This piece was originally published by The Guardian on August 30, 2020.
When Democrats held their national convention in Chicago in 1968, the radical Youth International Party – better known as the Yippies – promised to send all of the delegates into a psychedelic trance by dumping LSD into the city’s water supply. Watching the Republican National Convention take place this week in and around Washington DC, I wondered if the Yippies had finally pulled off their prank. Some of the speakers’ descriptions of Donald Trump, his presidency, and the state of the country were so far removed from reality that you’d have to be in the grip of powerful hallucinogens to believe them.
In the alternate reality described by many of the Republican convention speakers, President Trump is a warm, empathetic human being and an exemplar of presidential conduct, not the narcissistic Twitter bully who consistently places familial and tribal interests over constitutional order and democratic norms. In the telling of his RNC boosters, the president acted with great speed and competence to vanquish the coronavirus – Trump’s chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow spoke about it repeatedly in the past tense in his convention address – when in reality the administration’s incoherent response has meant that US per capita death and infection rates are still among the world’s highest and the death toll has passed 180,000. Speaker after speaker praised the what Trump, in his closing address, called “the greatest economy in history,” despite the fact that the inability to contain the coronavirus has meant that unemployment is still above 10% and thousands of businesses have permanently disappeared.
The diverse roster of convention speakers gave the impression that the Republican party is a big-tent party in which all are welcome, and that America (under Republican rule at any rate) is a good country in which everyone is free to live up to their potential. The speakers who sold this line with the most conviction and effectiveness were Indian-American former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and African-American Senator Tim Scott. African-American congressional candidate Kim Klacik also delivered a short but striking address, borrowing Shirley Chisholm’s slogan “unbought and unbossed” and bringing more of a policy focus than most speakers of either party with her emphasis on Opportunity Zones as a way of reviving moribund cities like Baltimore.
In listening to these speakers, you could imagine a Republican party with considerable appeal to women, minorities, and young people. In reality, of course, Republicans are at huge disadvantages with all of these groups, largely because Trump has alienated them with his inflammatory rhetoric, anti-immigrant policies, and divisive pursuit of the politics of white grievance.
This convention had a schizophrenic feeling because the glimmers of big-tent, diversity-minded moderation were undercut by eruptions of red meat for the base: Trump’s casual reference to “the China virus,” the McCloskeys’ thinly disguised fear of the brown intruders marching past their St Louis mansion, and the sinister image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of her multicultural Squad under the slogan, “Don’t Let Them Take Over America.”
Conventions typically are occasions for political parties to try to pretend to be their best version of themselves. But this year’s gap between Republican image and reality is unusually vast because the party is desperate to regain the college-educated, suburban voters – particularly women – who mostly voted Republican in 2016 but deserted the party two years later. According to a recent Fox News poll, 61% of suburban voters disapprove of the president’s job performance while 38% approve, and among women that approval falls to only 34%.
Few minorities will be convinced that Trump’s America “is not a racist country,” as Nikki Haley claimed in her convention speech, particularly at a moment when athletes in most major sports have gone on strike to protest police violence against African Americans. The convention’s video clip of Trump presiding over a White House naturalization ceremony for new citizens from countries including Ghana, Sudan, and Bangladesh won’t erase memories of his harsh policies toward immigrants. The Republican party’s inability to come up with a 2020 platform will make it hard to convince voters that it gives a damn about governing or has any serious principles beyond unconditional loyalty toward Trump.
But the party’s pretense of moderation might persuade enough suburban women to return to the Republican fold to swing the election – particularly if the party can simultaneously scare them about rising violence and disorder.
Republicans ever since Richard Nixon in 1968 have used “law and order” rhetoric against Democrats. Such rhetoric has the potential to swing the election this year because, almost alone among Republican scare tactics, it’s based in reality and the Democrats have great difficulty in responding to it.
Homicides are up 24% this year in the country’s fifty largest cities, according to a review of crime statistics in the Wall Street Journal. Shootings and gun violence have also risen, though other types of crime fell. Crime rates are up in both Democratic- and Republican-run cities. But many progressives have demonstrated the kind of tone-deafness toward citizen concern over crime and disorder that made “law and order” such a potent issue for Republican politicians like Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Rudy Giuliani (who declared in his convention speech that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would be “a Trojan horse” for the party’s “pro-criminal, anti-police socialist policies”).
The Republican convention coincided with protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin this week that were sparked by police shooting unarmed Jacob Blake in the back seven times at close range. On the second night of the convention, Black Lives Matter and Antifa-linked groups clashed with militia-linked counter-protestors in Kenosha. The 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two pro-BLM protestors with an AR-15 rifle and wounded another who was carrying a handgun.
Most of the Republican convention speakers failed to distinguish between peaceful protest on the one hand and rioting on the other. But nonviolent protestors in several instances this year have shown little inclination to restrain the violent protestors among them. Joe Biden consistently has both supported peaceful protest against systemic racism and decried “needless violence” and property destruction. But sympathies for the Black Lives Matter movement has meant that some progressives have been unwilling to condemn the violence that has accompanied protests.
Both the Democratic and Republican conventions were slickly produced despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic. Television ratings for the Republican convention’s opening night were down 26% from the 2016 convention – roughly the same amount by which the Democrats’ convention viewership declined. It’s difficult to conclude that either party’s convention eventually will be seen to have had a sizable impact on persuadable voters, to the extent that they exist.
If the election hinges on Trump’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, or even upon his character and policies (or lack thereof), he almost certainly will lose. It’s hard to believe that the Republicans will get much traction with the claim they made repeatedly in their convention that Joe Biden will transform America into an unrecognizable Boschian hellscape of socialism. But if Democrats can’t muster an adequate response to the chaos on the streets, Trump has a real chance at victory.