Red, white, and blue streamers and balloons fly through the air, mixing with the roars of the crowd as collective voices rise in a chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”. Political and military speakers take the stage, giving nods to and quoting such men as Ronald Reagan and John McCain, their speeches embracing America’s greatness, the American Dream, and a strong military, and their words emanating optimism for the future and the strength of our country. Sounds like the perfect Republican National Convention, right? Well, not quite.
Because this happened at the Democratic National Convention.
This is truly an election year unlike any other. Democrats, in their Philadelphia convention, seized upon some of the most successful themes of the Republican Party, weaving together messages of unity, empathy, and love with the optimistic American exceptionalism and might of the Reagan administration. Why were they able to do this? And why is this one of the smartest political moves we’ve seen in years?
Because the Republican Party, led by Donald Trump and his discontented multitudes, have abandoned those themes, effectively abandoning a huge swath of more moderate Republican voters. Donald Trump, at the Republican National Convention, painted with darkened strokes the portrait of a weakened America in a crisis from which only he can save us from the looming threats of terrorism and illegal immigration and economic disaster. If the Republican Convention could be summed up in a word, that word is fear. Democrats seized on this, welcoming that aforementioned swath of disaffected Republicans with open arms.
The tactic, sincere or not, is working. Major Republican figures, beginning with Republican congressman Richard Hanna, have begun defecting to the Clinton camp, to what they see as the more reasonable candidate. What has followed has been an unprecedented break from traditional party loyalty as these influential politicians denounce what they see as Trump’s appeals to anger and fear. The traditionally Republican Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, in an interview with the Times, summed the current sentiment up well in saying that “To vote Republican out of party loyalty alone would be to endorse a candidacy that I believe has exploited anger, grievance, xenophobia, and racial division.” It’s becoming clear that Trump has missed a step in his political dance, and that the more charismatic Democratic Party has swept in and stolen his dance partner away.
Is Trump truly all the things he’s accused of being—a racist, hateful xenophobe? Probably not. Those popular buzzwords, too, are part of the political dance, labels means to easily classify and categorize, and that ignore the complexity of a person in their entirety. But did Donald Trump open the door to these attacks? Certainly.
Psychologically speaking, when an individual wishes to change, it’s best to focus on what one wants, rather than what one wants to avoid being. By focusing the Republican Convention on what America shouldn’t be, and what it should exclude, rather than focusing on what it should strive to be, and how to unify its people, Trump made himself vulnerable. He made himself, and his party, sound negative and bleak. He furthered this vulnerability by focusing much of his efforts on attacks against his political opponent rather than building up his own policy. It is precisely this vagueness of policy, in fact, that allows the media to shape his words in any way they wish, portraying him as a buffoon or that favorite, darling word of the media, a demagogue.
What Trump is, is a man who has little control over his words. He gives them up on a silver platter when he should be carefully selective, offering a buffet of his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and feelings that his political opponents can pick and choose from, selecting the very worst bits to serve to the public. The man simply can’t seem to control his tongue, inviting the media and his opponents to control it for him.
The result is the appropriation of many Republican values by the Democratic Party, at least on the surface, and the subsequent exodus of both Republican voters and political figures, seemingly halting the revolution promised by Trump. But the man still has a possible—forgive the phrase—trump card that has yet to be played.
The anger that Trump taps into is real, as is the frustration and turmoil that seem to drive his campaign. If Trump can seize on this positively rather than in a bombastically negative way, he still has a chance. But he needs to embrace unity. He needs to learn tact and self-control, and he needs to manage his self-image rather than trying to portray himself as the candidate who is “honest” or simply “speaks his mind”. Because, Mr. Trump, there is a difference between honesty and a lack of self-control. You’ve crossed it.