What I heard Monday night during the Republican rally at the Toyota Center in Houston was not speeches about unifying America. From President Trump to Senator Ted Cruz to Governor Greg Abbott, they were speeches about dividing Americans into camps: patriots versus those who are not; those who love God with an implication that other Americans do not; about Democrats who so hate the country that they would sell it out for power. This wasn’t the traditional Republican “government that governs least governs best” versus the Democratic collectivist vision that problems can be solved by a union of us all. The evening wasn’t at all about, “Here are our problems, let’s discuss our different visions on how to solve them.” It was about those who disagree with us being un-American.
President Trump was at the Toyota Center to rally voter turnout for Cruz, who is facing a tough challenge from Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso. In a speech lasting an hour and eighteen minutes, Trump excoriated “globalists,” declared, “I’m a nationalist,” and appeared proud of foreign disdain. He accused “radical” Democrats of “mob” rule and said, without proof, that they had paid the Honduran refugees who are heading north through Mexico on their way to the United States. Democrats, Trump said, want to replace freedom with socialism. Trump just flatly said undocumented immigrants vote in California.
In one weird moment, Trump declared that if the proposed $10 billion “Ike Dike” gets built to protect Galveston Bay from a hurricane’s direct hit, he wants the “dam” named after him. The Ike Dike is more like a gate that opens and closes than a dam.
Throughout my career of covering politics, I have heard so much hyperbole and spin from both Republicans and Democrats that I’ve become somewhat calloused to it. But there were so many half-truths, insinuations, and lies told by the speakers in the Toyota Center that it is too mind-numbing to render. I’ll leave most to the fact checks. But one I’ll note. Cruz accused O’Rourke of voting for a $10 a barrel tax increase on crude oil. O’Rourke actually voted against a resolution to block Obama administration consideration of an increase in oil taxes. O’Rourke never voted in favor of increasing oil taxes. It would be fair for Cruz to say O’Rourke voted against halting tax increases on oil, but to say O’Rourke voted to increase taxes on oil is a prevarication. That’s a fancy word for “lie.”
At least twice before in American history, national politicians gave speeches in Houston that spelled out sharp divisions in political philosophy between the parties without turning it into war of us against ourselves.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Houston in 1928 to nominate Al Smith as the Democratic candidate for president, he talked about having a man of integrity in office who was cognizant of America’s role in the world. Roosevelt recalled that Abraham Lincoln governed with a human heart, while Woodrow Wilson had a “passionate desire” for world happiness. “It is what is so conspicuously lacking in our present administration,” Roosevelt said, “a lack of which has been at the bottom of the growing dislike and even hatred of the other nations toward us. For without this love and understanding of our fellow men, no chief executive can win for this land that international friendship which is along the sure foundation of lasting peace.”
President George H.W. Bush returned to his hometown of Houston in 1992 to accept the Republican nomination for a second term of office, one he would not win that fall. Bush also called on Americans to make the best of themselves as part of making America a world leader. “We believe that now that the world looks more like America, it’s time for America to look more like herself. And so we offer a philosophy that puts faith in the individual, not the bureaucracy; a philosophy that empowers people to do their best so America can be at its best. In a world that is safer and freer, this is how we will build an America that is stronger, safer, and more secure.”
But that 1992 Republican National Convention also heard an alternative view of America from losing presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. His speech could have been delivered by President Trump almost without change. It was a speech about Americans against Americans, about xenophobia and a culture war of social conservatives against the liberalization of the United States for minority groups. “What a terrific crowd this is. What a terrific crowd. This may even be larger than the crowd I had in Ellijay, Georgia. Don’t laugh. We carried Ellijay,” Buchanan said to open his speech.
He grew condescending when talking about the Democratic National Convention the previous month in New York. “My friends, like many of you last month, I watched that giant masquerade ball up at Madison Square Garden—where 20,000 liberals and radicals came dressed up as moderates and centrists—in the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.”
Ultimately, Buchanan described the culture war he saw being launched by Bill and Hillary Clinton, “The agenda that Clinton and 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. But it is not the kind of change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not the kind of change we can abide in a nation that we still call God’s country.”
Moments after Buchanan concluded, a joke rapidly spread through the press riser, creating a ripple of laughter as it spread row by row: Buchanan’s speech had been better in the original German. (Texas humorist Molly Ivins was quick to pirate it for her next column.)
While the Houston rally on Monday was held for Cruz, he only got thirteen minutes to speak. What he did receive was effusive praise from Trump, who had called him “lyin’ Ted” during their 2016 fight for the Republican presidential nomination. As Trump prepared to leave the White House for his trip to Texas, he told reporters, “He’s not Lyin’ Ted anymore. He’s Beautiful Ted,” Trump said. “I call him Texas Ted.”
In his own speech, Cruz broke with other Texas politicians to support President Trump’s ultimate border security measure. “We need to build the wall,” Cruz declared to cheers from the crowd. Every mention of illegal immigration by any speaker immediately agitated the crowd. Especially exciting were allegations that O’Rourke favors open borders. “He pretends to be a moderate, but he’s really an open-borders left winger,” Trump said. O’Rourke has said he opposes open border policies and has worked with Texas Senator John Cornyn on improving border checkpoints, but O’Rourke also says he wants to repair a broken immigration system to make it more humane.
In the end, the Toyota Center event was a spectacle of isolationism and selfishness. The evening was not a display of FDR or George H.W. Bush’s honest differences. It was the worst of us—Pat Buchanan channeled through Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And on more than any issue, that is why O’Rourke has done so well this year.
Yes, O’Rourke is basically a classical American liberal in the tradition of the Kennedys of Massachusetts. And many of his issues—such as property taxes, teacher pay, and complaints about Texas foregoing millions of federal dollars because the state refused to expand Medicaid coverage—are more issues for a governor’s race than one for the Senate. What I’ve seen when I’ve attended O’Rourke rallies have been people angry or afraid that they are being made the targets or the victims of a culture war. With hard work and more than a small helping of naiveté, O’Rourke has promised to bring civility and a sense of oneness back into the American political dialogue. But we all know that the innocents who go to Washington and change the world only occur in the movies.