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The RNC’s “Make America Safe Again” night turned foreign policy into culture war

Republican National Convention: Day One (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

CLEVELAND — You’d think that Monday night’s Republican convention, titled “Make America Safe Again,” would have been the Republican convention’s night to spotlight foreign policy at a time of serious international turmoil. The speakers’ list, chock full of former military officers, seemed designed to precisely for that focus.

But that didn’t happen — at all. Here’s an incomplete list of things that were not mentioned, or at most namechecked, at Monday night’s Republican convention session:

  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • China
  • Brexit
  • The coup in Turkey
  • The Syrian civil war
  • The Israeli-Palestinian peace process
  • North Korea

On the only convention night that appeared to be have national security and foreign policy as a focus, the GOP basically whiffed.

Why? Because tonight, foreign policy became part of the culture war.

The main theme of tonight’s convention was cultural anxiety tinged with racism. Multiple speakers blamed illegal immigrants for crime; one, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, accused Black Lives Matter for creating “anarchy” on American streets. The main themes weren’t safe Republican ground on issues they know play well with the American public; they were about reciting grievances with a changing America.

Terrorism, the only international issue got significant play, was treated in a similar fashion. No one gave a real criticism of the Obama-Clinton strategy for fighting ISIS, or proposed a better alternative. Speaker after speaker lambasted Clinton for Benghazi, or failing to say the words “radical Islam” (as if that would solve anything).

This isn’t George W. Bush’s Republican party anymore — which, say what you will about their foreign policy ideas, but at least they had some. This is a party where serious thinking about America’s place world has been subsumed by angry conservative identity politics.

The GOP missed a big opportunity on terrorism

Republican National Convention: Day One
Pat Smith speaking at the RNC.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Probably the most memorable moment of the night, when it came to foreign policy, didn’t come from a politician. It came from Pat Smith, a woman whose son, Sean Smith, was one of the four Americans killed in the 2012 Benghazi attack.

This tearful mother, still grieving after four years, stood up on one of the biggest stages in the country and accused Hillary Clinton of killing her child.

"I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” Smith said, to a rapt audience. “Personally."

For those of us sitting in the audience, it was impossible not to empathize with her pain. But spotlighting Smith felt a bit exploitive — and, at the same time, irrelevant.

We’ve had years of investigations into Benghazi, and none of them have turned up any evidence that Clinton was responsible for the damage done there. A Republican-written report, tasked with finding exactly this evidence, released its findings last month — and failed to uncover any evidence linking Clinton to the attacks. No one outside the Republican base cares much about Benghazi anymore.

Putting Smith on that stage, then, wasn’t about crafting a politically successful narrative. It wasn’t about outlining a constructive vision of Republican foreign policy. It was about allowing the audience, suffused in the Benghazi conspiracy theories common on the far-right swamp, to feel righteous anger at Hillary Clinton’s perfidy.

It was a form of identity politics: Identifying the people who remembered Benghazi as good and righteous, and Clinton and her supporters as devils who caused this poor woman such pain. Our tribe good, your tribe bad.

It wasn’t just Benghazi. Over and over again, speakers kept talking about Obama and Clinton failing to talk about “radical Islam.” My colleague Andrew Prokop compiled a partial list:

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that America needs "a commander in chief who calls the enemy by its name." Rep. Sean Duffy said that while "radical jihadists are killing Americans," Clinton and Obama "are fretting over whether to call it workplace violence or hate crime." Karen Vaughn, the mother of a Navy SEAL killed in combat, asked, "How can you defeat an enemy you cannot even name?”

Real experts — like former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh — believe that the phrase “radical Islam” is meaningless as a label for jihadist groups. Common sense tells us that Obama, who launched an entire war against ISIS in Iraq, doesn’t need to utter the magic words “radical Islam” to take aggressive steps on terrorism. But this issue dominated the speakers’ discussions of terrorism, dramatically outstripping any references to actual policies for weakening jihadi groups.

This, too, is the triumph of culture war over national security. Obama and Clinton’s refusal to say “radical Islam” is understood, on the right, as a form of political correctness. The issue has become so prominent in conservative discourse because they see it as proof positive that PC culture is ruining America, forcing America to be oversensitive to Muslims even when national security at stake.

The fight over the phrase “radical Islam,” then, isn’t a dispute between two sides about how best to fight jihadism. It’s about conservative grievances with “PC culture,” and a left unwilling to see (at least part of) Islam as the enemy.

Terrorism is an issue where, historically speaking, Republicans have been able to reap some real electoral advantage. But nobody who was curious about which candidate would best address terrorism would listen to tonight’s speeches and come away reassured about Donald Trump.

The speeches were litanies of conservative grievances rather than substantive conversations about terrorism — more of a piece with the night’s angst about Black Lives Matter and Mexican immigration than a conversation about a vision for dealing with any real terrorist threat.

If this is a sign of what Republican foreign policy discourse looks like under Trump, it’s a very, very bad one.

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