by Matt Casper
Watching last week’s Republican National Convention from Cleveland was truly a moment of clarity and confirmation for me, along with being a moment of deep sadness and grief. A bit of personal history is necessary in order to help explain.
The truth is that I grew up in a “conservative” home, called myself a Republican long before I could vote, and truly believed in the Republican Party of Eisenhower (and to a lesser extent, Nixon — but without the raging antisemitism or criminal activities.) I thought of myself as a Republican largely because I agreed with the party’s arguments against the Democrats.
For instance, I believe that government isn’t the answer to all of our problems. I believe that mindless taxing and spending isn’t a fiscally sound manner in which to run a government. I believe that outlawing all guns doesn’t address the issues of crime. I believe that government handouts to those who can help themselves aren’t the most effective way to end poverty. I believe that bureaucratic machinery shouldn’t exist to support itself. I could go on all night.
Little did I know that the vast majority of the Democratic Party believed the same things that I did.
I believed that Democrats were on the opposite side of my beliefs, largely as a result of the propaganda efforts of the far-right. I never stopped to examine whether or not that was true. As I grew older, new issues became part of the “non-negotiables” that went with being a conservative, and the intermingling of faith and politics made it to where questioning any of these non-negotiables was taken as a dogmatic heresy rather than a principled question.
It was ironically my religious faith that first put a wedge between me and my political affiliation. I grew increasingly uncomfortable as I heard religious leaders equate political conservatism with true faith, especially as I saw conservatives acting in a manner at odds with what I understood to be a genuine Christianity. I rejected what I saw as an effort to co-opt the Church by people whose only care was their own power and prestige. So I walked away from the Republicans, and I opened my mind to the possibility that Democrats weren’t only not evil, but might be correct on some issues. I began to approach each issue on its own merits, rather than as a political partisan. (Novel approach, eh?)
But leaving the party has caused tension in my relational circles; I have to be careful with both family and friends, and keep my beliefs on some issues completely private. I’ve questioned whether I would do more good as a “liberal” Republican than I can as an independent.
I don’t question my choice anymore.
Last week’s RNC was the final demonstration of a party gone mad. It not only confirmed that I made the right decision, it opened my eyes to how very broken the Republican coalition is at its core. It was a festival of anger, hatred, and dishonesty, with each speaker seemingly attempting to out-do the last. Compare this to the message from the stage as the Democrats have begun their own convention in Philadelphia — the antics of the Bernie or Bust crowd notwithstanding. Speaker after speaker, while acknowledging the reality of the danger of the Trump message, have begun presenting their ideal policies while acknowledging the unique greatness and opportunities available in the United States. Rather than trying to lift the audience up as we are seeing in Philadelphia, the Republican pulpit was filled by a seemingly endless stream of end-times narrative and the repeated insistence that the American experience was at an all-time low. I thought it couldn’t get much lower than Ben Carson’s invocation of Lucifer or Chris Christie’s third-world kangaroo court prosecution of Hillary Clinton. But it did.
Without shame (or apparent humanity), Donald Trump took to the stage and embarked on a 70-plus minute journey of lies, demagoguery, and fear-mongering. The bleak America he portrayed exists not even in the most imaginative post-apocalyptic summer blockbuster (or Dinesh D’Souza screed.) Crime, economic conditions, and our place in the world were all painted as in crisis — reality shows violent crime to be down, fewer police officers killed in the line of duty, the economy to be functioning better than the rest of the world’s, and America’s stature in the view of the world having been improved in the Obama years. Without irony, the people who have called Barack Obama a narcissistic tyrant bent on dictatorship stood and applauded as Trump proclaimed that only he could lead America out of this imagined morass, turning Obama’s “Yes We Can” into the Trumpian chant of “Yes, You Will.” The party faithful lapped up Trump’s dystopian vision as reality, and accepted his sole competence as gospel. The legacy of Ronald Reagan’s optimistic — if every bit as misguided — presentation of conservative values was replaced by Trump’s thundering delivery of lie after pessimistic lie. While Reagan represented a cheerful warrior, Trump offered nothing but fear and loathing. Morning in America was replaced by Mourning in America.
So today, I’m mourning the loss of a rational center-right party in this country. I’m grieving the fact that so many otherwise rational people have been sucked into the Trump fold, largely due to the bankrupt argument that Hillary is a “greater evil.” I’m also worrying over the very real possibility that Trump could win this election.
But whether or not he wins, Trump has changed this country in ways that will take years or even generations to overcome. Whether or not he wins, Trump has given new voice and legitimacy to the voices of bigotry which had, since the civil rights era, been kept in the background. Whether or not he wins, Trump has brought down the last voices of reason and compassion in the party he now leads.
Whether or not he wins, Trump has succeeded in bringing mourning to America. And that should grieve us all.