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Donald Trump's convention proved it: the old GOP is dead

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 — After four days in Cleveland observing the Republican convention, something has become clear: Donald Trump has transformed the values of the Republican Party. Gone are the three pillars of free market economics, social conservatism, and an ambitious foreign policy that have defined the party for decades.

What has taken its place, at least temporarily, is pure anger — anger at immigrants, anger at elites, and, above all, anger at Hillary Clinton. This anger has taken the form of a furious populism, one dominated by rage at out-groups rather than abstract political ideals.

There are very few positive notes in this new Republican Party — other than Donald J. Trump. Trump isn’t just a good candidate for president; he is the solution to all that ails us.

What follows is a sort of guide to the principles of this new conservatism: what it stands for, why it stands for those things, and how they’re different from the Republican Party that we’ve all grown accustomed to.

Principle 1: Hillary is bad

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The most striking thing about the convention wasn’t the presence of new policy ideas. There weren’t any, really. Nor was there any breakout speaker the way Barack Obama stole the spotlight at the Democratic convention in 2004.

The real star of the RNC was a chant, repeated time and time again by both speakers and the crowd: "Lock her up! Lock her up!"

This convention was focused, to a degree that felt almost unprecedented, on casting the opposing candidate as not just wrong but fundamentally illegitimate. The most popular T-shirt I saw around on the convention floor bore the slogan "Hillary for Prison."

What the Republican Party in the age of Trumps stands for, first and foremost, is raw rage. Hillary Clinton isn’t just wrong; she’s a criminal. Nor is she just a criminal; she is the avatar of a fundamentally corrupt political class that needed to be cast out and cleaned up.

This isn’t policy disagreement. It’s raw populist anger, the defining aspect of the Republican Party in the age of Trump.

Principle 2: Crime is bad

Protestors Rally Outside Republican National Convention In Cleveland
Cops in Cleveland.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Any good angry populism needs more than an enemy: It needs an evil to point to as evidence of the moral failing of the nation. In this case, it was crime — specifically, crime caused by immigrants and a failure to properly respect the police.

On the first day, three parents of children who were killed by unauthorized immigrants stood up to speak. They tearfully recounted stories of their children, arguing that their pain required a crackdown on migration.

"Crooked Hillary always talks about what she will do for illegal aliens or what she will do for refugees," Sabine Durden, one of the parents, said. "Well, Donald Trump talks about what he will do for America."

Later in the evening, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke gave a fiery speech about Black Lives Matter, setting up BLM activists as enemies of a peaceful society. "What we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order," Clarke said. "So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcend people's right to protest and violates the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy."

These early speeches set the tone for the convention, which time after time blamed crime on migrants and social activists. Trump’s speech spotlighted these themes, painting a (false) picture of an America racked with crime and violence.

Why were these themes so dominant, despite crime rates actually falling? There’s a key passage in Trump’s speech that makes it plain:

The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.

It is finally time for a straightforward assessment of the state of our nation. I will present the facts plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.

This focus on crime and migration isn’t about an actual wave of migration and crime. It’s about raging against the "politically correct" elite that stifle honest truth-telling in the name of opposing racism.

It is, put differently, a way of expressing white anxiety about a changing and more diverse America in not especially coded language. "Crime" means there are more black people; "immigration" means there are more Latinos.

So this isn’t just angry populism. It is angry white populism.

Principle 3: Trade is bad

Chinese textile workers in Anhui province (STR/AFP/Getty)
Chinese textile workers.

At the convention of the Republican Party, historically the party of free market capitalism, not a single speaker praised the virtues of free trade. Not one.

The featured speaker on trade wasn’t some free marketeer. It was Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of that chamber’s most noted protectionists. Sessions delivered a full-throated denunciation of trade, arguing that America’s commitment to openness was giving its citizens a raw deal:

President Clinton and Obama promised our dangerous trade deficits with China and Korea would be reduced. The deficit with China has increased fivefold. The deficit with Korea has more than doubled in less than four years. These are job-killing numbers. They are now pushing a disastrous Obama trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. This must not happen.

Sessions’s rhetoric could have been copy-pasted from a left-wing anti-trade tract, and nobody would have batted an eye.

Under Trump, the GOP has given up free market fundamentalism completely. That goes beyond trade: Trump will frequently defend Social Security and Medicare, programs that ideological conservatives want to end or radically transform.

Trump’s GOP no longer thinks in terms of a "good" free market and a "bad" government. The Trumpian GOP’s approach to the economy, instead, is nationalist and mercantilist. It denies the idea that a rising global tide lifts all boats, insisting instead that America should claim its share of the pie by clamping down on trade and preserving welfare programs for its own people, not immigrants.

This is the meaning of Trump’s use of the old slogan: America First. It positions Trump’s white populism against the "globalism" of the old elite — which includes the form of free market economics that dominated the Republican Party up until this year.

"The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents is that our plan will put America First," Trump said in his speech. "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo."

Principle 4: "Radical Islam" is bad

ISIS fighters.

On foreign policy, too, Trump’s GOP has done a complete 180 from the old Republican Party. Under George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, the Republican Party was committed to the idea that the United States had an obligation to spread freedom and democracy around the world.

Not Trump. His convention speech explicitly called for abandoning "the failed policy of nation building and regime change" — policies he linked to Clinton but most famously identified with George W. Bush.

Instead, Trump proposes reorienting American foreign policy around destroying our enemies. Speaker after speaker rallied around the need to destroy ISIS and to say the words "radical Islam." They believe Clinton and Obama are too cowed by political correctness to be honest about the source of the threat.

In perhaps the most understatedly absurd speech of the entire convention, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned of terrorists detonating a nuclear weapon in the United States. He warned that Clinton’s refusal to recognize "radical Islam" threatened the survival of the United States itself:

A catastrophic attack on innocent Americans is a very real threat. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

We are sleepwalking through history as though this is all about politics. It is not. It is about our safety and our survival as a country. And this is why every American should be terrified at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. If Hillary is elected, she will keep in place the people and the systems that lie to us every single day about this threat.

This rhetoric serves a neat double purpose in Trumpism.

First, it moves away from neoconservative Republican orthodoxy and toward something that resembles an "America First" approach to the world: Smite our enemies, and ignore petty "humanitarian" concerns that don’t benefit Americans.

Second, it moves foreign policy out of the realm of policy and into the realm of white identity politics. Counterterrorism isn’t about solving thorny questions like social divisions in Iraq; it’s about whether our leaders are bold enough to blame Islam for ISIS. Identifying the Muslim masses as bad — and blocking them from entering in the United States — becomes the core issue in America’s affairs with the world.

Principle 5: LGBTQ people are not so bad

A scene from the "Gays for Trump" party held near the convention.
(Zack Beauchamp/Vox)

The Republican platform calls for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, opposes nondiscrimination protections for gay Americans and their right to serve openly in the military.

Yet the actual convention speakers struck a different tone, including the candidates themselves.

This is the first Republican convention ever in which a speaker, Silicon Valley magnate Peter Thiel, got thunderous applause for identifying as gay during his speech. After Thiel, both Ivanka and Donald Trump declined to attack same-sex marriage, as traditional Republicans do. Instead, they identified LGBTQ Americans as a group they wanted to woo and protect.

Clearly, this is a GOP that has moved far away from its 2004-vintage culture war component.

This is such a new development in this election that’s its hard to know whether it’s permanent. But one explanation — which I think is plausible — is that Trump is moving in the direction of his peers in the European far right.

These politicians, like Trump, hate immigration, fear Islam, and scapegoat elites for a perceived decline in the country’s civilized standards. But they welcome LGBTQ citizens into their tent. In fact, they argue that tolerance for LGBTQ citizens is exactly why Muslims need to be kept out of the country: Their "backward" culture makes them a threat to the liberal values the West cherishes.

Two such far-right leaders, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and Britain’s Nigel Farage, went to the convention. I even went to a party Wilders was at on Wednesday night, pictured above. At the event, Wilders enthusiastically endorsed Trump: "I hope that Donald J. Trump wins the election."

Trump, in a way, returned the favor: His rhetoric on LGBTQ people during his convention speech mirrored Wilders’s to a tee.

"Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community," Trump said in his keynote speech. "As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology."

What this shows, then, is that Trump’s populism is overwhelming the GOP’s traditional social conservatism. Gays do not threaten the nation like Muslims do; they are, ultimately, Americans.

Principle 6: Trump is good

Republican National Convention: Day Four (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Every story requires villains. But it also requires heroes. And in Trump’s GOP, there’s only one man who can fit the bill: Donald J. Trump.

Before Trump, conservatism was a movement: While it nominated individuals for the presidency, everyone was less important than what the party stood for.

But in Trump’s GOP, things are different. Through the speeches, Trump was cast as a singular figure — the sole human on earth with the experience, talent, and ingenuity to Make America Great Again. As he himself said: "I alone can fix it."

When Ted Cruz pointedly refused to endorse Trump by name in his convention speech, saying that Republicans should "vote their conscience," the anger in the room was palpable. It went well beyond the normal level of anger you’d expect a dissenter to experience. One state Republican chair, per CNN’s Dana Bash, was yelling so fiercely at Cruz that physical restraint was required.

The overall effect of the past four days, to me, felt more than a little like a cult of personality. I wasn’t alone.

If angry white populism is the yin of Trumpism, then Trump worship is its yang. He is the savior figure, the only one pure enough to fight back against the corrupt elites.

This raises an obvious question: Can Trumpism, this new nationalism, survive a Trump defeat? I honestly don’t know. Too much of it seems wrapped up in his reality show mystique.

But this convention has made clear that until November 8, this is the Republican Party we have. Out with the old conservatism, in with the new white populism.

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