I came to America in 1982, attracted to the country and interested in its politics. Those were days of economic trauma (a deep recession) and national security fears. And I came from India, where the conventional wisdom was quasi-socialist and anti-American. Still, I found myself fascinated by Ronald Reagan and his Republican Party. Reagan seemed to embody the spirit of America — optimistic, big-hearted and freedom-loving. The Democrats were well-meaning, but in pointing out America’s domestic flaws and foreign policy failures they seemed to miss the big picture — that the United States, not the Soviet Union, represented the future.
As the two parties’ conventions have shown over the past two weeks, the political world has been turned upside down. It is today the Democratic Party that radiates confidence in America and the Republicans who carp about their country.
The 1984 conventions were the first that I had a chance to watch, and I was transfixed, staying up late each night in a college common room to take in every speech. The address that I remember best is a celebrated one from the Republican convention in Dallas. Reagan had appointed as his ambassador to the United Nations a lifelong Democrat, the Georgetown University academic Jeane Kirkpatrick. She spoke from the podium in careful, deliberate tones, skewering the Democrats with arguments that could just as easily be applied today — to the Republicans. (The Post’s Jennifer Rubin has also written recently on the resonance of that speech.)
Kirkpatrick explained that she had admired Democrats such as Harry S. Truman because they were unashamed in seeing America “as a great nation.” But the “San Francisco Democrats,” she said, had lost that instinctive faith. (The Democratic convention was held in that city that year.) When Moscow was hostile, she noted, the Democrats chose not to fault the Kremlin but instead blamed the United States. “But then, they always blame America first,” she noted.
When Americans were murdered by terrorists in Lebanon, she pointed out, the Democrats “didn’t blame the terrorists . . . they blamed the United States.” “But then,” she again intoned, “they always blame America first.” The words became a catchphrase for the campaign.
It was an exaggeration, as is all of this kind of rhetoric, but it captured something real, as it does today about Donald Trump. Whether talking about the Chinese, or terrorist attacks, or Vladimir Putin, he doesn’t criticize them. Instead, he tends to focus on American flaws — Washington’s weakness, stupidity and naivete.
Kirkpatrick’s more serious critique even more aptly applies to the Republican nominee. She described the Democratic Party as behaving “less like a dove or a hawk than like an ostrich, convinced it would shut out the world by hiding its head in the sand.” She roundly rejected this retreat. “The United States cannot remain an open, democratic society if we are left alone — a garrison state in a hostile world.” She asked what would happen to Europe if the United States withdrew its protection. “We need friends and allies with whom to share the pleasures and the protection of our civilization.”
Reagan’s success, she explained, came from three factors: his “confidence in the legitimacy and success of American institutions; confidence in the decency of the American people; and confidence in the relevance of our experience to the rest of the world.”
Trump’s party is different, characterized by doubt and decline, fearful of the future. “This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast,” he says. By contrast, it is a poised and confident President Obama and his wife, Michelle, who reminded their party, their country and the world that “America is already great.”
Pollsters and pundits point out that a large majority of the country feels we are on the “wrong track,” and that in these circumstances, optimism won’t work. That sense of gloom explains the appeal of Trump, and also of Bernie Sanders.
But Clinton and Obama are making a big bet that these trends are neither deep nor permanent. They are banking on the hope that Americans are not so angry that they will embrace a politics of decline and division. They are channeling Franklin Roosevelt. In the depths of the Depression, and in the wake of war, Roosevelt always believed that the majority of Americans wanted a country that was assertive about its purpose and confident in its future. That was the Democratic Party he built and, for the most part, it was the one onstage in Philadelphia this week.
It is worth keeping in mind that in the 45 years that people have been asked, as Dean Obeidallah has noted, there have been only three brief periods when a majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track. In 1980, for instance, a large majority thought that things were headed downhill. Four years later, they were convinced that it was morning in America.