The lies flew like a fertilizer spreader in a windstorm.
The flood lights illuminating the White House backdrop couldn’t outshine the darkness of a broken historical precedent.
The packed, maskless crowd mocked the reality of a murderous virus engulfing the nation.
Last night’s culmination of the Republican Convention was pure Donald Trump, even if he remained largely tethered to his teleprompter. It was a grievance-filled exercise in mass gaslighting. It reinforced my previously-stated belief that the Trump re-election campaign is based on the rather hard-to-swallow idea that only Donald Trump can save America from Donald Trump’s America. But we know many of his legions of fervid supporters believe this framing of the national moment to make perfect sense. He is their savior, no matter what he has wrought.
As to how this speech and convention played to the rest of America, I am reminded often of a favorite line I heard long ago about prognostication: those who live by the crystal ball end up eating a lot of broken glass. Did last night help the president’s re-election prospects? Did it hurt them? Will it all be forgotten with the next tweet or earth-shaking event? No one really knows.
What is clear is that, at least for now, the Trump campaign and the man who leads it, has settled on some specific lines of attack. Gone seems to be “sleepy Joe Biden.” Now it is “Trojan Horse Joe Biden,” a captive of the socialist left. Nevermind Biden’s own decades-long record in government and nevermind that the demonization by the president and his enablers of the left wing of the Democratic Party is based on exaggerations, distortions and many outright lies.
President Trump has the political instincts to know he is losing. Yes he preached a lot of fear last night, but I suspect he also is afraid. He cannot allow reality to intervene into the conversation, because by almost any measure of our personal, civic, social, or economic health, America is struggling. That is why packing his supporters onto the White House lawn was so important. He needed a show, even if it ended up being deadly to those who attended and the others they might infect.
Against this gaudy pageantry of last night we have shuttered schools, mass unemployment, staggering death tolls, and a combustible social justice movement. Of that list, Donald Trump only wishes to talk about the final one. Months of protests, mostly peaceful but some violent, have given him what he yearns for, and even many of his opponents worry about: an opening. Donald Trump has long played on racist tropes, biases, and deeply-ingrained, history-laden fears of Black and brown people. I am old enough to have seen this “law and order” line of attack used before by politicians and work many times,, although it’s been a long time since I have seen it employed so blatantly.
Will it work? Now well into the 21st century? It will with some. It will backfire with others. Who those are, what their numbers will be, and whether they will vote all hangs in a balance of uncertainty.
And it is into this cauldron of the unknowable that this campaign will play out. The polls in a week or two might provide a more robust snapshot. But we have also seen how events can come out of nowhere to change narratives and news cycles. However, despite all that is going on, we have seen the race be remarkably steady in recent months. Donald Trump appears to be losing, and there is the potential that he could receive a stinging defeat. But many suspect the polls to tighten, and almost everyone, in both campaigns, thinks Donald Trump can win. What that would do for the continuation of American democracy is another question.
Ultimately, this will be decided at the ballot box. We will see who votes, and for whom. And in retrospect we may be able to answer the question of what to make of last night in the larger arc of the story of this nation.