What can we expect from this week’s Republican National Convention? Like last week’s Democratic convention, we know that it will be a strange affair, with solo livestreams, press barred from entry, few attendees other than delegates, and the whole production even more made-for-TV than party conventions already were.
As a matter of rhetoric, speeches will have to be crafted for communication solely via camera and screen rather than in the typical convention mode of appealing to a physically present audience. (That is not entirely novel, of course; some other important convention addresses in American political history, like FDR’s acceptance speech at the 1940 Democratic convention, were delivered remotely, and many minor addresses have been prerecorded.)
For President Trump, the new mode could pose a particular challenge: He is most oratorically comfortable when mugging and ad libbing for adoring crowds. How will he fare when reading from a script before a lifeless camera in what is usually the moment for a standout speech?
To prepare for the weirdness of this year’s RNC, and to remind ourselves of the long history of Republican party rhetoric and its power to move and persuade, it’s worth revisiting some of the most memorable speeches of the last half-dozen Republican conventions. Let’s take a tour of the speeches—good and bad—that made today’s Grand Old Party.
Barry Goldwater, July 16, 1964.
Arizona senator Barry Goldwater may have lost the 1964 presidential election in a landslide, but his speech at the Republican convention at the Cow Palace near San Francisco far outlived his presidential bid. Goldwater’s emphasis on an ideological commitment to liberty galvanized the still-new conservative movement and paved the way for future president Ronald Reagan’s ascent.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!
These famous lines led to much debate, and made it easier for critics to depict Goldwater as an extremist. The intention behind them was very different. Goldwater thought they echoed Cicero. The man who penned them—the Straussian political scientist Harry Jaffa—was apparently inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Jaffa explained in an interview with journalist Brain Gaffney: “The important thing is not whether we should be extremist, but what kind of extremist we should be. I obviously picked up on that theme, but nobody wanted to hear it.”
Aside from those famous lines, there is much else in the speech to marvel at:
Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln said this of the Republican party, and I quote him because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: “It was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements.” . . . Yet all of these elements agreed on one paramount objective: to arrest the progress of slavery, and place it in the course of ultimate extinction.
Today, as then, but more urgently and more broadly than then, the task of preserving and enlarging freedom at home and of safeguarding it from the forces of tyranny abroad is great enough to challenge all our resources and to require all our strength.
Anyone who joins us, in all sincerity, we welcome. Those, those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case. And let our Republicanism so focused and so dedicated not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.
Goldwater sought to carve out a conservative tradition for the Republican party. He was not afraid to face the party’s “strained, discordant, and even hostile” nature. He was also unwilling to exchange his principles for votes. To have the courage to stand at a party convention, typically brimming with pomp and catchphrases, and deplore “unthinking and stupid labels” is no small feat.
Ronald Reagan, August 19, 1976.
Let us turn next to the man who was himself catapulted into the national political spotlight during Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Actor-turned-corporate-spokesman Ronald Reagan gave a televised speech (“A Time for Choosing”) in support of Goldwater just a few days before the 1964 election. Reagan’s speech did little to help Goldwater, who had averaged more than 20 points below Lyndon Johnson in the polls since summer, but it did raise Reagan’s profile. Two years later he ran for governor in California. He won, then won re-election in 1970.
Reagan had an eye on a higher prize, and after his second term as governor ended, he began laying the groundwork for a presidential run. In 1976, though, he lost the nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford. The primaries were a much closer call, however, than Ford’s campaign had hoped. Reagan’s popularity helped cement the split in the party between Northeastern “establishment” moderates and those in the American South and Southwest who tended to be more ideologically committed to conservativism.
Although it looked for a while like the Kansas City convention would be contested, Reagan did lose. Graciously invited by Ford to address the hall, Reagan gave an impromptu speech that is regarded as his concession. After some warmly greeted remarks of thanks to Ford and the convention, Reagan turns serious. He recalls writing a letter for a time capsule to be opened in California a century later. He uses this as a prompt to share a Burkean vision: the importance of safeguarding freedom not just for his generation, but for those yet to be born, and for their kids, and their grandkids, and so on.
And suddenly it dawned on me; those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge.
Whether they will have the freedom that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here. Will they look back with appreciation and say, Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom? Who kept us now a hundred years later free? Who kept our world from nuclear destruction?
If you watch the mesmerizing recording, the crowd is somber. They take in every word of what Reagan says. One moment where the crowd does cheer, though, is when Reagan speaks to “all those millions of independents and Democrats” who are “looking for a cause to rally around.”
When Reagan finished delivering the so-called “time capsule speech,” the story goes that men from Ford’s campaign team turned to one another, shaking their heads. “We picked the wrong guy!”
Ronald Reagan, August 23, 1984.
Of course, the next time around, in 1980, the Republicans picked the right guy. The whole country did. And then, four years after that, as Ronald Reagan sought re-election, his 1984 speech to the Republican convention was a major boost to his campaign.
When Donald Trump started using the slogan “Make America Great Again” for his 2016 campaign, some commentators, noting that Reagan had sometimes used that phrase in 1980, tried to draw parallels between the two presidents. Reagan’s acceptance speech to the 1984 convention in Dallas clearly shows the vast gulf between them.
Reagan emphasizes a lack of optimism as the problem plaguing the United States. America is an inherently great country—by its founding system, its values, its people—it just needs to remember its greatness.
But worst of all, worst of all Americans were losing the confidence and optimism about the future that has made us unique in the world. Parents were beginning to doubt that their children would have the better life that has been the dream of every American generation. We can all be proud this pessimism is ended. America is coming back and is more confident than ever about the future.
Reagan appeals to the American propensity for progress. Trump’s 2016 convention speech—which we will get to later—does the opposite. Reagan knew the rhetorical power of invoking an enemy. But instead of pitting Americans against one another, as Trump does, Reagan pits Americans against tyranny—both at home and abroad.
Isn’t our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down: down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse, accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and ultimately totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.
Reagan spends a couple of minutes reaching out again to Democrats, discussing why he left their party—or rather, how the Democratic leadership took “their party further and further away from its first principles.” When he says of Democratic voters “We welcome them to our side,” the crowd goes wild. Contrast this sincere outreach with Brad Parscale’s measly “Democrats for Trump” bumper sticker.
The peroration and conclusion of Reagan’s speech is masterly. Using as a device the Olympic torch that, just weeks earlier, had been carried by runners across the country, Reagan takes his listeners on a tour of the United States that is also a tour of the applauding delegations around the convention hall. He celebrates the beauty of the country and the diversity of its people, weaving together American stories and ideals. Then, switching to another torch, that of the Statue of Liberty, he ends on a note of pride and hope for the United States: “Her heart is full; her door is still golden, her future bright.” Make time to watch or listen to those last eight minutes of the speech.
Pat Buchanan, August 17, 1992.
Next, a man who attempted to take the Republican party in a radically different direction. Unsuccessful presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston is known as the “culture war speech.” Buchanan presented Democratic nominee and future president Bill Clinton’s candidacy as a death knell for America, focusing on cultural issues important to conservatives, such as abortion, gay marriage, and feminism.
Quoting a Democrat who said that “Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history,” Buchanan agrees: “And so they do.”
After referring to the “radical feminism” of Hillary Clinton—and her husband’s line about how, in electing him, voters would be getting her, too: “two for the price of one”—Buchanan mocks their plans for the country. “The agenda that Clinton & Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that’s change, all right.”
Buchanan tries to appeal to people in America’s heartland—people who “don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we come from.” But rather than instilling optimism about the future of these communities, he stokes the flames of war.
There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, to the Buchanan Brigades out there, we have to come home and stand beside George Bush.
Recognize this formulation? It is not dissimilar to the rhetoric from some Republicans in the 2016 election about the importance of defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Charge the cockpit or you die,” went the infamous “Flight 93” essay by Trump-booster-turned-administration-official Michael Anton.
The difference is that when Buchanan gave this speech, it was viewed by Republican operatives as disastrous. Not so when Trump issued a clarion call against Hillary Clinton in a similar, if less erudite, formulation at the 2016 Republican convention.
Donald Trump, July 21, 2016.
In his acceptance speech at the 2016 RNC in Cleveland, Trump railed against an elite class that, he said, was running and ruining the country.
America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics and cynics. Remember: All of the people telling you “You can’t have the country you want” are the same people that wouldn’t stand—I mean they said “Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight, not a chance”—the same people. Ah, we love defeating those people don’t we? Don’t we love defeating those people? Love it, love it, love it. No longer can we rely on those same people in the media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.
He frames his opponent as an embodiment—a “puppet”—of this “rigged system.” Hillary Clinton is the ultimate insider; Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider. And, he says, it is politicians like Hillary Clinton who have sold out America:
The problems we face now—poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad—will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created themin the first place. . . . The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponent, is that our plan will put America first. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect—the respect that we deserve.
Today, in 2020, Donald Trump still tries to blame Democrats, the deep state, and others for the country’s problems. But he can no longer lay claim to being an outsider. He is the incumbent president. And he is unquestionably in control of the Republican party. It will be interesting to see, when the party nominates him again this week, how he tries to avoid responsibility for massive problems—not least a terrible pandemic—that have happened on his watch.