Donald Trump has found an ingenious way to save the Democratic Party.
Basically, he’s abandoned the great patriotic themes that used to fire up the GOP and he’s allowed the Democrats to seize that ground. If you visited the two conventions you would have come away thinking that the Democrats are the more patriotic of the two parties – and the more culturally conservative.
Trump has abandoned the Judeo-Christian aspirations that have always represented America’s highest moral ideals: toward love, charity, humility, goodness, faith, temperance and gentleness.
He left the ground open for Joe Biden to remind us that decent people don’t enjoy firing other human beings.
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Trump has abandoned the basic modesty code that has always ennobled the American middle class: Don’t brag, don’t let your life be defined by gilded luxuries.
He left the ground open for the Democrats to seize middle-class values with one quick passage in a Tim Kaine video – about a guy who goes to the same church where he was married, who taught carpentry as a Christian missionary in Honduras, who has lived in the same house for the last 24 years.
Trump has also abandoned the American ideal of popular self-rule.
He left the ground open for Barack Obama to remind us that our founders wanted active engaged citizens, not a government run by a solipsistic and self-appointed savior who wants everything his way.
Trump has abandoned the deep and pervasive optimism that has always energized the American nation.
He left the ground open for Michelle Obama to embrace the underlying chorus of hope that runs through the American story: that our national history is an arc toward justice; that evil rises for a day but contains the seeds of its own destruction; that beneath the vicissitudes that darken our days, we live in an orderly cosmos governed by love.
For decades the Republican Party has embraced America’s open, future-oriented nationalism. But when you nominate a Silvio Berlusconi you give up a piece of that. When you nominate a blood-and-soil nationalist you’re no longer speaking in the voice of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and every Republican nominee from Reagan to McCain to Romney.
Democrats have often been ambivalent about that ardent nationalistic voice, but this week they were happy to accept Trump’s unintentional gift. There were an unusually high number of great speeches at the Democratic convention this year: the Obamas, Biden, Booker, Clinton, the Mothers of the Movement and so on.
These speakers found their eloquence in staving off this demagogue. They effectively separated Trump from America. They separated him from conservatism. They made full use of the deep nationalist chords that touch American hearts.
Trump has allowed the Democrats to mask their deep problems. A Democratic administration has presided over a time of growing world chaos, growing violence and growing anger. But the Democrats seem positively organized and orderly compared to Candidate Chaos on the other side.
The Sanders people have 90 percent of the Democratic Party’s passion and 95 percent of the ideas. Most Sanders people are kind- and open-hearted, but there is a core that is corrupted by moral preening, an uncompromising absolutism and a paranoid unwillingness to play by the rules of civic life.
But the extremist fringe that threatens to take over the Democratic Party seems less menacing than the lunatic fringe that has already taken over the Republican one.
This week I left the arena here each night burning with indignation at Mike Pence. I almost don’t blame Trump. He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man who appears haunted by multiple personality disorders. It is the “sane” and “reasonable” Republicans who deserve the shame – the ones who stood silently by, or worse, while Donald Trump gave away their party’s sacred inheritance.
The Democrats had by far the better of the conventions. But the final and shocking possibility is this: In immediate political terms it may not make a difference.
The Democratic speakers hit doubles, triples and home runs. But the normal rules may no longer apply. The Democrats may have just dominated a game we are no longer playing.
Both conventions featured one grieving parent after another. The fear of violent death is on everybody’s mind – from ISIS, cops, lone sociopaths. The essential contract of society – that if you behave responsibly things will work out – has been severed for many people.
It could be that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters may have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots and that humility and gentleness are simply surrendering to the butchers of ISIS. If that’s the case then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man from the future.
If that’s true it’s not just politics that has changed, but the country.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.