So much for an upbeat, optimistic convention.
I could only bear to watch some of the cut-rate Triumph of the Will that passed for the 2020 Republican National Convention — maybe a third of it — but I’d be surprised if what I missed redeemed what I saw. Because what I saw was absolutely grotesque.
As Andrew Marantz writes in The New Yorker, “To some extent, all party conventions are pageants of paradox and puffery.” But what we saw this past week went far beyond that. Here’s Dan Rather:
Even to call it a convention is to miss the point. This was propaganda, the pageantry, power, and symbolism of our federal government — OUR government, we the people — exploited by a president who feels unbound by the constitution in his desperate desire to hold on to power.
A secretary of state from foreign soil pledges sycophantic fealty to his boss with hopes of bolstering his own standing in a political party that has become a personality cult. Immigrants are used as props in the White House by a president who has demonized, restricted, and mistreated even legal immigrants and asylum seekers. Uniformed military personnel are employed in this charade. A first lady, who is an unrepentant birther, mouths teleprompter platitudes in front of an unmasked crowd of true believers during a deadly mismanaged pandemic in a re-imagined rose garden and is heralded by some for her tone.
All quite correct. But the real eyepopper was they extent to which almost every word uttered by the speakers at the convention was a lie…..and not just garden variety political prevarication, but howlers that were in 180 degree diametrical opposition to actual reality. Orwell would never have dared go this far.
We’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, I feel compelled to review some of the lowlights, even as they have already been well worked over:
+ Don Jr’s bizarre speech, which was driven either by Bolivian marching powder, or by a lifetime of humiliation and desire to please daddy….
+ Pam Bondi, who as the Florida Attorney General took a $25,000 campaign donation from Trump and then (by sheer coincidence!) stopped pursuing a case against Trump University. This week Pam’s task was to lecture us about the Biden family’s supposed nepotism while the chyron beneath her announced the upcoming speakers: Eric Trump, Tiffany Trump, and Melania Trump….
+ Lara Trump, Eric’s wife, who said the Trump family are “warm and caring, hardworkers, and down to earth.”(Also: there’s a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.)
+ Mike Pompeo, speaking from Jerusalem on the US taxpayers’ dime, claiming that Trump has made America stronger and stood up to our enemies…..which is true if you count letting Vladimir Putin pay for American scalps and thanking him for the privilege “standing up.” (In the New Yorker, Robin Wright took Pompeo’s risible claims apart piece by piece.)
+ Internet troll turned former acting DNI Richard Grenell proudly embracing the term “nationalist,” while promoting the right wing fever dream of “Obamagate,” and suggesting that Angela Merkel has a crush on Don.
+ An anti-abortion activist named Abby Johnson railing against Planned Parenthood……oh, and PS Abby also believes in one vote per household with the husband having the final say. (Another scheduled speaker was a post time scratch after she retweeted an anti-Semitic QAnon thread. I’m surprised they didn’t give her a better slot.)
And there was more — much much more. As I say, I only saw about a third of the trainwreck.
For many, the blue ribbon went to Don Jr.’s girlfriend and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle for her unhinged, widely ridiculed Disney villain speech, which is destined to be a classic. It was indeed headspinning, very much in an Exorcist way.
But for my money the most disturbing moment was Nick Sandmann, the student at a private Catholic high school in Kentucky who last year was filmed wearing a MAGA hat during a confrontation with a Native American senior citizen at an anti-abortion rally at the Lincoln Memorial. That incident itself was complex and an object lesson in partisanship. But Nick’s partially successful (and partially correct) efforts to defend himself were obliterated when he went all in for Team Trump last week.
Young Nick’s Children of the Corn-style address — in which he painted himself as the real victim, lashed out at the media, “professional protestors,” “cancel culture,” and generally sang the praises of the Dear Leader, was truly chilling, especially as he barely blinked the whole time.
What’s that you say? He’s just a kid who didn’t ask to be thrust into the national spotlight? That may have been true last year at the Lincoln Memorial, but now he’s a willing and eager volunteer in the Trump media campaign, so the court of public opinion is going to try him as an adult.
Being a teenager has not done much to protect kids like Tamir Rice.
AFTER THE FINAL ROSE
It goes without saying that there was a distinctly neo-fascist tenor to the convention: in the content, the iconography, the mind-numbing repetition of the word “freedom,” the ostentatious religiosity, and of course the cult of personality.
To that end, it was almost beyond satire that the GOP elected not to have a platform at all this election year, pledging instead that “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” In other words, its platform is “Anything Donald wants!” Which is exactly the way it has behaved for the past four years.
Many observers have noted that the conservative movement at large no longer even pretend to have any ideas or goals in its governance beyond pleasing Trump, which is but a waystation on the path to trying to consolidate raw political power purely for its own sake and utterly divorced from anything remotely resembling principle.
What do you call it when a party has no ideology whatsoever except blind loyalty to its leader? There’s a word for it — damn, it’s on the tip of my tongue. Maybe it will come to me later.
Aesthetically, the entire spectacle was staged like a reality TV show. (It was crafted in part by producers from “The Apprentice.”) That might be tactically smart, given how popular that format is, and a natural fit, given the current president’s CV, but it doesn’t exactly speak well of the state of political discourse in 21st century America. At one point, CNN’s graphics promised a “Convention Pardon,” as if that’s a thing we’re all familiar with. There were also TV-ready “special surprises” like Trump trying to prove he’s not a xenophobe by naturalizing five new American citizens. (“Kwame, will you accept this rose?”)
Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick noted the hypocrisy in play, not merely in light of the administration’s long record of egregious anti-immigrant policies, but even on the specifics of naturalization ceremonies, which are currently halted due to COVID-19, “which may mean that hundreds of thousands of potential citizens won’t actually be able to vote in November.” No shock there.
We knew, going into this convention, that Trump would make use of the grounds of the White House as he made his bid for reelection. But he has actually gone further, by using the actual powers his office bestows on him to perform presidential acts as part of the convention….
He casually deployed two powers of the presidency — intended to be considered, and judicious, and life-altering — not to promote justice or correct wrongs, but because he can, because it’s television, and because he wants to win an election.
But abusing the powers of the presidency for personal gain is 100% on brand for Mr. Trump — indeed, it’s his signature move, even as co-mingling official presidential matters with partisan politicking has heretofore streng verboten and diligently avoided by both parties. In fact, it is explicitly illegal, under the Hatch Act. But as Lithwick also notes, “The Hatch Act has been the toilet paper on the shoe of this administration for a long time.” And, of course, Trump Nation relishes him doing that; you can imagine for yourself what they would say if an Obama or a Clinton or a Biden did so.
Morgan State professor Jason Johnson was even more pointed, noting that for two and a half hours the American people watched a literal crime unfold on national television, and the perpetrators reveling in it.
None of this is accidental. The White House and its subordinates know very well that they are violating the law. That, indeed, is the point. They are gleefully aware that they can do so with impunity, as the Republican Senate proved last winter that it will not hold them to account, and delight in demonstrating (as authoritarians love to do) that the rules just don’t apply to them, and that they create their own reality.
Need more proof? This past Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows publicly scoffed that “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.” This was a remarkable reversal, as the Daily Beast reports, since “before joining an administration famous for its casual disregard for the Hatch Act, Meadows was one of the federal law’s biggest supporters. Meadows co-sponsored multiple pieces of legislation intended to strengthen punishments for violations of the law, and was a hawkish investigator of purported Hatch Act violations by minor members of the Obama administration.”
The final norm-breaking — sorry, scratch that, law-breaking — was of course Trump giving his acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House, a tableau right out of a banana republic, with campaign signs pasted across the once hallowed building, one that is increasingly barricaded against protestors just like the palaces of despots in those forlorn fake democracies.
As Joy Reid remarked, if American democracy falls, “this is what it will look like to have a decrepit, corrupt monarchy.”
(Having 2000 people in the audience without masks and not social distanced was another act of performative authoritarianism, attempting to assert — or at least feign — supremacy even over science. But the coronavirus wasn’t impressed; more Americans died of COVID during the four days of the RNC than died on 9/11.)
Trump’s actual speech — which had the unmistakable feel of Stephen Miller’s syntax — was surprisingly flat and boring. It’s a great irony that Trump is so leaden when reading from a teleprompter, rather than winging it full bull goose looney style. Maybe Kim Guilfoyle can give him some tips. No surprise, the speech was also full of wall-to-wall lies — Rachel Maddow’s post-mortem listing the falsehoods sounded like the narrator of an erectile dysfunction ad speed-reading the side effects. (“Discontinue using Trumpoxychloroquine if delusions persist.”)
The lies were far too many to detail here, but I will seize on one of the smallest and pettiest, as it was also one of the most brazen and psychotic. Trump repeated (again) the easily refuted lie that the DNC removed “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance during their own convention, when video clearly proves that his pants are on fire.
But Trump knows his followers believe anything he says, even over their own eyes and ears. Like the abuse of power, the shameless mendacity is a deliberate demonstration of uncontested dominance, designed to delight his followers and inform his opponents that they are helpless to stop it.
Except we’re not.
LIONIZE, PART 1
In that regard, Trump’s (anti-)climactic speech was merely the cherry atop the cake, for the whole Republican Convention was a non-stop litany of lies. If one was a newly arrived extraterrestrial tuckered out from traveling 50,000 light years across the universe and without access to any other information, it might have sounding pretty convincing. But anyone familiar with capital “R” reality would instantly recognize this shitshow as a parade of what the soon-to-depart Kellyanne Conway once memorably called “alternative facts.”
Which is to say, bullshit.
The Post’s factcheckers called the second night of the RNC “a tsunami of untruths;” they referred to Mike Pence’s speech on the third night as “a cascade of false claims;” and of the fourth night said “Trump’s speech was a tidal wave of false claims and revisionist history.”
Aquatic metaphors abound. But the lies fell into two general categories.
The first was the incessant attempt to paint a counterfactual portrait of Donald Trump as:
+ A deeply empathetic humanitarian who really really cares about you as a person
+ The first person on Planet Earth to recognize the dangers of COVID-19, and the man who took smart, decisive action to stop its spread, saving millions of lives!
+ A financial genius (very stable variety) who is not at all responsible for the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, 30 million Americans being out of work, and a historic contraction of the GDP. (Ask TV and radio’s Larry Kudlow. All is well!)
+ A stalwart patriot who has solidified NATO, brought the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs to their knees through sheer charisma, and totally doesn’t give Vladimir Putin handjobs whenever his master’s voice calls.
+ A feminist champion. Just look at how much he loves broads!
+ Definitely not a racist (some of his best friends are Black!).
+ And much much more!
If you don’t recognize this Donald Trump, it may be because he doesn’t remotely exist, unless it’s on a mirror image Bizarro World on the other side of the sun were day is night, up is down, and Dan Snyder is a progressive hero. (You thought WFT was an acronym for Washington Football Team? I think they have the last two letters transposed.)
But this is the Fox News world in which redhat nation bathes, with the convention offering the rest of us what the Washington Post’s Brian Klaas called “a glimpse into the alternate reality where Trump and the die-hard supporters within his base have lived for years.”
Way back in April, in a piece called “The Super Bowl of Gaslighting,” I wrote:
If you live in the reality-based community, you may be unaware that in MAGA World there are millions of people who firmly believe that Donald Trump is a great humanitarian, a world-beating philanthropist, and a selfless benefactor of mankind.
Not for these people the Donald Trump who had his charitable foundation shuttered by the state of New York for stealing money from children suffering from cancer. Fake news! No, their Trump is a latter day Albert Schweitzer who also knows more about ISIS than the generals and more about epidemiology than Anthony “Dr. Doom” Fauci with his fancy book learnin’.
But if you’ll believe that Donald Trump has a heart of gold, you’ll believe anything…..including the howling lie that Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic like a champ. (Just ask him.) Because that is very much the narrative Trump and his amen corner in the right wing media are attempting to spin.
And that was April, when only a few thousand Americans had yet died from the pandemic. That alternate reality had metastasized dramatically by the time of the RNC.
The reliably bootlicking Mike Pence took the lead in lavishing praise on Trump’s response to the coronavirus, as reported by The New Yorker’s John Cassidy:
In Pence’s telling, “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset. He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.” Under his leadership, the Administration reinvented testing, coordinated the delivery of billions of pieces of personal protective equipment, and “enacted an economic rescue package that saved fifty million American jobs.”
This is like saying Vladimir Putin is a great defender of a free press, or Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was a terrific fire marshal, or Son of Sam was the best thing that ever happened to New York City tourism. But as Cassidy wryly notes, “With the national death toll approaching 180,000….Americans can see reality with their own eyes.”
LYIN’ EYES, PART 2
The second category of lies was an equally absurd attempt to paint Joe Biden (and that colored girl he put on his ticket) as a Satan-worshipping communist who drinks the blood of Christian babies.
Ginning up panic about the opposition is an old tradition among demagogues. But the GOP broke the meter.
Joe is a radical leftist, a cheerleader for Red China, and a socialist who will defund the police. He will let mobs run lose in the streets, side with criminals over victims, “destroy the suburbs” (whatever that means), take your guns, abolish your church, open the borders and lodge illegal aliens in your rec room where they will drink all your Fresca and put the empty cans in the mixed paper bin instead of the aluminum and glass one.
Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz said Biden isn’t a real Catholic (I guess God told Lou that), and that you have to have politicians you can trust! “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Mike Pence informed us.
Can fearmongering get any more blatant?
Per Pam Bondi, corruption was a huge theme in the Biden-bashing — in keeping with the projection that is the bread & butter of this administration — accusing Joe, as the New York Times editorial board wrote, “of secretly doing what Mr. Trump has accomplished overtly during the past three years — using his office to enrich himself and his family.”
A nun accused Biden of favoring infanticide. Now, I know that Sister Deirdre Byrne is a retired Army colonel and a doctor, and has worked extensively with refugees in the developing world. Respect to her. But I’ve known plenty of Army colonels, and plenty of doctors, and plenty of Army doctors, and I’m here to tell you that none of that inoculates a person from holding vile views, or spreading hatred while masquerading as a paragon of virtue.
Nor does being a nun. The fall of Falwell notwithstanding, the willingness of religious people to support Trump — evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and others — brings shame upon their faiths. Anyone who supports Trump ought to be ashamed, for that matter, but especially those who position themselves as models of moral rectitude.
I remember well Jesus’s words: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, so they can be ripped from their parents and put in cages.”
But frankly, what found more objectionable than Sister Deirdre’s comments on abortion was her winking comparison of today’s retrograde conservatives to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that he too was “politically incorrect.”
The image of her in her habit, standing in front of a placard reading “TRUMP PENCE 2020” was like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale. All her other accomplishments and claims on virtue are rendered moot, and her judgment and credibility destroyed, when she says things like this:
Donald Trump is the most pro-life president this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages. His belief in the sanctity of life transcends politics. President Trump will stand up against Biden-Harris, who are the most anti-life presidential ticket ever, even supporting the horrors of late-term abortion and infanticide. Because of his courage and conviction, President Trump has earned the support of America’s pro-life community. Moreover, he has a nationwide of religious standing behind him.
If you believe that, you’ll believe a virgin can give birth.
But no allegation was too absurd to be leveled against Biden.
Speaker after speaker described the hellscape into which the Democrats have dragged the United States. Some of that is imaginary — like the abolition of the police and its replacement with Khmer Rouge-brand re-education camps where you will be force-fed “Free to Be You and Me” via the Ludivico technique. But some — like 180,000 dead, a cratering economy, and militarized police in the streets — is very real. The issue of who’s responsible, however, is another matter.
An incoherent Rudy Giuliani — looking like he was on the verge of a cardiac arrest and as flopsweaty as Albert Brooks in Broadcast News — painted a picture of American cities in violent chaos. Damn straight! Get it together, President Biden, or we’ll vote your ass out!!!!
What’s that you say — that it’s the fault of progressive “Democrat” big city mayors?
But even if one accepts that completely dishonest portrait, if Donald can’t control those mayors, does he deserve four more years?
Trump himself called for Biden to be drug tested before any debates, to make sure he’s not taking “performance enhancing” drugs. I don’t know if he thinks Joe has been hanging around with Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service bicycle racing team, but maybe he can get Louis Dejoy to defund it.
His remark, referring to Biden’s debate with Bernie earlier this year, was couched in classic Trump ass-covering: “Somebody said to me, ‘He must be on drugs.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m asking for a drug test.”
Trump said he’d take the test too. Given the aforementioned projection, I think we can take that as an admission of his own addiction. (A classic cry for help, folks.)
THE MAGIC OF MISDIRECTION
The right wing punditocracy was predictably thrilled with the Republican show. Hugh Hewitt, who is rivaled in his sycophancy toward Trump only by his fellow WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen, called the first two nights “superb” and “nearly flawless.”
But the bottom line is that neither party’s convention is likely to have much impact, so calcified is the partisan divide. Few Americans even watch these events, other than political junkies and hardcore partisans, and our views are already set in stone. Accordingly, both conventions were mere Rorschach tests in which the faithful saw and heard what they wanted. (I’m guilty of it, for sure; have a look at my fanboy reaction to last week’s DNC.)
To the extent that either convention had any impact on that tiny sliver of undecideds, I must say I am baffled how at this point anyone who is not newly emerged from a four-year-long coma (or arriving on that alien spaceship I mentioned earlier) could be undecided about Donald Trump.
But let’s pause to note that while we were distracted by the circus that was the RNC, police in Kenosha, WI recently shot a Black man in the back seven times at point blank range, paralyzing him. (Jacob Blake’s previous troubles with the law are irrelevant; as far as I know, our police are not supposed to be extrajudicial execution squads.)
In the ensuing protests, Kyle Rittenhouse, a Trump-supporting vigilante, shot and killed two protestors and wounded a third with an AR-15 variant semiautomatic rifle. On Fox, Tucker Carlson offered praise for Kyle, to whom, in his view, it has fallen to restore “law and order.” Ann Coulter and various other right wing swine did likewise.
When people talk idly of a coming second civil war in America, this is precisely the sort of thing that makes that seem plausible rather than alarmist.
(In this video you can see police in Kenosha thanking vigilantes like Kyle, saying “We appreciate you guys” and giving them water bottles.)
In light of those murders, Mark and Patricia McCloskey — the wealthy, gun-toting St. Louis couple who brandished weapons at BLM protestors and for their efforts won a speaking slot at the Republican convention — look a lot less comic and a lot more chilling. With its tokenist display of Black speakers attesting that Trump is actually MLK in whiteface, the GOP seems determined to prove that it isn’t racist…..but not to the point of actually not being racist, just enough to make its more moderate members feel OK about voting red in the fall, while at the same time continuing to stoke the politics of white resentment for partisan gain.
It’s an incredibly dangerous and criminally reckless strategy.
How much of a leap is it from the creepy, pro-Trump vibe of Nick Sandmann to the homicidal pro-Trump vibe of Kyle Rittenhouse? A leap. But not an Olympic one.
We have entered a perilous moment in American history, one where disinformation has reached toxic levels and the survival of the republic is legitimately in doubt.
In politics, there is always spin…..but then there’s the effort to cast Trump as the hero of the pandemic (not its superspreader), the man who can save the economy (instead of the one who presided over its epic collapse), and a champion of law and order (instead of a wanton crook himself).
We should hardly be surprised that the convention renominating Trump for a second term would be a festival of deceit, reflecting as it does a party that is in thrall to one of the most untrustworthy and mendacious figures in modern times.
Here’s the real deal, and what posterity is already recording: Donald Trump is a malevolent incompetent whose criminal mishandling of the coronavirus cost over a hundred thousand lives and still counting, and turned the United States into a piteous global embarrassment. And that’s just one front of his multi-faceted criminal unfitness. The self-delusion necessary to suggest that he is instead a bold, forward-thinking hero who saved untold lives is a strong candidate for the biggest con in the history of cons. But we are about to see how gullible the American people really are.
Trump is a living embodiment of Mary McCarthy’s quip (originally slung at Lillian Hellman) that every word he says is a lie, including “and” and “the.” But every rule has an exception, and recently Trump said something that I believe was undeniably true…..and it scares the pants off me.
For three years I and others have been speculating about whether Trump will willingly leave office in January 2021 should he lose the election. Of late that speculation has turned to certainty that he will at the very least challenge the results of the vote if he doesn’t win (or if he doesn’t succeed in skewing it so that he can plausibly claim victory).
But until recently that was still an assertion — however confident — by Trump’s critics. Now Trump himself has bluntly announced, outright, in public.
Speaking on August 20th in Scranton, PA — Joe Biden’s hometown — Trump said of mail-in voting:
So this is just a way they’re trying to steal the election, and everybody knows that. Because the only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election.
There you have it. If Biden wins, the election will have been fraudulent by definition. A perfect tautology for a wannabe president-for-life.
(Sidebar for sticklers: Is this the same as Trump saying he will contest the result, or merely that it won’t be fair if he loses? It’s true that, technically, one might still argue that he has not said specifically that he will refuse to abide by a vote he doesn’t like. The possibility remains that he might just grumpily slink off to Mar-a-Lago to play golf, muttering that he wuz robbed. But in practical reality his making-of-trouble is implied.)
We better get ready. Promises made, promises kept.
The irony, of course, is that Trump is claiming the election will be “rigged” while doing everything within his considerable power to rig it himself…..much as he howls that voting-by-mail will be a catastrophe, even as he and his shameless minion DeJoy labor mightily to make that come true. Recently he suggested that he would send armed law enforcement officers to “protect” polling places (read: intimidate voters). Even a reliable lickspittle like acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf (now nominated for Senate confirmation in that job) had to push back and tell the press the administration won’t really do that.
Unless — gasp! — Chad is lying!!
Speaking to The Recount, Hillary Clinton recently advised Joe Biden that he should not concede a close race until a true vote count is resolved, as the delay due to mail-in balloting and other complications will almost surely require days or even weeks before we know the actual result. The Republicans set their collective hair on fire over those remarks; funny how they are totally cool with Trump’s far more outrageous comments to that end. The Trump campaign posted the video on its website; he is thrilled any time he can fundraise and gin up his base by hating on Hillary.
But she is completely correct. Picture Florida in 2000 times fifty.
A group called Protect the Vote has been stood up to gird for this battle; I encourage anyone who is interested to check it out.
For if there is one takeaway from the Republican Convention, it ought to be that Trump sees himself and the state as one — which we’ve known for a while, though rarely on such blatant display — and will shamelessly marshal the full power of the presidency to preserve his hold on power.
There ought to be no more discussion or debate. Trump has bluntly announced that he intends to remain in office in January 2021 no matter what. Is there any simpler definition of an autocracy?
American carnage indeed.
Photo: RNC/Handout via REUTERS