The last night of the Republican National Convention was replete with gestures of outreach and inclusion. The speaking lineup was strikingly diverse for a party whose elected leadership is overwhelmingly white. An array of formerly Democratic African-Americans endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection in primetime, from low-income New Yorkers who resented the eligibility of undocumented immigrants for subsidized housing to upwardly mobile professionals touting capitalism’s opportunities for self-betterment. There were the standard white lifelong Democrats who’d been driven from Blue America by its indulgence of criminality, and even a democratic socialist who’d discovered that Trumpism is the truly egalitarian ideology.
The president made this “big tent” pitch explicit toward the top of his own remarks, saying, the Republican Party was “ready to welcome millions of Democrats, independents, and anyone who believes in the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people.”
And yet, in ways large and small, the convention affirmed the sectarian strand of patriotism that has defined the first four years of the Trump presidency — a worldview that places the president’s detractors outside the category of “the American people.”
This ethos was most conspicuous in the event’s staging. As all responsible news outlets have noted, the GOP’s decision to hold its convention on the White House lawn constituted a brazen violation of federal statute. But the party’s nullification of the Hatch Act didn’t just demonstrate its indifference to the rule of law; it also conveyed its contempt for the majority of Americans who disapprove of the president. Republicans took grounds that belong to our democratic state and co-opted them for partisan advantage. In asserting immunity from the law — and ownership of federal property — the GOP evinced an entitlement to rule that transcends legal and democratic sanction. The party treats power less like a prize it leased from a sovereign public on an exacting set of terms, than like a long-withheld birthright that it has finally reclaimed.
This notion — that conservatives are in some sense more American than their political opposition, and thus, the only legitimate political agents in the American nation — was reflected in Ivanka Trump’s self-description as “the proud daughter of the people’s president.” In a democratic republic, “the people” are the fount of political legitimacy. To say that a president who was rejected by a plurality of the electorate in 2016 is the “people’s president” is to place Hillary Clinton’s supporters outside the realm of those entitled to exercise power over the state.
The GOP expressed its contempt for liberal America in concrete terms when referencing its urban areas. The party’s newest convert, formerly Democratic New Jersey congressman Jeff Van Drew, confided his displeasure with laboring under the thumb of a “San Francisco liberal” like Nancy Pelosi. Individual progressive intellectuals sometimes indulge in such performative contempt for staunchly Republican regions of the country. But no speaker at the Democratic National Convention used the name of deep red, rural areas as an epithet.
Numerous speakers, including the president himself, described “Democrat-run” cities as bastions of “violence and danger,” subject to “continuous riots,” and bereft of police. By itself, this rhetoric could be construed as expressing concern and solidarity with the victims of Democrats’ municipal misrule. But the fact that this supposed plague of anarchy was presented as an argument for Trump’s reelection — rather than an as indictment of his failure to “make America safe again” — reinforced the idea that our nation’s urban centers, and the Democrats who live in them, exist outside of Real America. After all, if Donald Trump viewed New Yorkers as his constituents, then much of Thursday night’s proceedings would constitute a case for the president’s dereliction of duty.
These rhetorical slights would be of little consequence if they did not reflect the Trump administration’s governing philosophy. The president’s mafioso ethics — which dictate the rewarding (and/or opportunistic exploitation) of friends and punishing of enemies — have rendered him uniquely indifferent to the fortunes of regions of the country that have no Electoral College votes to offer him. According to reports, and, in some instances, the president’s own words, Trump has repeatedly refused to abandon ill-advised courses of action until his advisers showed him that his actions threatened his people (i.e., Republican areas). Last month, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s aides struggled to get the president to take the pandemic seriously — until they showed him that its victims were no longer concentrated on the coasts:
In the past couple of weeks, senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among “our people” in Republican states, a senior administration official said. They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the official said.
This new approach seemed to resonate, as he hewed closely to pre-scripted remarks in a trio of coronavirus briefings last week.
Trump has made his belief that he is only answerable to U.S. citizens who’ve shown loyalty (and/or electoral utility) to him explicit on several occasions. During 2017’s heinous hurricane season, Trump routinely scolded Puerto Rico for its ingratitude, while providing faster and more extensive federal aid to (relatively less devastated) areas of Texas. Earlier that year, Trump only backed down on abruptly withdrawing from NAFTA after learning that this would not redound to Trump Country’s benefit:
[Agriculture Secretary Sonny] Perdue … brought along a prop to the Oval Office: A map of the United States that illustrated the areas that would be hardest hit, particularly from agriculture and manufacturing losses, and highlighting that many of those states and counties were “Trump country” communities that had voted for the president in November.
“It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good,” Trump recalled. “They like Trump, but I like them, and I’m going to help them.”
If the Trump administration’s callousness toward Blue America were solely the product of the president’s personal pathologies, it would be less alarming; or at least, more easily solvable. But it is also indicative of a conservative moment that now understands itself as both having a unique claim on Americanness and the U.S. state, and being a minority within an alien dominant culture. These two beliefs have rendered the GOP increasingly hostile to democracy both in practice and theory. Today, Republicans believe that they have no obligation to keep their propaganda compliant with federal law, or to aid “Democrat-run” cities in their times of need. And once a ruling party has decided that it is above some laws — and unaccountable to some citizens, in certain respects — there’s no telling what it will deem permissible tomorrow.