As Democrats gather virtually for their 2020 political convention, they don’t have the luxury of a balloon-drop convention spectacle. None of us does. We are living in the worst of times. There is nothing to celebrate.
Instead, Democrats on Monday night gave us the somber moment we deserve: a recognition of the desperate condition Trump has put our country in, and a passionate call to action. Democrats of all variety — socialist and moderate, coastal and heartland, Black and White and Brown — may be geographically dispersed this week but they are uncommonly unified in one existential message.
“We are facing the worst public health crisis in 100 years and worst economic collapse since the Great Depression,” as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put it. “We have a president who is not only incapable of addressing these crises but is leading us down the path of authoritarianism.”
Sanders, once Biden’s most formidable primary opponent, became his most powerful advocate Monday night, demanding “a movement like never before” to fight for his former rival. “During this president’s term the unthinkable has become normal,” Sanders said, with a passion and urgency that eluded him in his 2016 support for the Democratic ticket.
“He has tried to prevent people from voting, undermined the U.S. Postal Service, deployed the military and federal agents against peaceful protestors, threatened to delay the election, and suggested that he will not leave office if he loses. This is not normal, and we must never treat it like it is. Under this administration authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family and many of yours know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
Trump, who has governed by division, hoped for disunity among Democrats. “Great division between the Bernie Sanders crowd and the other Radical Lefties,” he tweeted Monday afternoon.
So he wishes. The Democratic Party — now joined by Republicans of conscience — has never been so unified. They are unified around Biden and his basic human decency. The resounding, reverberating message Monday night, and almost certainly for the rest of the week, is that Democrats are united in determination to end the catastrophe Trump’s presidency has been for the country.
“You have the most destructive, hateful, racist president in the history of the country who is tearing apart the fabric of the United States,” said former congressman Beto O’Rourke, another Biden rival for the nomination.
Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona woman whose Trump-supporting father died of covid-19, told the convention “his only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.”
John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio and longtime Republican leader of Congress, declared that “we’re being taken down the wrong road by a president who has pitted one against another.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo angrily pointed out “how many lives can be lost when our government is incompetent.”
And former first lady Michelle Obama closed the night with a portrait of America’s children seeing “our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown in cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protesters for a photo op.”
Interspersed were memorials to some of the 170,000 Americans lost to the coronavirus, the many African Americans killed by police brutality, the infamous images of Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico and holding a bible at his church photo-op, and testimonials from lifelong Republicans and former Trump voters who felt betrayed.
The virtual convention was undoubtedly weird, with actress Eva Longoria playing emcee and occasionally looking into the wrong camera, Biden himself attempting to lead a virtual roundtable, video and audio glitches, several pre-taped speeches and a couple of attempts at crowd applause using Zoom-style boxes.
Will any of it matter? Probably not. Biden already has a lead approaching double digits and can’t possibly get much more of a bounce. And the broadcast networks aired only an hour of the two-hour event — inexcusable stinginess at a time when other means of campaigning are impossible.
But give Democrats credit for capturing the moment — the infuriating reality of a great nation brought to its knees by a president who has botched twin crises and fomented rage and division.
“A president who fights his fellow Americans rather than fighting the virus that’s killing us,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
A president who isn’t “decent enough, stable enough, strong enough,” to get our economy back on track, said former Republican New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman.
A man who “has not clue how to run a business, let alone a country,” said Republican businesswoman Meg Whitman.
But the most biting of all was the senator from Vermont, in front of neatly stacked firewood. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs,” Sanders said. “His actions fanned this pandemic, resulting in 170,000 deaths, and a nation still unprepared to protect its people. Furthermore, Trump’s negligence has exacerbated the economic crisis we’re experiencing.”
In apocalyptic terms, Sanders made the case for his former opponent. “Joe Biden will end the hate and division Trump has created. He will stop the demonization of immigrants, coddling of white nationalists, racist dog-whistling, religious bigotry and the ugly attacks on women. My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary, and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. ... My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
For a country too sick to hold a political convention, this is the right medicine.