WASHINGTON – With Thomas Hobbes now firmly in charge of Republican messaging – the world is a dark, Darwinian bloodbath, unless we turn over power to a strong ruler who will protect us – Hillary Clinton has a number of rhetorical and ideological gaps she could fill in Philadelphia.
She might, for example, use some self-effacing humor, in contrast to Donald Trump’s thin-skinned egotism. She could tell some stories of immigrant contribution and success, rather than stories about immigrants murdering children. She might try a little aspiration, a little magnanimity, a little confidence in the American spirit – all on extended vacation in Trump’s GOP. And she could talk about the way religious faith informs her life and views – a task that the Republican Party has largely abandoned.
It is, perhaps, to Trump’s credit that in Cleveland he did not pretend to beliefs he does not possess. But his convention speech was almost entirely secular. Faith-based supporters were only mentioned as another interest group at the long trough of his promises. Larger religious themes that often inform American public rhetoric – human dignity, social justice, the possibility of redemption – were absent.
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This is one reason many of us found the GOP convention so disorienting and disturbing. Trump has cut the party off from its religious, ethical and moral moorings. He appeals almost exclusively to anger at perceived wrongs and to feelings of economic distress.
This may be Trump’s best political strategy. For him to win in November, he must turn out millions of secular, blue-collar, economic populists – the type of voters Ross Perot once motivated – who have never participated in politics before. Trump’s appeal to anger against immigration, trade, multiculturalism and political correctness is well suited to his target audience. Will this result in an anti-establishment wave election that overwhelms the votes of minorities and the college educated? That is the defining political question of 2016.
But Trump’s approach does leave Democrats with an opening on religion. Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate is effective counterprogramming. Republican senators I talked with describe Kaine as “very bright,” “genuinely nice,” and “unfailingly courteous and positive.” But he is also known as “faith-oriented” and a “deeply spiritual guy.” Kaine is not only fluent in Spanish; he speaks the language of Catholic social thought, in the dialect of Pope Francis.
There is reason to think that Catholics – who often have a positive view of immigration and seek a moral context for their political choices – might be open to Democratic outreach. In 2012, President Obama won the Catholic vote narrowly, 50 percent to 48 percent. A recent poll had Clinton beating Trump among Catholics 56 percent to 39 percent. And it is not just Latino Catholics who have found Trump’s message off-putting. “The Republican Party has left me by embracing Donald Trump,” says George Weigel, a leading Catholic conservative, “a man utterly unfit by experience, intellect, or character to be president of the United States.”
Weigel will not end up supporting Clinton, but other Catholics might, especially if she can find some comfortable religious language, emerging from her United Methodist tradition. “This does matter to her,” says a longtime associate. “But it is a root canal for her to talk about it.”
Clinton has a number of pressing problems that her Philadelphia convention speech must address. Her reputation for honesty and trustworthiness is in tatters. Her appeal to younger voters is often lame and feeble. She is poor at communicating her passions, her core.
But at least some of these challenges would be addressed if she and her speechwriters find a way to talk about the Christian (and broadly religious) ideal of the common good. This principle is found at the intersection of Protestant mainline teaching on social justice, of Catholic social thought and of the African-American civil rights tradition.
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. … This is the way God’s universe is made.”
It is hard for me to read those words without being moved and saddened, since the GOP nominee for president has so intentionally abandoned the ideals behind them. It is one of the great tragedies of 2016 – and perhaps an opportunity for Clinton – that Republicans have ceded the ground of faith without a fight.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.