What a different message was conveyed this week by 18-year-old Nicholas Sandmann at the Republican convention. Sandmann is sore that he was portrayed by some news organizations as the aggressor in a 2019 confrontation with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He has become a celebrity by embracing his own victimhood — and he was eager to make the most powerful man on the planet out to be a victim, too. “I know you’ll agree with me when we say that no one in this country has been a victim of unfair media coverage more than President Donald Trump,” Sandmann said.
The Republican convention lineup was larded with Trump’s relatives — it sometimes felt more like a family reunion than a political gathering — but they were no more successful than Sandmann in offering any humanizing anecdotes about the president. Is there a single moment of Trump’s life when he has shown the kind of empathy and understanding that Biden routinely displays?
Even Trump’s offspring delivered rote praise of the Great Leader (“He is a fighter and will never stop fighting for America,” said daughter-in-law Lara Trump) without offering a single anecdote to make him remotely lovable or even likable. There was, in short, not a word said to dispel the damning impression of Trump’s own sister, who said in a secretly recorded conversation that the president is a serial liar with no interest in helping people and “no principles.”
If the convention did not humanize Trump, then surely it must have laid out an inspiring agenda for his second term, right? Wrong. The convention explicitly abjured a platform for the first time in memory. The entire GOP platform — once a lengthy and detailed document — is now limited to “enthusiastic… support [of] the President’s America-first agenda,” whatever that may be. In short, the GOP has become a personality cult for a supreme leader whom even his closest relatives cannot portray as a sympathetic human being.
In lieu of policy proposals of their own, the Republicans offered misleading and false attacks on the Democrats combined with misleading and false defenses of Trump’s egregious record. Typical was Vice President Pence’s Wednesday night speech — which, like much of the convention, represented an illegal use of federal property (in his case, Fort McHenry in Baltimore) for partisan political purposes. The utter absurdity of the Republican message was succinctly summed up by Pence’s claim: “The hard truth is … you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” You would never know that in the past six months Trump has presided over more than 176,000 coronavirus deaths — and that Pence is the leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force.
The convention continued to make America less safe by stoking the kind of racialized fear and resentment that too often breaks out in violence. A 17-year-old Trump fan was arrested for allegedly shooting three people, killing two of them, at a Black Lives Matters protest in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday. What could have motivated Kyle Rittenhouse to grab an assault rifle and take the law into his own hands? Perhaps he’s been listening to Republican leaders who warn, as Rep. Jim Jordan (R.-Ohio) did on Monday night, that Democratic-run cities are being overwhelmed by “crime, violence and mob rule.” Indeed, one of the president’s most influential defenders, Tucker Carlson, rationalized Rittenhouse’s alleged shooting spree on his Fox “News” show: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
A Republican congressional aide aptly summed up the party on display this week: “Owning the libs and pissing off the media. That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
One can hope that the dark, nihilistic Republican approach, based on fear and falsity, will prove to be an election loser. But it is salutary to remember that the 2016 Republican convention might have been even more crazy. (At least this time there were no chants of “Lock her up!”) And yet that horror show did not prevent Trump from eking out a narrow electoral college victory.
Here is a thought more terrifying than any specter the Republican speakers could conjure up: With polls showing the presidential race much closer in swing states than nationwide, the Trump plan to scare White America into turning out for him may work yet again. “All he wants to do is appeal to his base,” Maryanne Trump Barry said of her brother the president. Mission accomplished.