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RNC 2020: Virtual Unreality

Four days of staggering cynicism and deceit.
August 28, 2020
RNC 2020: Virtual Unreality
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 27: Fireworks are seen above the Washington Monument and the White House at the conclusion of the final day of the Republican National Convention on August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence accepted the nomination as the Republican candidates for a second term in the White House. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Though Donald Trump preens like an ersatz Mussolini, to compare his convention to fascist theater from the 1930s would be to stretch responsible historical analogy. But they share a depressingly familiar fusion of lies, anger, paranoia, erasures of reality, toxic insularity, and blind fervor for a nihilistic leader who brooks no dissent.

Over four evenings, we witnessed a cult of personality rooted in mythologizing a mendacious pseudo-populist so irretrievably self-obsessed that he is redefining our democracy by inflaming the basest instincts of his followers. Yet his party portrayed this narcissistic bully as “the bodyguard of Western civilization.”

The classic authoritarian narrative sweetens fear and anger with faux-nostalgia for an Edenic fatherland, beset by alien forces bent on extinguishing public safety and cultural virility—which, of course, can only be rescued by a leader whose singular gifts empower his indomitable will. So it is with Trump, and the hallucinatory portrait of America his captive party presented starting on Monday night.

The New York Times aptly described the first day of the convention as presenting “an alternate reality . . . in which the nation was not nearing 180,000 deaths from the coronavirus.” Instead, the mythic Trump’s proactive leadership had saved millions of American lives, while the highest job loss since the Great Depression became the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. Indeed, Trump himself warned in a preamble, the major danger from the pandemic was an epidemic of voting by mail, riddled by fraud, through which Democrats are “using COVID to steal the election.”

Magically, Trump became African Americans’ new best friend. He claimed credit for driving, as opposed to signing, criminal justice reform and increased funding for historically black colleges. In contrast, a black Republican congressional candidate warned, Democrats offer African-Americans in Baltimore “abandoned buildings, liquor stores on every corner, drug addicts, guns on the street,” the “same cycle of decay [that] exists in many of America’s Democrat-run cities.”

But among the “ordinary Americans” who spoke on Trump’s behalf were Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-toting couple from St. Louis who brandished their weapons at peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters passing their home. “Your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” Ms. McCloskey warned. In the McCloskeys’ telling, Joe Biden’s party wanted to “abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning” and, further, would “defund the police” because they “no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals, but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens.”

As evidence, Mr. McCloskey offered . . . himself. “Not a single person in the out-of-control mob you saw at our house was charged with a crime. But you know who was? We were.”

But no one saw that menacing black “mob”; the marchers menaced no one. What America saw on Monday night was two hysterical white people lying for Trump on national television.

More sympathetic, if no more edifying, was the Cuban-American businessman from Florida, Maximo Alvarez, who, when young, was clearly traumatized by Cuba’s Communist revolution. Sixty years later, this formative experience has caused him to see Joe Biden as the next Fidel Castro. Whereas Trump is “fighting the forces of anarchy and communism,” Alvarez asserted, he had “no doubt” that Biden and his party “will hand the country over to those dangerous forces.” Sensing that he truly believed this, one felt badly for him.

The luminaries who followed on Monday night stirred no such ambiguous feelings. Best to quote them—beyond that, little comment is required.

Congressman Matt Gaetz forecast the Hobbesian regime of President Joe Biden. “It’s a horror film, really. They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door. And the police aren’t coming when you call; in Democrat-run cities, they’re already being defunded, disbanded.”

Ever his father’s intellectual doppelganger, Donald Trump Jr. offered a kindred account of America under “Beijing Biden.” A brief sampling:

  • “The other party is attacking the very principles on which our nation was founded—freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the rule of law.”
  • “Joe Biden’s entire economic platform seems designed to crush the working man and woman.”
  • “Biden also wants to bring in more illegal immigrants to take jobs from American citizens.”
  • “People of faith are under attack. You’re not allowed to go to church, but mass chaos in the streets gets a pass. It’s almost like this election is shaping up to be church, work, and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism.”

Mournfully, Nikki Haley declared it “so tragic to see so much of the Democratic party during a blind eye towards riots and rage.” Abroad, she informed us, Biden is “a godsend to everyone who wants America to apologize, abstain, and abandon our values.” One can only anticipate, as Haley clearly does, her inspiring battle with Don Jr. for the GOP nomination in 2024.

Even Tim Scott, the African-American senator who was Monday night’s least sulfurous presence, gave us this: “Make no mistake: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution. A fundamentally different America. If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia, and history has taught us that path only leads to pain and misery, especially for hard-working people hoping to rise.”

Never in one evening had a major political party so completely defenestrated its intellectual and moral standing.

Tuesday’s proceedings lowered the decibel level while producing a jarring admixture of discordant notes echoing in some alternate American fatherland. Remarkable throughout was Trump’s unprecedented appropriation of governmental functions and national iconography, notably the White House, to advance his re-election campaign.

This unremitting merger of state with self evoked the famous dictum of Louis XIV: “I myself am the nation.” As our self-appointed Sun King, Trump soared above the democratic modesties observed by prior presidents.

He used the White House to issue a made-for-TV pardon of an African American and stage a naturalization ceremony for nonwhite immigrants which belied his drastic cuts in legal immigration. His children spoke from government buildings, his wife from the Rose Garden she had newly reconfigured. More than arguably violating the Hatch Act while flouting diplomatic norms by using Israel as a prop in Trump’s campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised his leadership from a scenic rooftop in “this very city of God, Jerusalem.”

COVID-19 was largely consigned to the margins—indeed, to history—vanquished by the heroic efforts of our indispensable leader. Neither the conventions’ stars nor the bit players wore masks, while Trump’s chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow—a supply-side nitwit whose very persona enriches the word “hack”—spoke of the coronavirus in the past tense. Lest we had forgotten, Kudlow reminded us that Trump had led an “extraordinary rescue” to “successfully fight the COVID virus” while spurring our economy to a “V-shaped recovery.”

Indeed, Tuesday’s stabs at uplift not only conjured from the ether a different country, but an entirely new Trump. A brace of officeholders and relatives introduced us to the Donald we never knew: an occasionally bumptious but big-hearted truth-teller, a friend to women driven to get things done by his unremitting concern for others.

This personality transplant bred some priceless moments of cognitive dissonance. Tiffany Trump materialized from self-exile to vouch for her father’s selflessness: “Fighting for America is something he will sacrifice anything for.” Before one could list all the exceptions, his devoted wife—a woman too large-spirited to begrudge him Stormy Daniels and/or whoever—was upon us.

Expressing a sympathy for victims of the virus clearly beyond her husband’s capacity, Melania assured us that “Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic”—an assertion all the more remarkable for its concession that COVID-19 still exists. After decrying, in her accustomed affect-free way, that too often “we only see the worst of people and politics on the evening news”—exhibiting the epic talent for banishing the obvious that she first exemplified by her crusade against cyber-bullying—she praised Trump as a supportive husband. Good to know.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s surreal facelift was commingled with cultural divisiveness and blatant falsehoods. Impervious to irony, Trump’s inveterate surrogate Pam Bondi recycled false charges that Joe Biden had assisted his son Hunter’s peddling of perceived influence in China—conveniently overlooking Ivanka Trump’s pursuit of trademarks and branding opportunities in, well, China.

Again, the family pitched in. Daring to go where even Melania feared to tread, Tiffany complained about the mass proliferation of disinformation: “Rather than allowing Americans the right to form our own beliefs, this misinformation system keeps people mentally enslaved to the ideas they deem correct”—save for, apparently, Trump’s exceedingly well-informed loyalists. Worse yet, Tiffany protested, “this has fostered unnecessary fear and divisiveness amongst us.”

With these words, irony dropped dead. Trampling on its grave, Eric the Lesser claimed that Democrats “want to destroy the monuments of our forefathers”; “burn the Stars and Stripes”; and disrespect the Pledge of Allegiance.

Watching this Orwellian display, one assumed that it was meant to scare wavering Republicans into supporting Trump for fear of worse. But viewership was trailing that for the Democratic convention, with the majority clustered in the hothouse of Fox News.

Of greater moment, perhaps, was the continuing racial unrest in the all-too-real America. One suspected that, despite its excesses, the GOP’s evocation of violence might be landing with whites initially rendered sympathetic to protesters by the murder of George Floyd.

But the rush of events rendered augury difficult. What, one wondered, would strike the nerve of undecided voters: the fresh tragedy of Jacob Blake, paralyzed after a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot him eight times in the back; the incidents of lootings and vandalism which accompanied the resulting protests; or the fatal shooting of two protesters?

Clearly, Trump’s GOP thinks it knows the answer—a calculus which illuminated the two nights that remained.

Wednesday evening’s presentations were shadowed by Kenosha. The dead protesters, it transpired, had been killed by a self-appointed teenage vigilante and Trump supporter who had traveled from Illinois. A right-wing militia’s call to arms surfaced on the internet. In an unprecedented reaction to Blake’s shooting, professional sports teams in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS boycotted their games.

The GOP’s response mixed the banal and sinister. The most flowery presentations melded into an interminable Fourth of July speech in search of an idea, a relentless march of platitudes so dissociated from anything at all that they opened new frontiers of awestruck disbelief.

More testaments from women gilded Trump’s makeover. Kayleigh McEnany extolled his compassion for her pre-existing health condition, conveniently omitting his efforts to terminate the ACA’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Countering fresh evidence of the Trump family’s poisonous dysfunction, Lara Trump celebrated her marriage into such a “warm and caring” bunch. Kellyanne Conway assured us that Trump’s empathy, so apparent for himself, included others.

But the GOP had other women. Governor Kristi Noem proclaimed that “Democrat-run cities across this country are being overrun by violent mobs,” while the “good, hard-working Americans” who can’t escape “are left to fend for themselves.” Senator Marsha Blackburn revealed that Democrats want to defund “our military, our police, even ICE, to take away their tools to keep us safe” and that, “if the Democrats had their way, they would keep you locked in your house until you become dependent on the government for everything.” Just for variety, former football coach Lou Holtz called Biden “a Catholic in name only,” appropriating papal powers of excommunication.

From there, Mike Pence proceeded to lower the tone.

Shattering the convention’s pre-existing record for mendacity, he falsely insinuated that Biden wanted to defund the police before asserting that Biden, “would abolish fossil fuels”; “end fracking”; “is for open borders”; and “wants to end school choice.” Then he got worse.

Having failed to mention a single black man killed by police, Pence claimed that “last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country.” “The hard truth,” Pence warned, “is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” As evidence, he mourned a homeland security officer killed in Oakland, never mentioning that he was murdered by an alt-right Boogaloo member.

Pence then proceeded to lay his gifts at the feet of his master. He unfurled a series of untruths and exaggerations regarding Trump’s supposed revival of the military; the impact of his ban on travel from China; the magnitude of his tax cuts; his role in reforming the VA; and the success of his trade war against the Chinese.

By then the boundlessness of Pence’s cynicism defied easy description. But there are no words for his grotesque inversion of Trump’s lethal response to the coronavirus, otherwise known as “the greatest national mobilization since World War II”—wherein, Pence recounted, “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government” and “directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”

Could they but address the convention, 180,000-plus dead Americans and counting would no doubt have expressed their undying gratitude to Donald Trump. Fortunately, they had Pence to do it for them.

But the inescapable nadir came on Thursday—Trump himself.

First, Trump misappropriated the most iconic American symbol, the White House, as the setting for a blatantly divisive, dishonest, and self-celebratory political speech. He spoke on the South Lawn, with the building behind him bathed in light and fronted with a plethora of American flags, conflating patriotism with Trump’s stunning assertion of proprietorship. Among the human props in his audience were uniformed police; his speech hailed the presence of officers from the Department of Homeland Security.

At moments one imagined a virtual Nuremberg rally, with Trump as America’s Leni Riefenstahl. Near the climax of the speech, he turned to point at the White House, glowing and white, and said mockingly to Democrats: “We’re here, and you’re not.” It was hard to know what was more distasteful—the words themselves, or Trump’s pleasure in uttering them.

The speech itself began conventionally enough, combining Panglossian boilerplate, an unblemished American history moving inexorably from one triumph to the next, and standard partisan lies and exaggerations. Compared to his worst, this seemed sufficiently mild that one imagined Trump doing himself some good.

This modulation ended soon enough, though. In Trump’s telling, Joe Biden was not simply wrong: “He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of American greatness.” Indeed, “China would own our country if Joe Biden got elected.”

Whereas Trump had “launched the largest national mobilization since World War II” in response to the coronavirus, “instead of following the science, Joe Biden wants to inflict a painful shutdown on the entire country.” Further, “if we had listened to Joe, hundreds of thousands more Americans would have died.”

Wild promises—“we’ll have a safe and effective vaccine this year, and together we will crush the virus”—became lies: “We developed a wide array of effective treatments. . . . We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk—especially the elderly—while allowing lower-risk Americans to safely return to work and to school.” All this was good news, given that his audience on the South Lawn—roughly 1,500 people—was jammed together, mostly without masks.

Moving on, Trump repeated Pence’s untruths about Biden’s energy policy and his attitude toward school choice. But what Trump most wanted to hammer home was that he alone personified law and order.

Not once did he mention black victims of police violence. Instead, he informed those African Americans insufficiently grateful for his leadership that “I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.” But the rhetoric which followed evoked George Wallace:

  • If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other constitutional freedoms.
  • “Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America. . . . No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
  • “There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America.” Ad-libbing, Trump added: “Just call . . . we will take care of your problem in a matter of hours. Just call.”
  • The Democrats call rioters and looters “peaceful protesters” Just imagine “if the so-called peaceful demonstrators in the streets were in charge of every lever of power in the U.S. government.”
  • “We have to give law enforcement, our police, back their power.”

There was more of this, and much else. But were there any doubt before, one now knew with certainty that Trump meant to ride fear and racial animus to a second term in the majestic mansion backlit behind him. At that moment his misuse of this storied site seemed not merely an abuse of office but a kind of civic sacrilege.

So ended the Republican convention.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.