The two party conventions ended with a Trump speech labeled “dark” and a Clinton speech labeled “optimistic.” I despise Trump, but there is little that is less honest or more useless than the way our political class talks about what is optimistic and what isn’t.
On the Democratic side, almost anything can be called optimism. At the 1992 Democratic National convention, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton described America as having “an unpleasant economy struck somewhere between Germany and Sri Lanka.” That was the early 1990s version of Trump’s “We never win anymore.”
At the same convention, vice-presidential nominee Al Gore told a heartbreaking story of his son’s almost dying in a car accident. Gore explained that his son’s near-death experience taught him something about empathy. Fair enough.
Gore then launched into a bizarre metaphor analogizing America’s condition to that of his son and referred to “our democracy, there in the gutter, waiting for us to give it a second breath of life.” A comatose democracy awaiting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by Bill Clinton: That sure sounds more dark than optimistic, but I doubt that most of the journalists who covered the event remember it that way.
In this cycle, Bernie Sanders described an America in which the wage-earners are reduced to starvation wages by a forty-year period of economic decline, and in which college-educated professionals are reduced to debt peonage by their student loans. All of this was garnished by a conspiracy theory in which we have “billionaires buying elections”—even though the party of business finds itself stuck with a nominee it fears and hates.
But the tone, the substance, even the sanity of the comments made by fashionable center-left politicians do not matter so long as their proposed solutions include a tax increase for the wrong people and the protection of an unlimited license to abortion. Provided they don’t make Jimmy Carter–like confessions of impotence or call for the abolition of the United States, Democrats will always have their speeches labeled “optimistic.”
Something similar is at work among the Republicans. With the GOP, “optimism” has degenerated into a form of emotional blackmail. If one doubts that another tax cut for high-earners is the cure for what ails the working class, then you have abandoned the optimistic faith of Ronald Reagan. If you notice that America’s institutions (economic, voluntary, familial) are functioning poorly for the poorest and doubt that the situation will be improved by increasing the ranks of the low-skilled through the immigration system, then you no longer believe in “the shining city on a hill.” Republican optimism is composed partly of nostalgia on the part of former Jack Kemp interns, and partly of the interest-group politics of high-earners.
Surely it is less important that a speech be optimistic or pessimistic, than that it be true to the realities of the moment, true to the capabilities of the government, and true to the responsibilities of the citizenry. And it is in the last two areas that Trump’s speech—like the Trump movement altogether—fails.
To see where Trump fails, let us look back, without nostalgia, to Reagan’s 1980 Republican National Convention speech accepting his party’s nomination for president. There are some things Reagan got wrong. His favorite Tom Paine quote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” is not one you should try with a bill collector, and it works no better with the problems of society.
Reagan’s acceptance speech is not notably more optimistic than Trump’s. Reagan speaks of domestic economic “calamity” and of international retreat. The difference lies in how Reagan and Trump speak of the American people. For Reagan, the American people have—and are carrying out—their responsibilities at the level of the family, the business, the municipality, and the state. These people are being failed by their federal government—and Reagan has a laundry list of proposed solutions, articulated in everyday language—but the roles of the president and the government are simultaneously important and limited.
By contrast, Trump’s acceptance speech treats the American people as essentially passive. They are the passive victims of a corrupt and incompetent political elite. If they give Trump their votes, they can become the passive beneficiaries of his winning brilliance. Sometimes Trump doesn’t even bother making a plausible proposal. On crime (which is primarily a state and municipal issue), he made only the blustering promise that “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.” He immediately added, “Believe me. Believe me.”
If we get another Clinton presidency (and with it, the disaster of a radicalized Supreme Court with a compact liberal majority), it will be because neither the obtuse “optimism” of the business Republicans nor the “pessimism” (really the megalomania) of Donald Trump offered a believable path forward.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.