Politics & Policy

The Comedy Is Finished

Trump waves to delegates after his speech, July 21, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Dispatches from the RNC in Cleveland

I’ve been a fan of the Kansas City Royals my whole life. Set the last two years from your mind. I’ve seen a lot of losing. I know what cheering for a losing team feels like, what it looks like, how it sounds. I know how it smells. I smelled it last night in Cleveland.

To extend the sports metaphor, party conventions are like Super Bowls. The fans are fired up (and well lubricated), they stand the whole time, they shout, they excoriate every mistake from the officials and acclaim every success by their team however tiny. They never sit. Never. Last night, the seats in the second and third rings of Quicken Loans Arena were kept warm throughout.

It doesn’t help when the featured speaker starts late and rails for an hour and a half without well-organized themes. A harangue gets old quickly. And when your chosen Jeremiah is preaching Adoptionism, the sermon gets tedious even faster. Even the New York delegation stuck to their seats for most of the program. By minute 45 of Trump’s speech, roughly the halfway point, eyes were beginning to turn longingly towards the balloons tucked into nets in the ceiling waiting to cascade.

The convention was truly the first Trump rally with a Republican audience. The opening acts were a mixed bag, as they always were. Pastor Mark Burns got the crowd on its feet preaching the old-time religion of law and order in the cadence of the black church. As orators go, he may have done the best crowd work of the whole convention.

Trump took the stage to a mix of polite applause and some earnest cheering. A few lines landed. And Trump had his moments nonetheless. He spoke about the dignity of work and of working people, a turn of phrase and a genuine concern that Republicans would do well to remember. He flipped Hillary Clinton’s slogan — I’m With Her — into a personal pledge from Trump to the American people: “I’m With You.” And despite its sloppiness, Trump seemed genuinely pleased when the audience cheered support for going after Islamists who target the LGBTQ community.

RELATED: Trump Caps Divided Convention with Uncharacteristic Discipline

At many points, however, the room felt airless. Trump got loud shouts of approval when he raised the specter of judicial nominations and spoke approvingly of school choice. Yet the crowd refused to chant “America First” despite prompting from Trump and cajoling from a few dozen hype-men in neon green hats circulating around the floor. The arena was damn near silent during Trump’s harangue against trade deals in general, though the Alabama delegation and a few others dutifully whooped for his condemnation of NAFTA. Trump was an evangelist to the gentiles tonight, and the gentiles remain unconverted. It was a Republican audience after all.

* * *

The most striking thing about Trumpism in-the-flesh is how much it parrots the logic of Romneyism. Of course Mitt Romney and Donald Trump are wildly different people. Romney is reserved, spruced, a model of probity. Trump is garrulous and flamboyant, Liberace in an over-long blue suit.

Yet for all their differences, their messages to the GOP primary electorate were not so far apart. Both men equated business success with readiness for high office. Both men made their telegenic families campaign centerpieces. Both men wrangled a history of ideological heterodoxy by talking tough about illegal immigration. And both men came to dominate fractious, divided primary fields.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Trump’s candidacy is at core a rich-man cargo cult. It has rolled through our post-industrial and post-agrarian hinterlands promising people jobs. In this, it resembles Romney’s campaign. Also like Romney, Trump talks about losing the country, and portrays the presidency as a salvific vehicle. Millions of Americans genuinely believe that Donald J. Trump will deliver them from the scourges of unemployment, ennui, and OxyContin. Millions believed this of Romney too.

Yet the two men have divergent constituencies. Republicans loved Romney. During his admittedly much briefer convention speech in 2012, nary an ass hit a seat. The Romney crowd was in attendance for Trump tonight and they were underwhelmed. A large portion of Romney enthusiasts despise Trump; Trump’s fans return the favor.

What accounts for the gap? Their temperaments matter immensely, of course. But temperament doesn’t explain the differences between their constituencies across demographic categories like education and income. Furthermore, campaigns typically build coalitions, not the other way around. Why was Trump able to energize the white working-class now but has been incapable of energizing rank-and-file Republicans?

Unlike the delegates in the hall, Trump’s voters don’t give a damn if he skewers conventional morality.

On the affirmative question — Trump’s ability to inspire — his showmanship matters. Wage stagnation has also been an issue. The fainting-couch response at Trump’s remarks hasn’t helped. Our chardonnay-sipping media perfected a script in the primary: gasp, express disbelief, and then cover Trump to the hilt. They’re flipping that script now, but at any rate, their outsized coverage of Trump was a necessary but insufficient condition for explaining his ascent.

At root, unlike the delegates in the hall, Trump’s voters don’t give a damn if he skewers conventional morality. If they did, he’d have been out long ago. Any realistic interrogation of his personal and professional history raises major questions. His bankruptcies are a veritable smorgasbord of Americana-cum-malfeasance. He’s managed to go broke selling booze, slots, red meat, discount airfare, and professional football. In the USA. What’s left? Fireworks? Painkillers? Lottery tickets? The touch of the Donald actually made sex not sell. The mind reels.

I’m not going to discuss his personal life.

Trump managed to shed all of his baggage because a section of the white working class long ago quit the concrete demands of American religion for the sake of consumption. The thoroughly-churched folks remain civilized, and many of them yanked a lever for Trump nonetheless because they disdain the establishment. But Trump’s real strength rests in the secular working class rather than among the believing populace. That crew has been de-Christianized because the mainline churches that once formed their worldview, and bound them in common purpose with the middle and upper classes, have evaporated. I see now, that this has been a story of the mainline.

The mainline sects never relied on theological richness for their support. They were always backstopped by an unspoken, often unrecognized ethnocentrism that they also helped to domesticate and make suitable to a vast, diverse country. When the mainline died, the unconscious ethnocentrism remained, but without a civilizing influence. Rousseau was wrong: Civil religion requires the genuine article.

In the absence of the genuine article, people will fill the wailing, god-sized hole in the soul with whatever appears ready at hand. Cruelly, the age of mass media arrived concomitant with the fading of mainstream American Christianity.

Thus Trump is not Zarathustra crying out that God is dead. He is the blonde beast and his acolytes the legions of a televised Last Man. We forgot that civilized secularism required a nation full of civilized, religious people to work. Left to our own devices, without a wooden idol (let alone real religion), we are nothing but cannibals. The precondition of secularism is a thoroughly believing population. Lose that, and only the disdainful animus of the atheist remains.

In our particular, American case, our cannibalism took the form of television. It, more than anything, has acted as our narcotic. It dulls the pain of having time and having nothing to do with it. Alas, television is an empty vessel. Trump is nostalgic for a world in which a person of limited education could bolt doors on cars for two decades and be regarded as a hero while spending his off hours in front of the tube. That view is understandable, but it’s not realistic. It depended on the utter annihilation of the rest of the planet, a binary geopolitical struggle between jumpy nuclear rivals, and all of the basic badness of the Cold War. But that is the Boomer experience, and their escape from that grim polarity was always television.

Whoever consumes garbage should see to it that in the process he does not become garbage. And if you gaze long enough into a television, the television will gaze back into you.

Old Man: “As in the television hast thou lived in solitude, and it hath borne thee up. Alas, wilt thou now go ashore? Alas, wilt thou again drag thy body thyself?”

Trump answered: “I love the poorly educated.”

Thus Spake Trumpathustra.

To paraphrase a different Thompson, you can sit in the third ring of Quicken Loans Arena and squint, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark of the American working class — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. And where better than Cleveland? After New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, the rest is just Cleveland, after all. In these places, the places that I have called home for most of my life, the missing element has always been that most exceptional, most amazing, most American of possibilities: the chance to work fairly hard, follow the rules, and be richly rewarded.

My generation has no realistic expectation of that. We do not expect to work 40 hours a week and be able to retire at or around 60. We do not expect to be taken care of by large, well-organized entities. We are, in some sense, returning to the pre-war reality. That reality is fractious, but it is also interesting and energizing. Trump has run his campaign against the idea of moving away from post-war economics. It’s nostalgia-as-campaign. Even if it works now, it has no hope. My generation holds no truck with its foundational assumptions.

* * *

#share#We shuffled out to “All Right Now,” the sole prominent hit by Free, a U.K. group that was itself a flash in the pan, but left long tails in stadium rock thanks to Bad Company. That was followed by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the quintessential anthem of the Trump nomination: a pleading tune about fatigued compromise performed by men who are too old to be doing what they’re doing on stage. Quite the parting message to the GOP devotees in the hall.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far. Perhaps “meh” is all we’re reasonably entitled to expect. By now Trump has rubbed his odious and odoriferous political glands on so many Republican politicians, it’s hard to keep track. But none has suffered more than Chris Christie. Walker bit the bullet and, being a party man who respects loyalty to institutions, made the endorsement. Cruz, Trump’s chief enabler, reverted to bomb throwing, and like a contestant on the reality-television environment in which Trump thrives, came to the RNC determined not to make any friends. Rubio, apparently having missed Chapter 21 in The Prince, tried unsuccessfully to split the baby on a man he called unfit to handle nuclear weapons with a mealy-mouthed endorsement couched in the subjunctive tense. Christie, however, stands apart. His unmaking has been a particularly tragicomic and archetypal piece of Trump residuum.

Christie is a large and imposing figure. His looming, fire hydrant of a face turns on a swivel and scowls, then cracks into a “hey, how ’bout it” chuckle. He’s tough for sure, and capable of being mean. In GOP political circles, his shouting matches with union activists and town-hall morons are the stuff of legend.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far. Perhaps “meh” is all we’re reasonably entitled to expect.

He was also a good politician once. And that says something. Toss out all the idiot dross you hear from media types, your half-drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, and frequently from politicians themselves. American politics is a brutal, grueling, and often thankless business. The pay sucks, the hours are awful, and you spend more time in airplanes and wolfing down airport grub than a management consultant. You’re a true friend to none and a stranger to all, even as they shout “Governor” at you and pump your hand at the diner. That’s why you see so few sons and daughters of privilege really getting into it. It’s why the hard-bitten and the hard-luck cases predominate. Politics is a spiritual hospital.

Christie never had a real path to the White House. Sure he raised some money thanks to Meg Whitman and a few other loyalists. He had some decent debates, including knocking Rubio off his feet in New Hampshire. But I’ve yet to see how a man who wears pink shirts and pearl cuff-links can get through Iowa, or even post-industrial New Hampshire. Nonetheless, an argument can be made for raising one’s profile when one has been a success.

It’s easy to forget, but Christie was a serious governor and a serious chair of the RGA. He was a success, and as such, he was frequently mistaken for a serious man. Here in Cleveland, Ohio governor John Kasich cuts perhaps the most striking contrast with Christie today in part because the two of them shared so much before they both ran for president. Kasich, who calls himself a slob on the stump, conducts himself with an avuncular style in public. Stoop-shouldered, long-winded, and occasionally supercilious, Kasich is the candidate you would design in a laboratory to be terrible on TV. And he knows it.

But make no mistake: Kasich is tough as nails and a ruthlessly effective political operator. Behind closed doors, Kasich has a temper, but unlike Christie, he never shows it in public. Likewise, ever the power player, when Trump disrespected Kasich on his own turf, the king of Cleveland stood in open defiance of his party’s nominee and sandbagged Trump’s operation in Ohio. That’s real power — far more than blowing up the traffic patterns in Fort Lee.

For all of Kasich’s heresies on policy, and they are not small in number, he gave Trump the cold shoulder and packed out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with supporters. By contrast, the man who swept into reelection in New Jersey is as popular as a hangnail in his state. It’s damned indecent for the governor of the eleventh largest state by population to run around fetching Big Macs for anyone. He has played neither the hard power game nor done the earnest, pragmatic, hard work to make himself loved by his people still.

#related#No, Chris Christie is Pagliacci, the titular character of Leoncavallo’s opera about a clown who, convinced his wife is cuckolding him, knifes her and the man he mistakes for her lover in the middle of a pantomime show. The audience, captivated by what they believe is an emotionally charged performance, realizes too late that they’ve just idly witnessed two murders.

Christie is our wrath-filled clown and his victims are his integrity and his political future. And we’re the spectators watching with glee and unfolding horror as a once-formidable blue state governor implodes. The opera closes with a hell of a line: La commedia è finita! The comedy is finished! Sitting in the basement of a Cleveland bar, banging out these lines at three in the morning, nothing ever felt truer for Christie, for the party, for any of us in this Cleveland carnival. We are all witnesses after all. The LeBron James sign says as much.

The carousel does not return, for there is no place you know you are loved.

Rise now Pagliacci. La commedia è finita!

— Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant. This piece was originally published on Medium and has been reprinted with Thompson’s permission.

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