Up until its coda, the third night of the Republican National Convention was a relatively bland evening of conservative ideological boilerplate (I lost count of how many times “school choice,” never once defined, was touted). Among rather forced displays of diversity and redundant statements of maximum support for men in uniform brandishing guns, Vice-President Mike Pence had his big moment as “keynote speaker” from a superpatriotic setting at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. And as you might expect from the sycophant-in-chief, Pence carried the message of this convention to its logical end in this remarkable passage:
Last week, Joe Biden said democracy is on the ballot but the truth is … our economic recovery is on the ballot, law and order is on the ballot. But so are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country.
It’s not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or more Democrat. The choice in this election is whether America remains America.
It’s whether we will leave to our children and our grandchildren a country grounded in our highest ideals of freedom, free markets, and the unalienable right to life and liberty — or whether we will leave to our children and grandchildren a country that is fundamentally transformed into something else.
In other words, America can’t be America without Donald Trump. Even Trump himself has never made that sweeping a claim tying his identity to the essence of the nation, though you can bet he will now. Given a campaign strategy based on claims of wild success for the Trump administration combined with demonization of Democrats as enemies of the country bent on disbanding police departments and turning loose Black rioters to sack and pillage the suburbs, it was a short step to denying them and their candidate any legitimate role in national life. Pence went there without missing a breath, though it took away mine.
Earlier in his address, Pence did a rather humdrum job of what I thought would be a major focus of his address: defending the administration’s record on managing COVID-19. He did pull off a nice trick of playing on the religious sensibilities of his fellow conservative Evangelicals by expressing confidence in the “miracle” of an early, American-developed vaccine. But the real tell was that the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force spoke to a crowd of over a hundred people, few of them masked and indifferently separated, who cheered and chanted in what was probably a small dress rehearsal for Trump’s speech on the White House lawn tomorrow night. These people still don’t take their own alleged advice on the pandemic that will have killed close to a quarter million Americans by Election Day — though at least it was all outside.
But Pence’s real focus was making it abundantly clear that in the turmoil over police killings and the battle for racial justice, Republicans stand unambiguously for the Heroes in Blue and the good taxpaying citizens who expect them to provide protection against those people:
We will have law and order on the streets of America.
President Trump and I know the men and women that put on the uniform of law enforcement are the best of us. They put their lives on the line every day …
The hard truth is … you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America. Under President Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the Thin Blue Line, and we’re not going to defund the police — not now, not ever.
Given the timing of this address, Pence seemed to be identifying with the officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake, if not the 17-year-old Trump fan suspected to have murdered two protesters against that act of police brutality. But beyond that dog whistle, Pence was roughly the 20th speaker at this convention to repeat the lie that Biden (who has been very clear in opposing any “defunding of the police”) or Democrats (whose congressional caucuses unanimously embraced a police-reform bill that rejected “defunding” as even an option) want to disband the police and exult in anarchy. But the lie was key to his final judgment about Biden:
When you consider their agenda it’s clear: Joe Biden would be nothing more than a Trojan horse for a radical left.
You know, the “radical left” that supports reproductive rights that have been the law of the land for 47 years; that wants to restore voting rights first established in 1965; that supports a perspective toward immigrants shared by George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan; that doesn’t want to repeal Obamacare or privatize Medicare or raid Social Security.
Republicans are entirely within their rights to treat the November election as an ideological choice between liberalism and conservatism, and also as a choice of leadership styles between a chronic norm-breaker and an apostle of boring normalcy. But claiming patriotism, goodwill, and Americanism itself as the exclusive property of his own party and president, as Mike Pence did at Fort McHenry, is just beyond the pale, and a disgrace to the spirit of community that is patriotism’s essence. It’s a sign of his party’s desperation that it goes this far in reinforcing Donald Trump’s dangerous belief that without him, his country is a bunch of losers.