Depending on your perspective, Donald Trump delivered a speech Thursday night that was either a brilliant call-to-arms to disaffected voters tired of politics as usual, or a brazen exercise in prevarication and fear-mongering.
In truth, Trump’s stem-winder was both.
Its ultimate effect will depend on the media’s capacity to present the reality of our historical moment, but even more so on the electorate’s ability to decide whether that reality even matters anymore.
This is by way of observing that Americans are, at the moment, living in two distinct psychic realities.
As the nominee’s speech made clear, the Republicans have become a party of terror, not of ideas.
In the first, we are a prosperous nation with a historically low crime rate, and a growing economy in which unemployment has plunged to under 5 percent. Undoubtedly, we face epic challenges, such as climate change, income inequality, wage stagnation, and a global instability that has bred terrorism. But the overall state of the union is secure. Most of us move through our daily lives well fed, gainfully employed, and safe. We have plenty of complaints, but few actual dangers.
But Trump’s speech — and, indeed, the entire Republican National Convention — was aimed at portraying America as a nation on the brink of catastrophe.
His central ally in this calculated fiction is our Fourth Estate, which has become entirely devoted to a style of coverage that revels in tape-loops of bloodshed, and mass markets outrage (and coy mockery) as the proper response to political dysfunction.
Fox News is the leading purveyor of such paranoid enticements. But the rest of the television media is little better. For the past four days, they have covered the Cleveland conclave as if it were a reality TV show, not a political convention. The GOP’s paltry roster of speakers has done little more than to traffic in slogans, scandal, and sensation.
The average viewer could emerge from watching the convention with no idea how Republicans actually plan to govern, beyond locking up Hillary Clinton. There was no mention of the party’s radical platform, nor any sustained discussion of policy.
As the nominee’s speech made clear, the Republicans have become a party of terror, not of ideas. Trump’s ascent merely ratifies the notion that has long animated the conservative movement: that a population sufficiently engorged on imaginary fears will forfeit rational thought for the cleansing powers of wrath.
Trump is betting that Americans — narcotized by relentless images of carnage and reports of political squabbling — will choose to believe the childish fantasy that he alone, drawing on his experiences as a real estate developer and television star, will guarantee safety and prosperity for all.
In a sense, what Trump and his various enablers seek to do is repudiate the maxim made famous by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who sought to soothe the panic stoked by the Great Depression. “The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself,” FDR declared, in his first inaugural, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The average viewer could emerge from watching the convention with no idea how Republicans actually plan to govern, beyond locking up Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s credo is clear: the only thing is fear itself. Incite enough of it and you will attain power. Demonize Hispanics, Muslims, refugees, protesters — any group, really, that will effectively rouse the animus of white voters.
It is sickening to witness one of our two major political parties reduced to such tactics.
It is now incumbent upon Democrats to resist the urge to bash Trump and his ready-made mob. Instead, they must put forward a second vision of America, as an imperfect but still blessed union, where tolerance matters more than bigotry, progress more than propaganda, and hope more than fear.
Americans must be given a more compelling choice than the lesser of two evils. It is a failure of our democratic will, not to mention our moral imagination, when our franchise is so degraded. Elections should offer us enough inspiration to vote for a candidate, not just against one.
The rest is up to us.
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