The Whiteness of Their Wail (conclusion)
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson pronounced, then Cleveland’s Quicken Loan Center last week overflowed with several thousand scoundrels representing millions of other scoundrels, celebrating the ascendance to their leadership of the biggest scoundrel of them all.
I assume that most of my readers chose not to watch much if any of Donald J. Trump’s speech accepting his nomination by the Republic Party as their candidate for the presidency this year. I decided to sit through it, start to finish, including the three lead-in acts: first, openly gay PayPal founder Peter Thiel; next, one of Trump’s many business partners, real estate investor Tom Barrack, who gave a polished, personal talk humanizing The Donald; and then his eldest daughter.
Ivanka gave an excellent introduction, though she needs to learn not to simper and murmur audibly with self-approval during her pauses (the microphone picks up such things). Beyond a recollection of playing with Legos on the rug in her father’s office, she had nothing personal to relate about Trump as a father. Instead, she discussed her high-position role in his organization, placing special emphasis on what she described as her father’s fair treatment of women in his business practices.
My own take on Trump’s acceptance speech follows. But I strongly recommend that you engage with it yourself. First read it, as I did — the campaign released it several hours in advance. (Click here for the annotated version by the Los Angeles Times staff.) And then watch the live performance thereof, at CNN or elsewhere. It runs 75 minutes, and will tell you — better than anything anyone can say — exactly what’s at stake in this election.
The “Law and Order” Candidate
Day 4: “Make America One Again” … Jerry Falwell, Jr. … “I truly believe that Donald Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire” … “America First!” … Lisa Chen … “Hillary Clinton is a direct threat to the American dream!” Joe Arpaio … “Donald Trump will build the wall” … Donald Trump … “We will be a country of law and order” … “radical Islamic terrorism” …
The takeaway: Whatever his motives, Ted Cruz clearly intended to rain on Donald Trump’s parade when he took the podium on Wednesday night and refused to endorse Donald Trump, the Republic Party’s presidential nominee. He certainly succeeded, insofar as, right up to the lead-in to Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday night, that evidence of dissension in the ranks dominated social media and the mass media.
But then all eyes turned to Trump. The key questions, according to the pundits, were, first, could The Donald conform his idiosyncratic rhetorical style to something that would come across as more dignified and presidential? And, second, could he achieve a “pivot” from the extremism of his positions during the primaries to something pointing more toward the center and the voters he and his party will need to attract if they hope to win in November?
Trump answered the first question in the affirmative — more or less. Having read his prepared remarks in advance, I found myself surprised by how closely he hewed to them, allowing himself only the occasional trademark ad lib. He kept the self-congratulation to a minimum, though he couldn’t shake his smug demeanor, and came across as controlled, calibrated, in charge of himself, in tune with the moment and seizing it.
In addition to staying on-script, he used none of his trademark sobriquets for anyone he mentioned, referring to Hillary Clinton most often as “my opponent.” Given his oratorical tendencies, this all must have taken enormous self-discipline; clearly he’s capable of that, at least on occasion.
With that said, you don’t become statesmanlike simply by ceasing to deploy insulting nicknames for your antagonists. Trump delivered most of the speech by braying at top volume, making it a 75-minute harangue. From time to time — mostly in his asides and ad libs — he dropped into his normal conversational voice, only to return in the next breath to his hectoring. Sometimes, when an orchestrated chant “spontaneously” broke out in the hall, he joined in (“U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!”). At other times he smirked to acknowledge it, stepped back from the podium, tugged at the lapels of of his expensive tailored Brioni suit, and turned imperially first to one side and then the other, giving us his left and right profiles.
The vocal manner and body language therefore came across as a mix of blustering and preening, reminding me oddly of professional wrestler Gorgeous George. The impression of a vastly overinflated ego basking in its moment of peak glory became inescapable.
How one reacted to this, I suppose, depended on how one understood him in relation to oneself. If you took The Donald as your spokesman — your own inner narcissist and bully and megalomaniac, magically externalized — then no doubt it felt great to see a larger-than-life version of your wannabe self shaking his finger and yelling belligerently at the world on your behalf. (On this score see Jane Mayer’s July 25, 2016 New Yorker profile of Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote The Art of the Deal for Trump and, exhibiting belated remorse for his contribution to the myth, considers him “a sociopath.”)
On the other hand, if you don’t perceive him as a version of yourself (I fall into that camp), Trump quickly becomes repellent. His act, if I can use that term in its purely theatrical sense, leaves the viewer and listener with no middle ground; if you don’t love him, it’s hard to be around him for very long. And there, I think, lies the major problem Trump and the Republic Party now face. Because even in his self-presentation in public, Trump has made of himself a polarizing, alienating figure, at a moment when he and his party need all the friends they can get. The withdrawal of many corporate sponsors from this convention itself speaks to the imperative of dissociating themselves from this feeding frenzy that so many individuals and institutions feel.
When it comes to the content of Trump’s acceptance speech last Thursday, he doubled down on virtually every extremist position he has articulated since throwing his hat into the ring in June 2015. His platform, to the extent that it deserves that status at this point, remains emphatically isolationist, protectionist, xenophobic, pro-military, pro-police, pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-evangelical. “I am the law-and-order candidate in this election” and “America first” stood out among that night’s quotable moments.
Trump has adopted a strategy of terrifying voters about the world around them, and proposing that only he can make them safe again: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he avowed; and “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” (He has accomplices in this fear-mongering, of course, many of them trotted out during this convention; the apoplectic Rudy Giuliani can stand for all of them.) This is the classic method of the demagogue: create hysteria, identify scapegoats, and arrogate power to yourself in the ensuing chaos.
Trump gave no indication of how he and his administration would fulfill his promises to end crime and violence in the U.S., dismantle Obamacare “and replace it with something better,” get rid of Common Core, renege on our NATO commitments, renegotiate NAFTA and all other multilateral trade deals, destroy ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism “quickly,” or build the much-ballyhooed wall on our southern border. None of that stopped him from committing to building that physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico while tearing down the symbolic wall between church and state.
His pledge to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment” seems more feasible than his proposed foreign-policy initiatives. (Named after Lyndon Johnson, who as senator from Texas in 1954 successfully pushed through an amendment to the tax code that prohibits churches and tax-exempt institutions from political organizing.) Blatant pandering to the “Christian humiliation” that so many of that persuasion seem to feel, a grievance as specious as the “Muslim humiliation” terrorists and their apologists commonly claim as their justification for monstrosity. Clearly intended as a sop to the evangelicals who hope to establish a theocracy in the U.S., this promise can’t possibly hurt Trump; if he succeeds, he’ll be their hero, and he fails, he can blame it on the godless left.
Trump’s infrequent, usually passing references to those oppressed in this country by racism and homophobia surely don’t offset, for those constituencies, his revival of the tacitly racist Nixonian “law and order” trope and the party platform’s sweeping denial of gay LGBTQ rights. His unequivocal support of Israel won’t pull many Jews away from the Democrats. His claim that Democrats and independents who supported Bernie Sanders will flock to him due to his opposition to NAFTA and TPP rings hollow. That he would appeal to women and young people anywhere but the red states seems unlikely to me.
What, then, aside from securing the nomination and corralling the constituencies already on his side, did Trump achieve this week? By my lights, he has painted himself into a corner, cutting off any possibility of modifying his extremist postures without angering the base. And the base alone, as even his own campaign acknowledges, cannot get him elected.
As the 125,000 red, white and blue balloons and 1,000 pounds of confetti dropped while the Trump clan and the Pence family stood on stage at convention’s end, any viewer would have had to agree that Donald Trump has successfully evoked and focused the bloodlust of the radical right like no other candidate, and vaulted himself to the head of the attack. Should it surprise us that the participants in the Republic Party’s version of Thunderdome were mostly pleasant-faced, average-looking folks (even if overwhelmingly of the melanin-deficient persuasion)? Not if you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”
From an imagistic perspective, Melania’s plagiarism took the lead from the end of Day One until Ted Cruz’s “snub” overtook it at the end of Day 3, the latter receiving the bulk of the attention through the afternoon of Day 4. Those images have staying power, becoming part of all future discussion of this event. And the stills and videos of Trump at the podium during his acceptance speech, radiating anger and contempt and self-satisfaction, strike me (and, from the commentaries I’ve read, many others) as downright scary, though I’m sure neither Trump not his supporters feel the same. At the very least, those visuals don’t make him into a babe magnet for suburban soccer moms.
Throw in the leaks indicating that Trump sought desperately for some way to walk back his choice of Mike Pence as a running mate after the announcement thereof, and I’d say this convention did not go exactly the way Donald Trump wanted it to. In terms of perception management, that suggests some deep flaws in the campaign.
Two other images also linger for me: momentary glimpses, caught by the TV cameras, of two young women protesters getting swarmed at different time by security and hustled out of “the Q.” I doubt that many viewers noticed, and I heard no commentary about it as it happened, nor saw any afterwards. But, like the brief footage of bodyguards hurrying Heidi Cruz out of there as her uncooperative husband left the stage, it reveals what a world run by Trump and his acolytes would look like.
Yet if we judge this convention as a negotiation, then I suppose by Trumpian “art of the deal” standards we have to consider it a success. Trump got the Republic Party to “yes,” after all, and got most of what he wanted. He has launched himself in literally spectacular fashion as a political force to reckon with, and has positioned his family for future dynastic political activity. In so doing, not incidentally, he has boosted the visibility and value of the Trump brand dramatically.
And, for better or worse, Trump has reshaped the Republic Party in his own image. Whatever happens on November 8, he has not only left a mark on our political life but has coalesced a dangerous mix of ideologies. How they will react if he loses — which I predict he will — is anyone’s guess, but I guarantee it won’t be pretty, since they already view that possibility as little short of the apocalypse.
Embrace the Reaper
Fun fact: Demographics indicate that “Donald Trump perform[s] the best in places where middle-aged whites are dying the fastest.” The causes of those mortality rates aren’t clear, but evidence suggests that alcoholism, drug use, suicide, lack of education, and economic difficulty play significant roles. See Jeff Guo’s March 4, 2016 Wonkblog piece, “Death predicts whether people vote for Donald Trump,” in the Washington Post.
On July 17, the day before the convention opened, photographer Spencer Tunick created an “installation” in Cleveland titled “Everything She Says Means Everything,” in which 100 women posed nude with large circular mirrors reflecting the City’s skyline. His purpose? To collaborate with his participants “to make art with what may be the most controversial subject in this presidential race, a woman’s body.”
(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)
This post supported in part by a donation from David Wunsch.
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