WASHINGTON, July 21, 2016 — “Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American.”
As Peter Thiel uttered each of these sentences, the delegates at the GOP Convention tonight stood to cheer, and in the end they gave Thiel, the first openly gay man ever to address a Republican convention, a standing ovation.
Thiel’s speech was an extraordinary speech at an extraordinary convention. The GOP convention this year has wandered in tone and direction, delivering surprises to delight and confound listeners.
Thiel’s speech seemed to confound MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, herself gay. She sputtered in surprised consternation.
What he just said there on the culture war issues, that’s very controversial for most Republican conventions. … So the RNC, this is sort of an octagonal thing they’re doing … Openly gay, talking about being gay, raising the culture war issue, also incredibly radical on some other stuff including freedom of the press …
The Republican Party platform is predictably pro-nuclear-one-man-married-to-one-woman family. Thiel’s response to that was pithy:
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares? …
I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform. But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline. And nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.”
If Maddow was shocked, so too was the North Carolina delegation, which must have felt itself under attack at this convention that was supposed to be about “unity.”
If Thiel has no interest in pursuing culture wars, Donald Trump is also not an enthusiastic culture warrior. In his own speech, he alluded to the men and women who died in the attack on an Orlando gay club, then said,
“As president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
When the crowd cheered its approval, he added, “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
The crowd heard from Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, between the speeches from Thiel and Trump. Thiel is libertarian rather than classically Republican, donating millions of dollars to libertarian candidates and causes.
Ivanka expressed views that deviate from the classic Republican, starting with a rejection of party loyalty in her introduction:
“Like many of my fellow millennials, I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat. More than party affiliation, I vote what I believe is right for my family and my country.”
Declaring her father “colorblind and gender neutral,” Ms. Trump moved on to comments that would have been at home at a Democratic convention:
“At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.”
Women represent 46 percent of the total US labor force and 40 percent of American households have females primary breadwinners. In 2014, women made 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Single women without children earned 94 cents for each dollar earned by a man, whereas married mothers only made 77 cents.
As researchers have noted, gender is no longer the factor creating the biggest wage discrepancy in this country—motherhood is. As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put in place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce, and he will focus on making quality childcare affordable and accessible for all. …
Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career. He will fight for equal pay, for equal work, and I will fight for this too, right alongside of him.”
To say that Ms. Trump’s views here are not “classically Republican” depends on a narrow distinction and a narrative forged by Democrats. Republicans have in fact been deeply concerned with issues of gender, race and equity for a very long time, though their views on how to deal with inequity are in stark contrast to Democratic views.
What was unusual tonight was the emphatic concern with equity in terms that Democrats and independents would understand, along with the deliberate recognition of the LGBTQ community.
The issue of race and equity came front and center in Donald Trump’s speech as well.
Much of the speech dealt with immigration, and he returned to one of his campaign’s leitmotifs:
“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration,” but he put his border concerns in a broader context: economics, as understood by the left.
Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African American youth are not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the president took his oath of office less than eight years ago. Another 14 million people have left the workforce entirely.
Trump’s speech was dark in tone, “midnight in America” rather than Ronald Reagan’s sunnier view. President Reagan saw dark times as a prelude to a new dawn, while Trump cast them as prelude to even darker times.
But his speech also went in unexpected directions, and recast some of his controversial proposals (the exclusion of Muslims would now be the exclusion of people from terrorist states).
Whether Thiel and the Trumps made many converts among gays, feminists and race hustlers is doubtful, but they delivered a message that will have some appeal to Sanders voters unhappy with Hillary Clinton, and they broke through some of the hackneyed stereotypes of Republicans so popular with MSNBC and other liberal media.
It remains to be seen whether the GOP will leave Cleveland as a more unified, more inclusive party than it was going in. It might do better to stop devouring its conservative dissidents along the lines of Cruz, but Trump has opted in the direction of Sanders instead.