WASHINGTON – Donald Trump has handed Hillary Clinton an opportunity few politicians ever get: She has a chance to realign American politics. Trump’s ugly ethnic nationalism, his authoritarianism and his dark view of the country he would lead have put the Republican Party on the wrong side of patriotism, optimism and the future.
GOP politicians face an excruciating choice. They can accept the Democrats’ invitation to write off Trump as an aberration, give up on him, and try to prevent a wholesale redefinition of their party. Or they can prop him up, maximize his vote – and tarnish themselves for a generation.
The success of the Democratic National Convention and of Clinton’s well-crafted acceptance speech will be measured in the short term by the polls.
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But what happened in Philadelphia was also about the long term. It was a response not just to Trump but to changes on the right inaugurated by the rise of the tea party. Republican leaders passively accepted and sometimes encouraged an extremism that cast the United States as a nation in decline and alienated from its past, and President Obama as an illegitimate, power-hungry leader.
The party’s traditional chieftains assumed they could use these themes to rally an angry, aging base of white voters while keeping the forces of right-wing radicalism under control. They did not anticipate Trump’s political entrepreneurship. He spent years courting the far right with his charges that Obama was born abroad and set himself up in contrast to an establishment that exploited feelings it really didn’t take seriously.
Now comes, in Ronald Reagan’s revered phrase, a time for choosing. Politicians such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell look feeble and vacillating when they try to distance themselves from some of Trump’s outrageous statements (including his recent call on Russia to find Clinton’s deleted emails) even as they maintain their support for his election. They are the walking petrified, fearing Trump’s impact on their party, but also worrying about the electoral chances of their candidates if they push away Trump’s constituency.
It has fallen largely to conservative intellectuals and former Republican officials to make clear that Trumpism is not their brand of either Republicanism or conservatism. It is the neoconservative rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s in reverse. The original neoconservatives were Democrats put off by New Left radicalism. The new conservative rebels are horrified at Trump’s amoral approach to politics, his incoherent, dictator-friendly foreign policy, and his racist, exclusionary definition of what it means to be an American.
This gives Clinton her opening to reorganize American politics, and Democrats seized it last week by displaying more American flags than an American Legion convention and rivaling Olympic competitions in the number of “USA!” chants. The new patriotism celebrated American diversity in the name of a very old ideal: that we are a nation of ideas and moral commitments, not a country defined by blood, soil or a single religious tradition.
The most devastating attack on Trump came from Khizr Khan, an American Muslim whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. From the convention podium, the elder Khan directly challenged Trump’s strongman ignorance: “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
You could say that Clinton went left and right at the same time. She embraced a practical, policy-oriented economic populism that ratified Bernie Sanders’ impact on her party. She issued a sharp critique of Wall Street and big money in politics. She called for a much higher minimum wage, expanded health care coverage and an aggressive approach to student debt.
But the values that underlay her economics were old-fashioned, family-friendly and communitarian. She opened her arms wide to Republicans and independent conservatives by contrasting Reagan’s “Morning in America” to Trump’s “Midnight in America.” The bet is that most Americans will prefer a battle-scarred optimist to a gloom-mongering con man – and that many conservatives would rather tolerate a term of Clinton than deal with the damage a self-involved practitioner of flimflam could do to their cause, their movement and their country.
Realignments are predicted more often than they happen. Convention effects usually fade. But sometimes they don’t. Reagan’s 1980 Republican conclave was also well-organized and also rang out with cries of “USA!” Reagan welcomed the support of Democrats who “share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.”
Will Clinton Republicans and ex-Republicans be this generation’s Reagan Democrats?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.