In a lighthearted column published a year ago to the day, I tried to imagine what Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 GOP convention might sound like, never really thinking that we would have to witness such a thing in real life. Back then, you may recall, Trump was a political freak show, an aberration that was destined to vanish from the scene like a half-remembered nightmare, leaving behind only a vague sense of dread and relief.
Or not, as it turns out.
Now, one year later, Trump is on his way to Cleveland, where next week he will indeed accept the nomination of the Republican Party to be president of the United States of America. This time though, it isn’t funny, and that once-vague sense of dread now has clarity. This could happen. What began as farce is ending in tragedy, for the Republicans if not yet for the country as a whole.
Every presidential election cycle makes history, but what we’ve seen so far in the 2016 campaign is truly astonishing, in part because so much of what Trump epitomizes directly repudiates so much that the Republicans proudly told us about themselves. The party of family values and the evangelicals has given us a thrice-married, skirt-chasing casino owner more familiar with the bankruptcy code than the Bible. The one-time champions of free trade suddenly back a candidate who promises to impose massive tariffs and forbid the importation of foreign-made goods such as clothing, steel, automobiles and other items. The party that long fancied itself the more serious, sober-minded practitioner of foreign policy has chosen a candidate whose lack of knowledge about foreign policy is exceeded only by his lack of interest in learning about it.
Most importantly, perhaps, the party that after its loss in 2012 concluded that “we need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them,” the party that realized that “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee … does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence” — that very same party has has now committed itself to a candidate who scorns Hispanics and claims that a U.S.-born judge of Hispanic descent is not capable of adjudicating a lawsuit against him.
It has also been startling to see how swift and complete the surrender to Trump has been. Initially, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus and others promised that as its nominee, Trump would have to bend to the ways of the GOP, that the GOP would not change to suit Trump. Other party leaders spoke in brutally frank terms about his unsuitability for office, about the dangers of investing a man of his character and instability with the powers of commander in chief. But that resistance didn’t amount to much.
On his march to dominance of the GOP, Trump won a total of 13.3 million votes nationwide, some 46.5 percent of those cast in GOP primaries and caucuses. Winning in November will require some 65 million, from a very different pool of voters. I still don’t think he can do it, although the polls have certainly tightened. A Trump victory in the fall would mean the same thing to America that his nomination means to the GOP, a repudiation of all that we like to tell ourselves about our country.