If you want a picture of the future, imagine Donald Trump Jr, yelling about America’s bright and beautiful tomorrow — forever.
The image of the US president’s eldest son may differ in the details from that of Big Brother’s boot stamping on the human face. But the message of this week’s Republican National Convention is Orwellian. There is no perceptible platform or even ghost of a second term agenda for Donald Trump’s party. There is thus no possibility of dissent. His chief surrogates are his own family members. The message is Mr Trump, the whole Mr Trump and nothing but Mr Trump.
Those questioning the future of American democracy are behind the curve. Half of it has already packed up. Parties are what animate a democracy. There is no longer a Republican one distinct from the cult of personality it has become. It is neither conservative nor of any other discernible ideology. It is what Mr Trump says it is at any given moment. One day North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un may be America’s deadliest enemy. Standing ovation. The next day, Mr Kim is Mr Trump’s soul brother. The audience stays on its feet.
The temptation is to say that Mr Trump hijacked America’s Grand Old Party. Then it developed Stockholm syndrome. That is not the full story. The president is the natural product of a party that has been edging towards this outcome for many years. Mr Trump’s greatest enabler, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, helped to sow the seeds during Barack Obama’s presidency. He altered the nature of American politics by making it an all or nothing battle in which winning was the only goal, no matter what the outcome.
It is little surprise that this tactic would pave the way for a president who thinks that conservatism’s only point is winning. Power is no longer a means to a conservative end. It is the end.
None of Mr Trump’s predecessors as Republican nominee — Bob Dole, George W Bush, Mitt Romney — were invited to this week’s show, nor would John McCain have been were he still alive. Neither have the vast panoply of conservative think-tanks built up over the last generation been consulted. At the crook of Mr Trump’s finger, they would be flooding the zone with private sector solutions to everything from the future of technology to education. Their services are no longer required.
This Republican party dances to whatever tunes come into Mr Trump’s head. What is missing is a link to any coherent plan for his second term. For the first time in its history, the party did not publish an agenda this year. It simply referred back to Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign. “The Republican party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America First agenda,” it said. The one-page list of “resolutions” consisted of a series of vague bullet points, allowing Mr Trump leeway to decide what they would really be. The truth, as George Orwell would have put it, is whatever Mr Trump decides it will be.
That means no new ideas on how to tackle the pandemic, America’s surpassing challenge. Five months after Mr Trump predicted the virus would magically disappear, there are now 180,000 American dead. On the eve of the convention Mr Trump did unveil emergency approval for a plasma therapy he claimed would transform Covid-19 treatment. Scientists almost unanimously rejected his numbers.
Nor were there any ideas on climate change. Many conservatives have signed up to the idea of a green tax — the kind of market-based remedy a Republican president would formerly have seized upon. Ditto for policies on how to deal with China on trade, technology and human rights. Again, the cupboard is empty. Mr Trump ran on infrastructure in 2016. He no longer pretends even to have a plan.
His party is post-ideas. Its plan is simply Mr Trump. According to Melania Trump, the first lady, her husband is a man of “total honesty”. He is the “bodyguard of western civilisation”, says Charlie Kirk, a conservative student activist. He has done more for African-Americans than any US president in history, says another. And so on.
Had Mr Trump heeded the political consultants, he would have devoted his show to Joe Biden’s weaknesses and his own policies for American renewal. The last thing Mr Trump should do is make November a referendum on himself.
It is too late for that. Having laid the conditions for their own kidnapping, Republicans must act as though they were in on the heist all along. Those who escaped, such as John Kasich, the former presidential candidate, fled into Mr Biden’s camp. For perhaps the first time in US history, more actual conservatives spoke at this year’s Democratic convention than at the Republican one. America does still have two ideological parties. It’s just that both of them — conservatives and socialists — have washed up on the Democratic ship.
Then there is Mr Trump’s Orwellian jamboree. The programming is slick. He knows the reality television business. Each episode is a drama in itself that has no link to the ones before and after. The convention had a series of African-American speakers. Yet Mr Trump warns white suburbs they will be destroyed by low-income housing. His party is way past caring about any contradiction between message and reality.
Whether Mr Trump wins or loses in November, he now owns the Republicans. They are now prisoners of the Frankenstein they helped to create.