In the months since Donald Trump unofficially won his party’s nomination, many on the left and the right have come to an uneasy consensus: That Trump’s candidacy presents a uniquely awful threat to the nation. So singular have we taken Trump to be, in his hateful, crude, careless brutishness, so unapologetic in his loathing for women, for people of color, for immigrants and Mexicans and Muslims, that we tend to try to dismiss him as an aberration, a showman who hornswoggled an angry and economically struggling populace in a black-swan event brought on by a large (and largely inept) Republican field.
Here in Cleveland, where attendance at the convention has been sparse and protests disorganized, it’s easy enough to find confirmation of the idea that this guy is an outlier, an unusually bad man who has so thoroughly scared even his own party that a number of reasonable Republicans have staked out a critical distance from him and those who are here can’t muster enthusiasm for him. In a way, this is true. But it is not a comfort. Because, even if they are tepid on Trump personally, those Republicans who are here — who are speaking nightly, on television, to millions of Americans — are exhibiting a frothing excitement for the resentments and aggressions he’s given them permission to voice openly. It turns out that Donald Trump is far from unique.
What we have seen, this week, is the Republican Party offering its stage and its imprimatur to speakers who have not appeared reluctant or conflicted, but rather buoyed and energized by the way in which Trump’s candidacy has allowed them to come out as inciters of sexist, racist, violent mob action and xenophobic fearmongering. What’s more, by framing their hateful rhetoric in terms of patriotism, they are reminding us that much of the poison in this country runs deep.
The radical adjustment of norms should perhaps have been obvious with the initial, improbable announcement that Scott Baio, a C-list actor from the 1970s and ’80s, would be a featured convention speaker. That’s not because Baio is a washed-up sitcom star whose role signaled the flaccidity of the speaking lineup. It’s because Baio’s only renown in recent years has been as an internet troll who has tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton in front of the word “cunt” and an unflattering picture of Michelle Obama with the caption “WOW he wakes up to this every morning.” He also got into an online argument with the women’s publication Jezebel that involved his wife referring to the feminist site’s employees as “lesbian shit-asses.”
Baio’s place on the speaking docket meant that the Republican Party was willing to kick off its convention with the vileness of sexist and racist and homophobic internet discourse. Onstage, Baio didn’t call anyone a cunt or a shit-ass or even a lesbian, but his speech trafficked in the barely coded language of white resentment and objection to government safety nets. Explaining what it means to be an American, Baio noted, “It doesn’t mean getting free stuff. It means sacrificing … and sometimes doing the things you don’t want to do — including the hard work — in order to get where you want to be.” Baio concluded with a line he likely unknowingly lifted from Langston Hughes, imploring, “Let’s make America America again.” Ironically, Baio and Hughes were probably meditating on a similar version of America, one in which white-male power was assumed, in which Baio could assure himself that the promise of freedom and opportunity was on offer to all, but in which many other Americans, including Hughes, understood America was not America to them.
The real motivating energy of the week has come with the full-throated, jeering opposition to Hillary Clinton, and to Barack Obama. The Clinton-Obama alliance alluded to in so many Republican speeches is more than strategic in the eyes and rhetoric of Republicans: Clinton and Obama are the symbols of the upending of American power, two people who have criminally reversed the order of things, and who, we are told again and again, must not only be removed from power, but punished, jailed, locked up, even destroyed.
“Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason,” New Hampshire state representative, as well as Trump delegate and adviser, Al Baldasaro said on Tuesday. Baldasaro made the comments on a radio show, but he used a frame — describing himself as the father of an Iraq veteran with a particularly unique grudge against Clinton — that perfectly matched what had come from the official Republican stage on Monday night, when parents of dead Americans — many of them women and people of color — had been brought out and used as battering rams. Pat Shaw, whose son Sean Smith was killed in Benghazi, said from the RNC stage: “I blame Hillary Clinton. I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son — personally.” For this, Shaw continued, she knows the penalty: “Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes.”
At a convention that is trafficking in xenophobia, racism, and the vilification of women, those on the front lines that first night were themselves people of color and women. There were speeches by black and Latino parents of people who, the chyron blithely informed, had been “killed by immigrants.” Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, who is black, got the job of delivering the “good news” that the Baltimore police lieutenant charged in the death of Freddie Gray had been acquitted. He also described the investigation into Gray’s horrific death in police custody as “malicious prosecution” conducted by the “activist” Baltimore state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who is a black woman.
Monday also featured Rudy Giuliani, in an oratorical fever, keening for a time when there was “no black America, no white America, just America … What happened to it? Where’d it go? How has it flown away?” He did not directly suggest that this America flew away when we stopped electing men like Giuliani to run things and instead started electing men like Barack Obama and women like Hillary Clinton, but his speech did go after both of them, sneering at Obama for weakness on terrorism and Clinton for “dereliction of duty and failure to keep her people safe” with a syntactical trick that briefly made it sound as though he was holding her responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11 (he was in fact referring to Benghazi). Giuliani made the ominous promise that “What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America,” a pledge that can only have been meant to assure America that under a Trump presidency, there will be more police brutality. I’m being serious; I am pretty sure that was what Rudy Giuliani was telling us.
I am sure of it because that has been the message of the week so far: The Republican Party wants to return us to a time in which white-male authority and power was absolute, in which punishment could be meted out as the majority desired, quelling the threats of minority upstarts.
This feeling crescendoed on the second night, with what felt like some convention catharsis, the mock trial of Hillary Clinton staged with gusto by New Jersey governor, and former federal prosecutor, Chris Christie. Proclaiming that he was hoping to “do something fun tonight,” Christie recited to the crowd a litany of Clinton’s supposed sins. With every offense, he asked them, “Guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty!” they boomed, with increasing vigor. Watching from the press seats, high above the floor, it was possible to see the crowd undulating with excitement, surging toward Christie with their fists in the air, electrified by this call to mob justice.
It was chilling.
I was not the only person in the room to be reminded of 17th-century witch trials, the blustering magistrate and rowdy crowd condemning a woman to death for her crimes, which often, even then, included reports that she had been consorting with a black man. So evocative were the callbacks to some of the worst nightmares of America’s past that it barely came as a surprise when former presidential candidate Ben Carson then directly accused Clinton of familiarity with Lucifer.
The soap star Antonio Sabàto Jr., who was an RNC-sanctioned speaker on Monday night, lingered on a religious theme on Tuesday, telling the press that we have had “a Muslim president for seven-and-a-half years,” a conviction clearly not based on reality, but based on Sabàto’s belief that the president does not follow “the God that I love and the Jesus that I love,” and that “if you understand Obama … that’s not a Christian name.” This is America, where the women know the devil and the devil is a dark figure. And the men at the pulpits, and those who support their place there, are your only hope for national salvation.
It came as no surprise to hear speakers on both nights harken back to Ronald Reagan’s famous “City on a Hill” speeches, which bookended his administration and are regularly used by conservatives as a shorthand reference to their belief in American exceptionalism. The “City on a Hill” image — derived from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount speech — has been invoked by plenty of politicians before, including John F. Kennedy, but its American origins are in John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon, which he gave en route to the New World in 1630. He advised his fellow colonists that their new town would be “as a city upon a hill,” with all eyes upon it.
Winthrop was one of our earliest elected leaders, serving 12 years as the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A wealthy Englishman, he held Native American slaves, and both of his sons held black slaves; he even helped write the first law in America sanctioning the practice. In 1648, Winthrop also presided over the trial and conviction of the first American woman to be hanged for witchcraft, Margaret Jones, a Puritan midwife.
This is America, before America was even America.
Don’t think that Trump is the exception to an American rule; he is the living embodiment of a cruel and unjust strain of our history that has yet to die out completely. Perhaps the most important sentence so far in this grim and angry week was uttered by Giuliani, who darkly warned, “There’s no next election; this is it. There’s no time left for us … ” This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival. They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.
This is what it’s like to be in Cleveland this week; all eyes are upon us.