Last night, on the second night (of four) of the Republican National Convention, the Republican Party nominated Donald J. Trump as its standard bearer for this year’s presidential campaign.
Presidential conventions in the last thirty years, since I was old enough to pay attention, are stage-managed, scripted pep rallies. Nothing unexpected happens. Nothing controversial happens.
This year, the Republican convention is both unexpected and controversial in ways that alarm me.
It began with the benediction on day one by Mark Burns, a minister from South Carolina, who, in his prayer, said “our enemy is not other Republicans, but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.”
Then, the speeches of Rudy Guiliani and General Michael Flynn (ret.) prompted the delegates to shout “Lock her up!” in regards to Hillary Clinton, with some disturbing undercurrents as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes:
It goes without saying that it is a highly dangerous development when one presidential nominee and his supporters make into a rallying cry that the opposing candidate should be imprisoned. This is not Russia. This is not some rickety Latin American Republic from half a century ago. This is America. For all our failings and foibles this is not a path we’ve ever gone down.
This is not a disagreement about a matter of law: it is a demand for vengeance and punishment, one rooted in the pathologies of the current Trumpite right and inevitably to some extent about the fact that Clinton is a woman. If you have a chance rewatch the speeches by Rudy Giuliani or even more ret. Gen Michael Flynn. These are not normal convention speeches. It is only a small skip and a jump to the state legislator in West Virginia who demanded Clinton by executed by hanging on the National Mall. In such a climate, don’t fool yourself: worse can happen.
The Trump campaign has always been about revenge and reclamation. Trump is a catalyst not a cause. It is all borne from the social and cultural transformation that is currently changing the country. Hillary Clinton has plenty of flaws. But they have no necessary or clear connection to the venom and increasingly violent anger directed against her. She’s simply the symbol and target. “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!” This is an American political convention. She’s the opposing party nominee. This is not normal. Not normal at all.
Night two continued the “Lock her up theme” as Chris Christie “prosecuted” Clinton from the stage. Michelle Goldberg of Slate looks at how strange this was: “American presidential campaigns are not typically built around the dream of jailing the opposing candidate. Prime-time convention speakers usually pay lip service to the cliché of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Convention planners have not, in the past, staged their events like fantasy show trials. They have not sought to work their crowds into ecstasies of hatred. Those chants of ‘LOCK HER UP!’ might be common among conservatives nowadays, but we haven’t seen their like at a modern political convention.”
The thing is, Christie is actually restrained compared to some of his fellow Republicans. One delegate from New Hampshire, Al Badasaro, said in a radio interview this week, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason,” while West Virginia delegate Michael Folk favors hanging Clinton on the National Mall.
Which led us to Ben Carson.
Carson explicitly tied Hillary Clinton to Lucifer, the Lord of Hell in Christian mythology. His chain of reasoning, absurd as it was, ran thusly: Clinton, as a student, was influenced by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky dedicated one of his books to Lucifer. Clinton, thus, has been influenced by Lucifer.
The logic, tortured though it is, works. But as the second Doctor noted, “Logic merely enables one to be wrong with authority.”
Carson further went on that in the Pledge of Allegiance Americans say “one nation under God.” Our coins bear the motto, “In God we trust.” We need to remember those things, Carson explains, because “The secular progressive agenda is antithetical to the principles of the founding of this nation. And if we continue to allow them to take God out of our lives, God will remove himself from us. We will not be blessed, and our nation will go down the tubes. And we will be responsible for that. We don’t want that to happen.” Carson has, like many Republicans, bought into the pseudo-historical garbage of published crank David Barton that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. For Carson, electing Clinton will lead to “literally hellish consequences.”
At this point, the speech by My Little Pony fan Melania Trump) barely matters, no matter what David Frum thinks. There are darker forces at work here.
The recurring theme of the Republican convention is that things were better in the past, America has lost its way, and the Democrats are not only taking the United States in the wrong direction, if America continues in that direction we will face an existential threat that will destroy the very meaning of America. The Republican Party has treated the Democrats as an existential threat since his election. From the moment Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, they have abandoned all political norms, waging political warfare to deny him any victory, even if defeating Obama and the Democrats means harming the country and the world.
Which leads me to why I’m alarmed.
First, the appeals to violence against the political opposition. Second, the explicit appeals to religious favor. Third, the existential threat that must be stopped now lest the country be ruled by criminals who would destroy its religious fabric. The message of the Republican National Convention is clearly that our political and religious liberties are under attack by the opposing party and we must combat the existential threat they pose with every resource at our disposal.
I can see where this can too easily lead if Trump loses the election in November. Hillary Clinton, someone Republicans believe deeply is a criminal who should be in prison, will be in the Oval Office. Millions of Americans, who have been told over and over and over that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are going to take away their guns, tax or destroy their churches if they refuse to marry two men, allow Syrian refugees into the country who will impose Sharia law and outlaw Christianity, and destroy the American way of life by imposing socialism and death camps, are going to feel that America’s days aren’t just numbered but imminent. Martyrdom is baked into the Christian tradition. Rebellion is baked into the American tradition; the United States was formed in a rebellion, and the idea that the Second Amendment protects an American’s right to rebellion is no longer a fringe idea. This is a potent mix, Faced with a president they believe is a corrupt criminal, convinced the United States is in its final days, the potential for violence — widespread violence — exists, all because the rhetoric and underlying violence in the Republican Party has been treated not as an outlier but as the normal behavior of a major political party.
Historians are going to look back on this moment and ask, “How could this behavior have been normalized?” The media is unwilling to look at the open racism and calls for violence in the Republican Party and call it what it is. Being honest would be seen as taking sides and cost them access. By their acquiescence, the media is normalizing behavior that should be unthinkable and never, ever thought of as routine. One of the two major parties has gone off the deep end, abandoned all norms, and now routinely trades in behavior that even ten years ago would have been beyond the pale.
I could be overly alarmist, but the first two nights of the convention give me little reason not to be alarmed. Things could get very bad very quickly. The next few months may be historical — for all the wrong reasons.