What we just witnessed in Cleveland and Philadelphia defies our normal political vocabulary. We are used to speaking of American politics as split between the two major parties. It’s Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, left versus right.
But not this election. The conventions showed that this is something different. This campaign is not merely a choice between the Democratic and Republican parties, but between a normal political party and an abnormal one.
The Democratic Party’s convention was a normal political party’s convention. The party nominated Hillary Clinton, a longtime party member with deep experience in government. Clinton was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the primary. Barack Obama, the sitting president, spoke in favor of Clinton. Various Democratic luminaries gave speeches endorsing Clinton by name. The assembled speakers criticized the other party’s nominee, arguing that he would be a bad president and should be defeated at the polls.
That isn’t to say that Democrats didn’t show divisions or expose fault lines. They did. Political parties are chaotic things. The Democratic Party’s primary was unusually bitter, and listening to the loud "boos" of Sanders’s most committed supporters, there’s real reason to wonder whether Democrats will fracture in coming years. But for now, the Democrats nominated a normal candidate, held a normal convention, and remain a normal political party.
Republicans held an abnormal convention and nominated an abnormal candidate
The Republican Party’s convention was not a normal political party’s convention. The party nominated Donald Trump, a new member with literally no experience in government. Ted Cruz, the runner-up in the primary, gave a primetime speech in which he refused to endorse Trump, and instead told Americans to "vote your conscience."
The Republican Party’s two living presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, declined to endorse Trump or attend the convention. The party’s previous two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, declined to endorse Trump or attend the convention. The assembled speakers — including Chris Christie, a prospective attorney general — argued that the other party’s nominee was a criminal who should be thrown in jail.
Even the normal parts of the convention felt abnormal. The prospective first lady’s speech included a passage plagiarized from the Democratic Party’s first lady. Trump counterprogrammed the first night of his own convention by doing a phone interview with Fox News and an hour-long discussion with the Golf Channel. He distracted from his running mate’s acceptance speech by telling the New York Times he would not automatically honor America’s commitments under the NATO treaty. Trump’s speech was enthusiastically endorsed by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. "Couldn’t have said it better," he tweeted.
Trump’s post-convention was even worse
The strangeness didn’t end with the convention. The next day — the very next day! — Trump gave a press conference in which he said Ted Cruz’s father was likely involved in the assassination of JFK, swore he wouldn’t accept Cruz’s endorsement even if it were offered, and argued that the National Enquirer deserved a Pulitzer Prize. It was one of the strangest and most self-destructive political performances in recent memory. The conservative Weekly Standard was left agog. The Republican Party’s nominee, Stephen Hayes wrote, "is not of sound mind."
Then, befitting the dignity we expect in our presidential aspirants, the Republican Party’s nominee spent his week live-tweeting the Democratic Party’s convention, with deep, thoughtful commentary like:
The invention of email has proven to be a very bad thing for Crooked Hillary in that it has proven her to be both incompetent and a liar!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2016
Elizabeth Warren, often referred to as Pocahontas, just misrepresented me and spoke glowingly about Crooked Hillary, who she always hated!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2016
He followed that up with a press conference at which he blasted the job Tim Kaine had done in … New Jersey? Of course, Kaine was the governor of Virginia. Trump seems to have literally confused the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee with Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey.
Unwilling to stop there, Trump went on to comment on the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails, which most experts think was conducted by Russia. "Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 33,000 emails that are missing — I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press," he said.
Let’s stop there for a second: Donald Trump went out and asked a foreign government to conduct cyber espionage in order to help his campaign. His supporters initially tried to laugh it off as an ad-libbed joke, but then Trump tweeted the same thing. This came only hours after his running mate, Mike Pence, had warned of "serious consequences" if Russia truly was behind the DNC hack.
None of this is normal.
A new cleavage in American politics: normal versus abnormal
America’s main political cleavage is between the Democratic and Republican parties. That split has meant different things at different times, but in recent decades it primarily tracks an ideological disagreement: Democrats are the party of liberal policies; Republicans are the party of conservative policies.
But in this year’s presidential election, the difference is more fundamental than that: The Democratic Party is a normal political party that has nominated a normal presidential candidate, and the Republican Party has become an abnormal political party that has nominated an abnormal presidential candidate.
Simply saying that will raise people’s partisan hackles, but it’s not a partisan comment. Republicans know that Donald Trump is not a normal nominee. They know this isn’t what their 2012 convention looked like or how their 2008 convention felt. And while most Republicans fear Democrats keeping the White House enough to unhappily support Trump, it’s worth listening to what they’ve said about him.
Ted Cruz called Trump a "pathological liar," "utterly amoral," and "a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen."
Rick Perry said Trump’s candidacy was "a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded."
National Review, the flagship journal of American conservatism, said Trump "is a menace to American conservatism."
Rand Paul said Trump is "a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag. A speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president."
A list like this could go on, and on, and on. But here’s the point: These aren’t normal political condemnations. This isn’t normal political language. Republicans know they’ve nominated a dangerous man. They tried to warn their voters in the strongest terms possible that Trump is unqualified, untrustworthy, and amoral.
Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City, put it simply in a speech endorsing Clinton. "Together, let's elect a sane, competent person," he said. That is what an endorsement sounds like when the choice shifts from left versus right to normal versus abnormal.
There are some differences in politics that transcend ideology. This is one of them. Clinton, say what you will about her, is a normal political candidate who will operate within the normal boundaries of American democracy. Donald Trump is an abnormal political candidate; we have no idea which democratic boundaries he would respect, which conspiracy theories he would believe, which political enemies he would punish, which treaties he would honor.
Trump has already been scolded by his own party for racist comments, for attacks on the judiciary, for undermining the NATO alliance, for inviting foreign governments to meddle in American elections. None of this is okay. None of it is normal. This is not a man with the temperament, the steadiness, or the discipline to be president.
This election puts Republicans in a hard position. Even as the choice in this election is between a normal candidate and an abnormal one, it’s also between a liberal candidate and a, well, conservative-ish one. I don’t doubt Trump would nominate pro-life judges, or that he would resist raising taxes. I understand why so many Republicans have decided to suppress their doubts and support him.
But this is a dangerous game. We are a nation protected by norms, not just by laws. Our political parties should be held to certain standards in terms of the candidates they nominate, the behaviors they accept, the ideas they mainstream. Trump violates those standards. By indulging him, the Republican Party is normalizing him and his behavior, and making itself abnormal.