The Party of Trump vs. the Party of Traditional Values

At the DNC, speakers are framing liberal arguments in conservative terms.

Sen. Cory Booker speaks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Monday night, Sen. Al Franken urged attendees at the Democratic National Convention to spend more time working for the party. “Many of you have families. Ignore them,” Franken said. “Kids love it when their parents aren’t home. An 8-year-old kid can teach a 4-year-old kid to use a microwave oven. … You have work to do.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone telling that joke at a Republican convention. Republicans always present themselves as the party of family values. At their convention last week, Donald Trump declared himself the candidate of law and order. He brought evangelical speakers to the stage to talk about faith. He called Hillary Clinton a crook.

Democrats have a hard time connecting with voters who care about God and morals. But every four years, they try. This year, they have an opportunity. In previous presidential elections, Republicans have nominated war heroes (Bob Dole, John McCain) and men of integrity (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney). This time, the GOP has nominated a mean, foul-mouthed charlatan and bigot.

On Monday night, Democrats savaged Trump’s business record. But they focused less on his wealth than on his betrayal of the ethics of capitalism. Many people on the left forget that capitalism isn’t just an economic system. In the writings of Adam Smith, and in how it’s understood by ordinary people, capitalism is also a moral system. Americans expect people in business to follow certain rules. Anyone who breaks those rules risks a political backlash.

In this respect, Bernie Sanders and his Monday night warmup speaker, Elizabeth Warren, are often misunderstood. Sanders is a raging moralist. In his speech, he denounced the “greed” and “recklessness” of Wall Street and pharmaceutical giants. He denounced the lopsided distribution of wealth as “not moral.” Warren, too, is a preacher, but her creed isn’t socialism. It’s fair-minded capitalism. Six times in her address, she used the word “cheat.” She blasted Trump for cheating workers, students, and investors. She talked about rules, fraud, and accountability.

Throughout the day, speakers hammered Trump for “bilking,” “conning,” and “scamming” not just people who gave him their labor but those who gave him their capital. They attacked Trump from the standpoint of Adam Smith, not Karl Marx. Franken joked that Trump University taught Bankruptcy 101: “how to leave your partners holding the bag.” Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, added: “Donald Trump has different values. He built his career by ripping people off, stiffing contractors, and skipping out on his bills.”

Trump is also mean and petty in his treatment of others. This gives Democrats an opening to frame his unfitness for the presidency as a character issue. In 2000, George W. Bush ran for president as the candidate who would restore honor to the Oval Office. Now the tables are turned. On Monday night, Michelle Obama and other speakers talked about the president as a “role model.” Jarron Collins, a former NBA player who is now an assistant coach, asked: “How do you tell your kids not to be a bully if their president is one?”

Of the many groups Trump has insulted, Democrats targeted the ones most likely to elicit sympathy across the political spectrum. One was disabled people. Another was women. A third was veterans. “We’ve watched [Trump] demean the service of [John McCain], saying he’s not a war hero” because McCain was captured, Sen. Cory Booker said. “Would he say that to the brave men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, right now risking capture or worse?”

The Democrats’ more ambitious project, however, is to present Trump’s use of ethnic prejudice not just as a matter of identity politics but as a moral issue. “Too many of our children are watching and learning the wrong lessons from Donald Trump,” warned Rep. Linda Sanchez of California. Sanchez recalled a recent high school basketball game at which white students chanted “Build That Wall” to taunt Hispanic players on the other team. “A Trump presidency would be a signal to our children that we condone this kind of behavior,” said Sanchez. “Who we vote for says a lot about our values.”

Democrats are learning to present conservative cultural arguments for positions that used to be perceived as subversive. One is the legalization of undocumented immigrants. The traditional view is that people who entered the United States without going through a legal process broke the law and skipped the line and that this is wrong. That’s true, but it’s not the end of the story. In most cases, the immigrant brings a family, becomes a faithful worker, and joins a community. To deport him, you have to tear apart the piece of the social fabric he has created.

That’s why we heard a lot on Monday about “hard-working” immigrants who “pay taxes and raise their families” in the United States. “When Donald Trump talks about deporting 11 million people, he’s talking about ripping families apart,” said Astrid Silva, an immigration activist. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, added, “Hillary Clinton believes in keeping families together.”

Democrats have also adjusted their language on women in the workplace. Clinton likes to joke about playing the “woman card.” But on equal pay, her party is playing the family card. “Families rely on women’s income, but we still don’t have equal pay for equal work,” complained Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey agreed: “When a single mom earns an equal wage for equal work, it empowers the most important building block in all of our nation. And that is the family.”

Liberals aren’t always comfortable with this kind of talk. They’re skittish about religion, lifestyle norms, or anything that smacks of judgment. But judgment, like sex, is something we all do, even if we don’t admit it. We might as well do it right.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.