Ted Cruz failed to endorse Donald Trump for president. Snore. The real story from Cruz’s convention fiasco has been ignored by the pundits. Our press is bewitched by campaign minutiae and the reality-show mentality they decry in Trump but embody themselves. (“Ted offends Donald by not pretending to be on his team!”)
The real story is substantive: Cruz gave a Reaganite speech, one that marks him as the standard-bearer for a declining cohort of conservatives catechized in a once-vital, now outdated postwar conservatism.
Cruz's speech was long-winded, as convention speeches always are. But its leitmotif was crystal clear: freedom. This has been the Republican brand for a generation. With Reagan, we sought to promote freedom over against communist totalitarianism. We worked to break up a government-controlled, monopolistic economy and unleash capitalism’s potential. We argued that ordinary Americans could and should lead responsible, self-directed lives rather than become ever more dependent on the intrusive ministrations of the Nanny State.
That all made sense in 1980, a great deal of sense. But we’re in 2016 now, and we’re no longer suffering under suffocating collectivism and clotted, complacent capitalism. Most important, ordinary Americans today are much more vulnerable. The politics of freedom is losing its salience.
Black Lives Matter, Dallas, and Baton Rouge: They suggest a society that is coming apart. The same goes for student protests at elite universities. We don't need freedom. We need solidarity, as ordinary people sense.
Islamic terrorism represents a threat to our security. In the long run, of course, it is also a threat to freedom, since a fearful people cannot be a free people. But the more immediate motif is security.
The same goes for the economic crisis facing middle-class Americans who aren’t on their way up the meritocratic ladder. There’s innovation going on in many industries. The global economic system presents a remarkable field of action for enterprising capitalists. It may be true that the Obama administration promotes bad economic policies that hinder growth, but it is not the case that the decline in high-paying jobs for high school–educated American stems from a lack of economic freedom. Quite the contrary. Globalization is the fruit of free trade and the free movement of capital promoted by America for more than a generation.
Again, it's not freedom that's lacking, but solidarity. Increasingly, the interests of Americans who thrive in the global economy diverge from the interests of the less-educated, who now must compete with low-wage labor throughout the world.
This divergence is compounded by a cultural assault on those who have been left behind by globalization. Mitt Romney notoriously called them “takers.” The editors of the New York Times routinely denounce them as racists or (in the case of minorities) infantilize them with gestures of paternalistic solicitude. Meanwhile, both parties shout hosannahs to “innovation,” and our political leaders make pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, a surreal place with less than nothing in common with the places where most Americans live and work.
I kick myself for failing to see sooner how disintegrated America has become, not racially—though that, too, has flared up—but economically and culturally. There’s no longer a large, confident, and unifying middle class. Bright, ambitious, well-educated Americans hold many of their fellow citizens in disdain, thinking them moral cretins (“bigots”) and economic deadweight (“takers”). Meanwhile, folks lower down the social scale are getting angry at the “establishment,” and their frustration unifies blacks, whites, and hispanics even as identity politics divides them.
Freedom is fundamental to our American heritage. The call for a new birth of freedom will always play a role in our public life. But today it resonates less widely, because our problems are those of fragmentation. “Diversity” is proclaimed from the rooftops, and pundits itemize offenses against political correctness. Few can speak of unity, or identify the sources of our common inheritance as Americans. We are coming apart, and our public life lacks the reparative rhetoric of solidarity.
The historic role of the Democratic Party has been to promote solidarity. But the character of that party has changed. As I argue in “Bigot-Bating,” the Democrats are increasingly the party favored by our globalized elites, even while they present themselves as empowering the marginalized. This contradiction has created a political dynamic in which the Democrats have an incentive to employ divisive rhetoric. Anti-racism, anti-bigotry, anti-homophobia, and other campaigns of “inclusivity” require a powerful “other” to play the role of wicked oppressor. So the Democratic party has abandoned the rhetoric of solidarity for the rhetoric of denunciation. The “war on women” is an example. Solidarity themes are transformed into political correctness—an imposed, policed, and artificial unity.
It’s easy to make fun of Donald Trump, and even easier to dislike him. But he recognizes our political moment. “America First” has negative historical connotations, but it's a rhetoric of solidarity. “Make America Great Again” sounds simplistic, but it, too, is a solidarity slogan. Walls and borders. Our chattering class, captive to the Democratic Party's need to identify bigots and denounce them, can't see that this, too, is solidarity rhetoric. The same goes for Trump's jabs against free-trade agreements and other symbols of globalization.
As his speech drew to a close, Cruz was heckled for failing to endorse Trump. That’s epiphenomenal. What the speech demonstrated was Cruz’s irrelevance to our political future. In him, see the rotting flesh of Reaganism, a noble political project, as much rhetorical as substantive, but one that no longer speaks to our time. It’s a sign of how out-of-touch our political class has become that they speak of Cruz as a possible presidential candidate.
Trump is a deeply flawed candidate. It seemed very improbable that he could capture the nomination of a major party. If we step back, however, we should be able to see how it happened. Trump alone seems to intuit our political moment. 2016 calls for a politics of solidarity, not one of freedom—and not one of redoubled political correctness.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.