Define thy enemy. This is a core maxim of modern politics. Marginal voters can look at your opponent from a wide range of angles. The trick is to steer them toward the least flattering one — ideally, before they’ve had a chance to develop a first impression. Thus, the 2012 Obama campaign hit Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat early and often. The American right sought to define Hillary Clinton as corrupt and incompetent by engineering the Benghazi and Uranium One pseudo-scandals well in advance of the 2016 campaign.
On the second night of the Republican National Convention, the GOP finally went on offense against the Trump campaign’s chief adversary — objective reality.
If you have two eyes, two ears, and zero MAGA hats, then you know by now that Donald Trump has little use for the truth. The mogul’s entire public identity is premised on the supremacy of spectacle over reality: Use your inherited wealth to assemble enough signifiers of financial success, and, for all practical purposes, you can be a business genius, serial bankruptcies be damned. Twirl a Bible, praise “Two Corinthians,” and you can be a puritanical Christian, audio-recorded boasts of sexually assaulting married women notwithstanding. The Republican Party, meanwhile, has made misleading the public about its governing priorities standard operating procedure for its entire modern existence.
So it almost goes without saying that this year’s Republican National Convention has been a festival of falsehoods. But in 2020 — with a historically mendacious president seeking reelection amid a fatally bungled pandemic response and mass unemployment — the GOP and the truth are no longer on speaking terms. Lies have rained down from the stage with such aberrant frequency, CNN felt compelled to dispense with any pretenses of “both sides-ism” and report that the “parade of dishonesty” at the RNC stood “in stark contrast with last week’s Democratic convention,” with the former producing more misleading or false claims in a single night than the DNC produced over the course of four days.
The RNC’s lies have been as remarkable in their audacity as in their density. Republican speakers claimed that Planned Parenthood’s “abortion facilities are strategically located in minority neighborhood” so as to facilitate a covert, white supremacist, eugenicist mission. The sitting president said that Democrats had tried to “steal” the 2016 election and were up to the same dirty tricks this year. Florida congressman Matt Gaetz declared that Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.” In a video, the RNC suggested that President Trump took the threat of the novel coronavirus seriously before congressional Democrats recognized the scale of the problem, a complete inversion of (heavily documented) reality. Shortly after the RNC presented this fictional take on the early days of the pandemic, Larry Kudlow provided a fictional account of its present, referring to the ongoing public-health crisis in the past tense (“It was awful. Health and economic impacts were tragic, hardship and heartbreak were everywhere”).
The most disorienting aspect of the RNC’s mendacity might have been its blithe indifference to keeping its own narrative logically consistent. It is one thing to broadcast hyperbolic, unproven allegations of corruption and nepotism against the Biden family. But it takes cosmic chutzpah — and utter contempt for your audience — to have Pam Bondi level those allegations on a night when two of the president’s adult children took prime-time speaking slots away from actual Republican officials and activists.
In 2013, when Bondi was still attorney general of Florida, her office announced that it was considering taking legal action against Trump University, amid allegations that the real-estate-investment school had defrauded its student body. Four days later, Donald Trump’s personal charity (illegally) donated $25,000 to a political group aligned with Bondi’s reelection campaign. Shortly thereafter, the Sunshine State’s chief prosecutor decided that there were “insufficient grounds” to proceed with a probe of the mogul’s school.
This was the person Trump chose to decry Joe Biden’s tolerance for the mere appearance of corruption.
On the issue of criminal justice, meanwhile, the RNC crossed the border between shameless insincerity and self-contradiction. In 2016, the Trump campaign sought to dampen African American enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton by spotlighting her complicity in the 1990s’ “tough on crime” carceral politics. In nominating the architect of the 1994 crime bill, Democrats gave the president an opening to run this play again. And this time around, Trump could accurately claim that he had signed into law a reform aimed at (minusculely) reducing incarceration, while his rival had done a great deal to increase it.
On the other hand, the upsurge in anti-racist protests following George Floyd’s murder, and the violence at those protests’ fringes, looks to Trump like a golden opportunity to claim the mantle of “law and order.” For months now, the president has been explicitly appealing to white suburban racial paranoia, and asserting that Joe Biden supports the abolition of all law enforcement (which is false) and the elimination of cash bail (which is true).
A party that respected the American public’s capacity for reason would feel compelled to choose between these two lines of attack. The GOP, by contrast, has opted to broadcast both messages. Early Tuesday night, the RNC showcased Trump’s compassion for the incarcerated, and belief in second chances, by pardoning a former convict on national television (an act which itself was likely illegal). Rand Paul, meanwhile, reminded America that “the Biden crime bill that locked up a generation of young Black men, remember that Biden bragged about a bill that still wreaks havoc among people of color.”
And yet, 24 hours before this celebration of Trump for granting convicted criminals early release, Gaetz had implicitly denounced Biden’s opposition to incarcerating poor people (who’ve been convicted of no crimes) merely for being poor. And about an hour after Rand Paul’s lamentation of Biden’s draconian police-expansion bill, Eric Trump decried Biden’s “pledge to defund the police.”
After unleashing this torrent of bald-faced lies, blatant hypocrisies, and mutually contradictory rhetorical gestures, the RNC dispatched Tiffany Trump to discredit every entity that could possibly hold Republicans accountable to the truth — by defining thoughts that run contrary to Republican talking points as a hallucinations implanted in Americans’ brains by malevolent tech companies:
People must recognize that our thoughts, our opinions, and even the choice of who we are voting for may and are being manipulated and visibly coerced by the media and tech giants. If you tune into the media, you get one biased opinion or another, and what you share, if it does not fit into the narrative that they seek to promote, then it is either ignored or deemed a lie, regardless of the truth. This manipulation of what information we receive impedes our freedoms. Rather than allowing Americans the right to form our own beliefs, this misinformation system keeps people mentally enslaved to the ideas they deem correct. This has fostered unnecessary fear and divisiveness amongst us. Why are so many in media and technology, and even in our own government, so invested in promoting a biased and fabricated view. Ask yourselves, why are we prevented from seeing certain information? Why is one viewpoint promoted while others are hidden? The answer is control, because division and controversy breed profit.
This disavowal of the stoking of division and controversy — from a surrogate of “@realDonaldTrump,” at a convention that had repeatedly accused the Democratic Party of wanting to “destroy this country” — is dizzying in its cynicism. Like all of the most nefarious pieces of propaganda, Tiffany Trump’s diatribe has its kernels of truth. Social media does foster fear and division; the rules governing platform moderation are often arbitrary and tendentious. But gesturing at these facts to help Trump supporters ward off any potential cognitive dissonance that their standard-bearer’s prodigious lying might produce is Orwellian.
The meta-message of the first two nights of the RNC — a message that was never spoken, but implicit in virtually every speech — was this: The Republican Party believes that it cannot make a compelling argument for Donald Trump’s reelection without resorting to industrial-grade dishonesty. Given the unpopularity of the party’s economic agenda (such as it is) — and the 177,000 Americans dead from a pandemic Trump declared “totally under control” in January, and which he has publicly said he would like to conceal (ostensibly, for political gain) by limiting the availability of testing — this may be a rational assessment.
But it also constitutes a bet against the median voter’s capacity for critical thinking, and thus, an expression of contempt for the project of democracy itself. The Trump family sees voters the same way they viewed Trump University’s prospective students or the junk-bond investors in the mogul’s defunct casinos — as dupes to be manipulated for personal profit.