Democrats have done a remarkable thing this week in Philadelphia: They framed this election as an epic struggle not just to continue the policies of President Barack Obama but to renew the sunlit, optimistic Americanism of Ronald Reagan.
In his valedictory speech Thursday night, Obama quoted Reagan’s description of the country as a “shining city on a hill” and contrasted it with Donald Trump’s nightmare vision of “a divided crime scene.” Obama also used famous words from another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, to praise Hillary Clinton as someone “who is actually in the arena, … who strives valiantly, who errs, … but who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.”
When Clinton came onstage and the president embraced her in a bear hug, he was passing along not just his own legacy as a two-term Democratic president but that of the consequential Republican presidents who preceded him as well.
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It was an audacious thing to do in a venue where no one, except possibly some of the security guards, shared Reagan’s conservative philosophy. But it was smart politics, and it also reflected objective reality: Trump is an alien, aberrational, dangerous force in American politics and must never be allowed to wield the awesome powers of the presidency.
The back-to-back conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia could not have been more different. The Republican gathering looked thrown-together and lacking in both star power and historical resonance, largely because so many GOP luminaries refused to have anything to do with crowning the usurper Trump; the entire Bush family stayed away, including the last two Republican presidents, as did the party’s two most recent nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
The assembled Republicans did come away unified in their determination to defeat Clinton. But the pessimism and anger in Cleveland were extreme, putting the GOP on record as asserting that the United States is in grave crisis, teetering on the edge of some fathomless abyss.
By any objective measure, this is absurd. But many Americans are anxious about jobs and the slow-growing economy, and about terrorism, immigration and demographic change. Trump won the nomination by exacerbating these fears and presenting an all-purpose solution: himself.
An all-star lineup of speakers systematically sought to reveal Trump as an ignorant windbag full of incoherent bluster. Leon Panetta, who was CIA director when U.S. operatives killed Osama bin Laden, said Trump is manifestly unqualified to be commander in chief. Vice President Joe Biden said that “no major party nominee has ever known less or been less prepared.” Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who is one of the wealthiest men in the country, blasted Trump as a poor businessman – “The richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy” – and implored voters to choose “a sane, competent person” in Clinton.
Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine focused mostly on introducing himself to the nation. But he did unveil a passable Trump imitation, and he showed off the fluent Spanish that he will surely use to woo Hispanic audiences.
It fell to Obama to make the larger philosophical critique not just of Trump but of Trumpism. This was no ordinary election, he said. “This is a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people. … What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative.” Instead, Obama said, Trump presented “a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems, just the fanning of resentment and blame and anger and hate.”
Obama said that Trump is “just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear,” but would lose the election because he underestimates Americans.
“We are not a fragile people, we’re not a frightful people,” Obama said. “Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”
The president promised that “anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.” It was a Reaganesque defense of American ideals – clearly designed to appeal not just to Democrats but to independents and moderate Republicans as well.
The progressive wing of the party might not be thrilled with all the uncritical flag-waving. But the Gipper would not recognize – or be welcomed in – Trump’s GOP. It is smart to invite his admirers to cross the aisle.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.