Instead, they chose the Hindenburg solution. In outright cravenness, in defense of their own measly slice of power, they signed over the deed of their own party to someone who openly and unapologetically mines the darkest seams of American history -- anti-Semitism, racism, isolationism, xenophobia. Last week's convention thus had the operatic feel of a Don Juan's finale, with the party of Lincoln being dragged off to the underworld at the closing curtain. A friend with whom I was watching Thursday's performance could only breathe an "Oh my god" at the sight of Donald Trump's red and crumpled face on the jumbo-tron flanked by rows of flags. This was the dystopian satire of one or two years ago -- the hyperbolic prediction people once laughingly might have made as a way to riff on America's perilous obsessions with celebrity and national chauvinism -- except now animated into life. In fact, there is an episode of This American Life from 2014 in which host Jonathan Goldstein actually jokes, when speaking of time travel:
After all, you never know with the future. Teleport yourself hundreds of years from now, and you could land on an Earth devoid of people, where the only remaining structure is a monument to President Donald Trump, made out of eternium.
Thursday night one realized that this future is arriving much more quickly than even the jesters predicted. This was a Götterdämmerung -- and what paltry deities they proved to be! They, Ryan, McConnell and the others, gave it all up on the (soon to be proven faulty) assumption that they could sit this one out and their power and Congressional seats would still be waiting for them on the other end. (They won't be.) They gave away the keys to the castle and America watched as Trump promptly crowned himself the Lord of Misrule. (He'll be there to stay.) You can't put a fascist in office and expect him to step down quietly in favor of Marco Rubio four or eight years later. Mephisto always returns in the final scene to harvest his wages.
Yet, perhaps because it happened so blindingly fast, one still sees efforts being made to make it all seem normal. The reporters on NPR have now started referring to a person named "Mr. Donald Trump." Who's he? Oh, I see. Apparently, you get to be a "Mr." as a major party candidate, even if you have made "a controversial proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country" -- as the deadpan journalists like to put it; even if you have offered to pay the legal fees of people you have just encouraged to beat up protesters at your rallies. Nothing unusual to see here! Then there was all that talk about how Trump would suddenly make a "general election pivot" at the RNC. I know I was waiting for it -- and there even seemed to be a few hints thrown in that direction last month. But Trump's blood and iron acceptance speech Thursday night should finally have buried that one, in the overflowing graveyard of other comforting delusions to have emerged from this election season.
We cling to our journalistic conventions as one fingers a treasured object from home on a dangerous journey; yet they will not save us from the magnitude of what happened last week: The Republican Party -- not something I ever cared for, to put it gently, but something that, so help me, I find now that I miss -- was hollowed out and replaced by representatives of America's racist underbelly -- by goons drawn from the fatal parallel track of this country's intellectual history that has been running alongside us in plain sight from the days of Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith. In a flash, in a twinkling, the Grand Old Party has become the Grand Wizard's Party.
Don't yet believe me? David Duke was apparently in ecstasies over Trump's last speech. Speaker after speaker at the convention insinuated that the Black Lives Matter movement had introduced "division" into America, with the police chief of Milwaukee declaring that BLM protestors had bred "anarchy" in the streets. There were dog-whistles aplenty of the "we love our police" and "all lives matter" variety -- with the "all" always said with a specially vindictive thrust of the jaw. And setting the scene for us outside the convention center was Rep. Steve King, who wanted to know -- when confronted with the monochrome cast of the GOP delegate pool -- what other "subgroups of people you're talking about" had ever contributed as much to human civilization as white people from Western Europe. Not for the last time in watching the RNC, the words of a character in a Langston Hughes poem passed through my mind:
The white man said, "Boy, […]
Look me in the face ---
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."
Many of the events that were to follow over the next days had a similar aura of the lynch mob forcing a victim to bend and kiss the flag. To believe me you'd actually have to see and hear the thing on C-SPAN, which you still can do. On this blog, a few dry quotations will have to suffice. Pam Bondi, for one -- the Florida attorney general who notoriously declined to join the lawsuit against Trump University after soliciting and receiving a major campaign donation from Trump's foundation -- informed us to loud boos from the crowd: "This is unreal. Hillary believes our enemies deserve our respect and empathy." She contrasted this to the position that all right-thinking people were supposed to adopt: "Donald Trump believes terrorists deserve to die." As a friend pointed out, it is interesting to see the party of Evangelical Christianity so explicitly repudiate the central moral teaching of the Gospel in one sentence.
Also, has Hillary actually said this thing, about loving one's enemies and blessing those who persecute you? One certainly hopes she has. It leaves a far better impression than the unforgettable image that Glenn Greenwald paints of Clinton laughing in an interview on 60 Minutes at the brutal public lynching of Moammar Qaddafi that took place after the Libyan intervention. Here, as usually happens, I find the right-wing scare version of Hillary Clinton to be much preferable to the real person.
Speaking of which, another new low was plumbed last week in terms of blatantly misogynistic criticism of Clinton. The one to offer it was Darryl Glenn, who's running for U.S. Senate in Colorado, and is evidently one of a whole new cohort of creeps and clowns who seem to be emerging as representatives of the new Trumpian party that is growing into the shell of the eviscerated G.O.P. "We all know [Hillary] loves her pantsuits," he said. "(You all know what's coming.) We should send her an e-mail and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit." Rarely has so much been conveyed with so little. We have the brazen anti-feminism, the fact that "pantsuits" evidently acts as some kind of code word to Republicans ("You all know what's coming," as Glenn says -- do we?), most likely translating to: "unnatural woman" -- and then there is the chilling specificity of the sadistic fantasy he lays out of putting Clinton behind bars ("a bright orange jumpsuit").
One has to wonder about the future health of a democracy in which an entire party convention can be brought to its feet in applause at the thought of jailing the opposing candidate as soon as they lose the election. This is the governance style of a banana republic. And it could actually happen too, is the thing. A Trump presidency, lest we forget for even a second, means a Trump Justice Department, a Trump Attorney General, Trump federal judges.
Perhaps the most disturbing, bizarre and unprecedented theme of the week, however, was the parade of "victims of illegal immigrants." These were mostly family members of people who have been killed in incidents involved undocumented immigrants who were driving under the influence, or who committed murders or homicides (whether because of mental illness or substance abuse or some other usual cause, we do not know in every case). These speakers are listed in the official RNC program under the Orwellian heading of "Immigration Reform Advocates," and Trump proceeded to ruthlessly press their private tragedies into the service of scapegoating an entire class of our fellow people.
I can think of nothing like it in recent memory. To be sure, victims' stories were used to considerable political effect in justifying the "tough on crime" policies of the '80s and '90s that had a vastly disproportionate effect on black and Hispanic communities. But even there, the racial content of these proposals had to be conveyed by means of code language and dog-whistles, rather than crude bigotry, in order to pass muster in American public discourse. The new, post-Nixonian legislation was dubbed "anti-crime" and "anti-gang," not "anti-black." To arrive at a true parallel to what happened last week in Cleveland, then, we would have to imagine a politician trotting out a host of bereaved families under the heading of "victims of blacks" or "victims of Jews." That, thankfully, has not happened in recent history (though Trump did flirt with something like it earlier this year by re-Tweeting bogus claims about "black-on-white" crime that he had picked up from white nationalist sources). But apparently, stigmatizing and collectively punishing an entire group of people in precisely the same way on the basis of their immigration status is considered to be fair game.
Most of the liberal and mainstream commentary that has touched on this "victims of immigrants" theme has mostly been devoted to the task of pointing out that undocumented immigrants are, if anything, less likely than U.S. citizens to commit crimes on average; but this quantitative argument -- while true -- should at any rate be entirely beside the point. After all, Trump was not proposing some policy change that would address the rate of murder and drunk driving as crimes. These activities, you may have noticed, are already illegal in the United States. Crime statistics have no relevance here. What Trump was doing was arguing for the collective punishment of an entire class of 11 million people by means of an expanded deportation regime and border militarization, based on the actions of individuals. He is saying that one undocumented immigrant should be made to suffer for the actions of another undocumented immigrant whom they have never met. This is the logical endpoint of racism. It is a sort of collectivism that threatens the most basic canons of liberal democracy and, really, of all ethics and law, which depend fundamentally on a presumption that people cannot be considered guilty of something they did not do.
This, once again, is lynch mob thinking, not the thinking of people who have even one toe left in the camp of democracy and human rights. The reverse side of Trump's crocodile tears for the family members of Kate Steinle and other "victims of illegal immigrants" is all the tears he would gladly inflict upon undocumented families by separating their members or worse. Note the tone of latent (or not even so latent) violence in Trump's pose of ostensible "compassion" for the "victims"; observe the effort to inflame the anger of the hearer. Telling atrocity stories has always been the most effective way of ginning up the posse to go out and commit atrocities of one's own.
The new GOP platform is evidently ready to saddle up as well:
"With all our fellow citizens, we have watched, in anger and disgust, the mocking of our immigration laws by a president who made himself superior to the will of the nation. We stand with the victims of his policies, especially the families of murdered innocents. Illegal immigration endangers everyone[.]""Murdered innocents"! Yes, that is now in the platform of the Grand Old Party itself, the party that was going to try to rebrand itself as recently as 2012 as pro-immigration. Now it is peddling what amounts to a blood libel. It belongs on a Southern Poverty Law Center watch list.
But was it all fascism at the RNC, from start to finish? Or were there traces as well of the good-enough old Republican Party -- the one that was never anything but awful, but that we now miss, in spite of ourselves? It did show up in patches. There was that video advertisement for the "Republican Leadership Institute," for one, which noticeably featured an immigrant and an African American in starring roles, and sent a fairly clear -- if increasingly specious -- message that what really makes you a GOP-er isn't the color of your skin or your immigration status, but your feelings about the free market. "Incongruous" doesn't begin to describe this video's appearance, however, in the midst of an election cycle and a week-long party convention in which the Republican nominee has bucked every GOP economic orthodoxy in the book-- apart from lowering the taxes still further of his own billionaire cohort -- and has structured his appeal almost entirely around stigmatizing immigrants, Muslims, blacks, and other minorities. As other commentators have pointed out, this video had the look of something devised after the infamous 2012 "autopsy" of what had gone wrong in the previous election -- a video shot long ago, in a different America, at a time when the GOP was still making some pretense at least of being a party for people of all ethnicities.
And of course, the old GOP "family values" schtick got a lot of play at the convention as well, however implausibly, with Trump trotting out his eery, Patrick Bateman-esque children so that they could describe one after another how, like any red-blooded heartlanders, they too like to settle in of an evening for a cozy chat around the family boardroom. "You can't fake good kids," said Mike Pence, gesturing toward these ghoulish representatives of America's new dynasty. In watching them speak, one felt that Ivanka was probably the most odious of the lot -- because she, unlike the rest, is plainly smart enough to know better.
Our other "family values" speakers were also uniformly drawn from the reality TV circuit (I am not exaggerating), and each proved to be as nauseating as one could expect. One of the opening speakers Monday night was the Duck Dynasty guy, Willie Robertson, who apparently enjoys name recognition outside the small cultural bubble that I (and probably you) inhabit. Warming to his role, he said: "it has been a rough year for the media experts. It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long. But I have a theory about how they missed the Trump train. They don't hang out with regular folks like us. Who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living."
Later on in the first night, America was introduced to one of the lowest-watt bulbs in the U.S. Congress -- Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, who was there with the partner he met on The Real World. "Hello America," he said. "I met Rachel 19 years ago on America's first reality TV show. [...] Who said nothing good comes out of reality TV?" Funny to hear those words, at a convention that proves that nothing less than the death of American democracy itself may have just come out of reality TV. "[...] We have some pretty simple rules in our house," Sean and Rachel go on. "No waking mom and dad up on Saturday mornings. No private servers in the basement. And no lying, especially to the FBI. For us, it is all about family." This clunker of a line didn't get a laugh even from the RNC audience, probably because it makes no sense. Is "waking mom and day up on Saturday" also supposed to be something that Hillary Clinton does, in violation of the Duffy family rules?
Before we spend too much time decrying the notion that "normal," "down-to-earth" families have something to do with the glitzy showmanship of reality TV, however (or the stark contrast between this smug wholesome image of family life and the fact that the other speakers on the roster include casino developers and other unsavory friends of Trump), let us recall that "family values," GOP-style, was never remotely close to authenticity in the first place. It was always a commodity -- an exercise in wish-fulfillment and over-compensation. People who are actually fortunate enough to have close relationships with their families, after all, are for that very reason unlikely to feel the need to rub every else's nose in it, or to present a front to the world of the unattainable, "perfect," conflict-free family that no one actually is. Still less would they feel the need to attack other people's families (listen to that Duck Dynasty speech again to hear the venom behind the words "actually work for a living") or be convinced that somehow the fact of other people living in differently kinds of families or outside of the nuclear family structure entirely is an existential threat to their own. By the same token, excessive sentimentality about the family is always to be found most among those who in fact have the hardest time making the everyday accommodations to the independent personhood and selfhood of the other members of their families that alone make genuine intimacy possible. "Family values" thus sits very close in the American heart to the ethos of consumerism, according to which other selves only exist to make things easier for me, and it therefore makes all the sense in the world that we would see cornball depictions of "regular folks" who "hunt and fish and pray" on stage alongside casino investors and real estate magnates. The distance from cheese to sleaze (or, one might put it, from Gump to Trump) is a short one in America.
Here as elsewhere, then, to the extent that the old version of the GOP was able to put in a showing at all last week, it appeared in its worst forms. To the extent it held out for its "principles," they were the worst principles to be found. It would seem, for instance, that the "compromise" underlying the adoption of the party's 2016 platform was that Trump could have his way on xenophobia (vide the aforementioned "murdered innocents" line); but that the "true conservatives" and their ilk would get, in exchange, the most ruthlessly homophobic platform ever drafted, complete with reversing marriage equality, allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and adding a line about the "right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children," which has generally been interpreted as a veiled reference to so-called "Pray the Gay Away" conversion therapies -- a kind of reeducation camp for sexually non-conforming teens that was not an uncommon fate in the sections of the country in which I grew up.
In a similar way, among those GOP old-timers who did appear at the convention were those most likely to reflect the general crypto-fascist tenor of the week (and of this whole campaign season). And there certainly are some of these, even among the GOP old guard -- and that leads us to note another fascinating thing about the Trump phenomenon. It has forced a clean and categorical division between those Republican politicians who after all -- and in spite of everything -- have a shred of integrity -- Romney, the Bushes, McCain, Kasich -- and those who, it turns out, have none whatsoever -- Christie, Palin, Gingrich, Giuliani.
One has to like Team Integrity. One never thought one would have a good word for the Bushes, but now one does. God help me, I even started to like Cruz Wednesday night, when he gave his striking non-endorsement of Trump and was booed from the floor. So what if he probably did it for narrowly personal reasons? So what if he's said plenty of things in the course of his campaign that are nearly as appalling as Trump's statements? He's still the only one of everyone in the GOP who had the guts to rain on Trump's parade at a time when it still made the Donald uncomfortable. His speech was no Colbert at the White House Press Correspondents' night; it was no Harold Pinter confronting the Turkish ambassador with the details of torture that his government had committed at a celebratory dinner -- but it was pretty close.
To turn to Team None-Whatsoever -- Gingrich, it is true, was on slightly (very slightly) better behavior in his speech than in his other recent comments, preferring to work the theme of "Not all Muslims are bad, just a great many of them" -- rather than repeating his statement of the week before that Muslim citizens should all be "tested" as to whether or not they believe in Sharia law and deported if the test comes up positive -- an inquisition of a sort not paralleled since Japanese internment. Gingrich has apparently walked back the latter suggestion, and now thinks he was treated unfairly by reporters. "I'm going to say this carefully because the media will try to misrepresent it," as he prefaced his comments on Islam Thursday night. It would seem that replaying Gingrich's own words back to him is to cast him in an unfairly negative light. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, reality plainly has an anti-Gingrich bias.
Giuliani, meanwhile, hit a new low point with his RNC performance, as he queried with mock-innocence: "What ever happened to 'there is no white America and black America, there is only the United States of America.'" This is the man who oversaw the introduction of stop-and-frisk policing tactics in New York City which vastly disproportionately targeted minority communities (deliberately), which a federal court later ruled to be in violation of the constitutional rights of black and Latino men, and which led directly to the kinds of "arrests" that ended the life of Eric Garner last year and sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Furthermore, FiveThirtyEight's Farai Chideya points us in the direction of a Time article from 2000 that tells us all we need to know about Guiliani's attitude toward police shootings. The author, Margaret Carlson, writes of the killing of a Haitian man, Patrick Dorismond, by an NYPD undercover officer:
"Giuliani typically springs to the cops' defense. But this time he wouldn't even express sympathy to the victim's mother, because it 'might imply that the shooting was unjustified.' He had no compunctions about implying that the shooting was justified. Dorismond was 'no altar boy,' Giuliani reported, as if all non-altar boys are subject to summary execution on the sidewalks of New York. [...] Though Giuliani released Dorismond's adult and juvenile records (the latter are supposed to remain sealed), they revealed that he had never been convicted of anything more serious than disorderly conduct. [...] The New York legislature, meanwhile, is looking into whether Giuliani broke the law by unsealing Dorismond's records."There's your man who thinks that there was no racial division in America before Black Lives Matter and/or Obama came along.
I just spoke of an absolute division a second ago between the pro- and anti-Trump factions of the GOP, but of course, there is a middle ground -- it takes the form of the people with whom I began this post -- i.e., Team Hindenburg, the accommodationists, the Quisling convention. Here we find, for instance, the queasy-looking visage of Marco Rubio peering out from his video address to the convention-goers, and telling them without much conviction that they should just swallow their pride and their sense of right and wrong and vote for Trump. Among them we see Reince Priebus getting up each night of the convention to speak to what "the GOP stands for," as if it had not changed, as if Trump was nothing out of the ordinary, as if everything was humming along just fine.
Of all our teams, this is the one that I find hardest to understand. Every single one of them -- Rubio, Ryan, McConnell, Priebus -- knows Trump is a disaster, both tactically and morally. One can see this knowledge written on their faces. Yet they are going along with it.
The calculation appears to be that if they can just wait this one out, if they can grin and bear it, then they can come out the other side with their Congressional seats intact and start to rebuild the party on a different foundation. Most likely, they hope Trump will lose ignominiously in November and they can bury his brand of politics without risking the accusation that they are traitors. Then they will work on revivifying -- say -- the Rubio candidacy.
But what makes them think that they won't, by their endorsements, actually trigger a Trump victory? And what makes them so sure that their party -- and their country -- is still going to be here in a recognizable form after four or eight years of a Trump presidency? To quote a D.H. Lawrence poem of which I've become morbidly fond in this apocalyptic summer: "Why should [they] expect such a long smooth run/ for their very paltry little bit of money?" Or power, as the case may be.
Time and again this election cycle, I have been struck by the paradoxical realization that Trump -- perhaps the closest thing to a real American fascist we've ever seen at the helm of a major party -- could only have appeared in this country at the end of such a "long smooth run" of liberal democracy, at a time when fascism seemed so remote and unthinkable. It's precisely because our system has worked so long to maintain relative peace and stability -- not always so well, but it has worked better than many, dammit -- that we all started to assume it would go on forever. This is the great theme of Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses that reverberates so plainly in the events of today. As Ortega argued in 1930, even the fascist of his day did not really believe the edifice of liberal democracy could be brought down, nor would he want this if he thought it possible. To the contrary, he felt free to mock it precisely because he thought the roots of his world were fundamentally sturdy and unassailable. The society the fascist had been born into was stable, and he took this to be the natural and inevitable course of things. Writes Ortega:
"The cynic, a parasite of civilisation, lives by denying it, for the very reason that he is convinced that it will not fail. What would become of the cynic among a savage people where everyone, naturally and quite seriously, fulfils what the cynic farcically considers to be his personal role? What is your Fascist if he does not speak ill of liberty[?]" (Anonymous trans.)So too, even your average Trump supporter today is constantly heard to say, "he doesn't really mean it. He's just trying to rile up the media and the liberals." They, like Ryan, Priebus and the others, don't realize how young the functional model of a two-party democracy still is, in the scheme of human history, nor how much it depends for its life on millions of interdependent actors all agreeing to live in accordance with one another and with a set of basic rules of civility, human rights, civil liberties and the judicial process. As Americans, we think we're exempt from these universal laws of human society. We think we're blessed with the one democracy that cannot die. We think that what we've heretofore joined no candidate can ever put asunder. But he can, he really can. We've ceded so much power to the presidency over the past hundred years, that he can do it quite easily.
Perhaps there is a version too, in all this Team Hindenburg thinking, of the famous "first they came..." fallacy so powerfully and chillingly evoked by Martin Niemöller's poem. Priebus, Ryan and Rubio are willing to let one minority group hang after another so long as they can keep their Republican Party and whatever it is that they hold to be its actual indissoluble core (which is what, exactly? The tax cuts? Is that the only thing that actually matters to them? Because that seems to be the only one of the old planks that would be preserved in a Trump administration). Muslims? Sure, we never liked them either, they say -- Lord knows Rubio said nearly as rotten things about Syrian refugees and Gitmo detainees as Trump on the campaign trail. Undocumented immigrants? Sure, we'll rewrite our platform to refer to the "murdered innocents" supposedly being slaughtered in vast numbers by a Herod's army of "illegals." Gays? Black people shot by police? Throw 'em overboard.
Those who embrace this line of thinking are not only being callous, however, they are also dooming themselves. The bottomless narcissism and megalomania of a man like Trump does not rest after a few concessions. (Indeed, Trump's new partnership with the Silicon Valley transhumanist-- and crudely elitist foe of democracy -- Peter Thiel suggests he may eventually have his eye on space colonization and synthetic immortality or whatever else they're cooking up. We certainly heard more positive things about NASA at this convention than we're used to hearing from the GOP.) Trump will gobble up the hands that fed him as soon as they are no longer useful. Team Hindenburg will find that, as in Niemöller's poem, because they did not speak out, eventually there will be no one left to speak out for them.