland in February.

Programming Note: Next week, Reason writers and videomakers will be hitting the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Last night, even as the balloons were still dropping and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was playing (seriously), Matt Welch and I talked about Trump's speech and our sense of the whole event. Take a look below or on Reason's Facebook page.