MOBILE, Ala. — Are Republicans or conservatives these days even capable of smiling?
President Trump and his wingman Steve Bannon are angry people, inventing enemies from thin air just to have someone against whom to fulminate, picking fights for the sake of fighting, spewing bile for the thrill of seeing it splatter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lips are permanently pursed. Even his allies say ice water flows in his veins. He hires political hit men whose modus operandi is the vicious attack ad, but whose judgment and feel for political terrain matches that of Gen. George A. Custer.
Leading evangelical leaders, along with prominent radio and TV hosts, push paranoid theories about an “establishment” supposedly more powerful and insidious than the Bible’s Legion, perhaps in league with Keyser Söze as well. Caucuses of conservative House members, brows always furrowed, nitpick every piece of legislation for minute ideological transgressions.
And outside groups paying huge salaries to their executives vie to see whose fund-raising solicitations can sound the shrillest warnings against liberal pinko establishment RINO swamp creatures.
Everywhere one looks on the political Right, the stocks-in-trade are bitterness, frustration, anger, and paranoia, sometimes aimed at the Left but usually aimed with greater vituperation at other right-of-center factions. The sewer of a campaign we just endured here in Alabama was a perfect example, with Republican nominee Roy Moore sending out e-fundraisers associating McConnell by name with “the forces of evil” who “hate our Christian conservative values… [and] hiss and howl at the mere mention of God, morality and obedience to the Constitution.”
Bannon, meawhile, campaigned for Moore by insisting that “globalist elites” are trying to “destroy Roy Moore” specifically because the globalists know that “if they can destroy Roy Moore, they can destroy you.” (Right: Shadowy Illuminati types meeting in, say, Berchtesgaden, want to exterminate Alabama pecan growers.)
This was par for the putrid course for a campaign in which, in the primary, a McConnell-affiliated SuperPAC portrayed conservative congressman Mo Brooks as opposing the fight against Islamic State. (No doubt Brooks helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora, too!)
This maliciousness is unethical – and politically suicidal.
Didn’t anybody learn anything from Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp? Or even from losing in 2008 to Barack Obama’s “hope and change”?
Doesn’t anybody know hope is more attractive than fear? Honey better than vinegar? Laughter more contagious than angry yells?
Aside from a few exceptions such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, House Whip Steve Scalise, and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, it’s as if nobody on the political right even remembers how to smile, much less how to entice others likewise.
Conservatives certainly push forward nobody with Kemp’s infectious optimism, or his insistence (to quote from his 1992 Republican National Convention speech) that “the purpose of a great party is not to defeat its opponents. The purpose of a great party is to provide superior leadership and a greater cause. It's not to denounce the past. It's to inspire our nation to a better future.”
At that same gathering, in the final Republican convention speech of his career, Reagan spoke of America as “an empire of ideals. For two hundred years, we have been set apart by our faith in the ideals of democracy, of free men and free markets, and of the extraordinary possibilities that lie within seemingly ordinary men and women.”
Crucially, Reagan also said this: “We are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough; we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” Against what some now refer to as “blood and soil” patriotism, Reagan insisted that “in America, our origins matter less than our destinations.”
That 1992 convention was important, and instructive. Alas, the Reagan and Kemp messages there were lost. The media instead portrayed that convention as an orgy of anger represented by the “culture war” speech of Pat Buchanan. It wasn’t pretty. Against that image of Republican fist-shakers, Bill Clinton was able to consolidate his newly found advantage in the presidential race – and then to win the White House and usher in the political and cultural pathologies for which the Clintons are infamous.
Yet, Buchanan was a model of restraint compared to the bile of Bannonism.
Since that 1992 demarcation point, Republicans have only once won a majority of the popular vote for president, and even that one time the GOP garnered just 50.7 percent.
Sure, conservatives can keep trying to divide and conquer, and perhaps eke out an occasional small victory. But we can’t build, or effectively govern, by division. It’s time to stop sharpening our differences, and start broadening our appeal.
We should do so with smiles, and a few chuckles, and a lot of winsome insistence that for seemingly ordinary Americans of all creeds and colors, “extraordinary possibilities” lie well within reach.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.
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