During the first Clinton term, I worked on the public TV series In Performance at the White House.
One of our episodes was an Aretha Franklin concert on the South Lawn. The show was great. It goes without saying what a remarkable talent she was. But Ms. Franklin was demanding, too. At one point she insisted we shoot her in a designer ballgown as she made a grand entrance, coming down the stairs from the executive mansion’s Truman Balcony. We cut it from the final show; for whatever reason, no matter how we tried in the editing room, it just looked cheesy.
The potential for cheese didn’t stop Donald and Melania Trump. Thursday night, they dramatically descended that same staircase just before the president made his big acceptance speech.
Here’s another difference between our show and that big South Lawn GOP convention finale on Thursday. Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul. The Trumps just think they’re royalty. And so do a lot of their followers.
Because my, what a coronation the Republicans had! The floodlights! The fireworks! The empty, inflammatory rhetoric and propaganda! The massive and flagrant violations of the Hatch Act, using government property and personnel for political gain! Trump! Trump! Trump!
Friday morning, much of the nation awoke with a hangover, having gotten literally or metaphorically drunk the night before from either the elation of seeing their boy pour on his patented brand of bull or the depressing realization that he could still win this thing.
What’s clear from his 70-minute remarks and all the other speechifying is that Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts have decided they can lie with impunity, subvert the truth and heedlessly break the rules because their devoted base doesn’t know or care about such lawlessness, and nobody pushes back much, so why the hell not?
The notion that each of us should possess a moral compass that guides our conscience and actions no matter what, no matter where you are or whom you’re with, has vanished. Trump and his gang are poster children for situational ethics; they’ll do or say anything, even incite violence. The ends always justify the means.
And they also justify the mean—that is, the cruel, uncaring heartlessness of gimme-gimme avarice and the bigotry of race, religion, gender and class prejudice. On the first night of their confab, when young right-wing activist Charlie Kirk absurdly described Trump as “the bodyguard of western civilization,” every racist hound in a 5,000-mile radius heard the dog whistle: Kirk, of course, really meant white Christian civilization.
It was an unending tumble downhill from there. Kimberly Guilfoyle, girlfriend of Don Trump Jr., national chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee 2020 and former Fox News personality, shouted her way, Nuremburg-style, through a speech in which she—former wife of California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom—bellowed, “Do you support the cancel culture, the cosmopolitan elites of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden, who blame America first? Do you think America is to blame?!”
Cloud Cuckooland hypocrisy filled the air. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the entitled St. Louis couple who pointed guns at peaceful Black Lives Matters demonstrators warned, “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Former Florida Secretary of State Pam Bondi, who accepted an illegal $25,000 campaign contribution from a Trump charity shortly before she dismissed a lawsuit against now-defunct Trump University, accused Joe Biden of nepotism—which, compared to the Trumps turning the Federal government into one more corrupt family business, is worthy of open mic night at the Ha-Ha Club. In his remarks, Vice President Pence consoled the sister of Federal Protective Service Agent Dave Patrick Underwood, shot and killed during the recent protests in Oakland, California, but failed to mention that his alleged murderer is an acolyte of the Boogaloo Bois, the alt-right white supremacists actively seeking race war.
Trying to divert attention from Trump’s fatal fumbling of the crisis, the pandemic was barely acknowledged and when it was, the falsehoods and misleading statements flowed. There were occasional expressions of sympathy, but largely, the coronavirus plague was presented as if it was something aberrant that had happened once upon a time in the past, even though during the four nights of the GOP convention more people died from COVID-19 than were killed on 9/11. At the acceptance speech, there was no social distancing and barely a soul wore a mask. Masks, of course, are for losers…
Over the course of his acceptance speech, like many of those who went before him last week, Trump threw the requisite red meat to his base—lock your doors, the socialists and anarchists are on the march, and they’re using Joe “the Destroyer of American Greatness” Biden to burn down your suburban homes and steal your guns and hamburgers! There were no new programs proposed, no agenda for a second term except more of the same. In fact, several parts of the address seemed an almost word-for-word reiteration of his 2016 “And I Alone Can Fix It” convention speech with one big difference—the wild-eyed accusations of a challenger seemed more than a little weird when they’re coming from the incumbent on whose watch all of this alleged mayhem is happening.
Also, compared to 2016, Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne noted, the 2020 Trump looks like a man who knows his show is about to be canceled.” With any luck, a heavy turnout and a modicum of common sense, the kind of claptrap the president spews—his own little, fascistic Triumph of the Bilge—won’t be enough to sway the swing voters he needs to win him reelection. But danger lurks. The kind of unhinged demagoguery in which Trump excels is seriously seductive to some. There are polling numbers out there that indicate shifts back toward this incompetent corrupt bully—that the panic he peddles makes the hesitant weak and the irrationally violent turn up the heat and pick up their weapons.
That’s because the only thing Trump has to sell is fear itself. People like him and the countless dictators before him use red-in-tooth-and-claw propaganda and despicable scare tactics because they work. The vitriol so rampant in Thursday night’s acceptance speech was repeated Friday night at his rally in New Hampshire and will keep hammering us until November and beyond. We must turn our backs to it and vote with the conscience and sense of community he lacks.
Trump sees himself as emperor; the only royal title he truly deserves is Clown Prince. But like those sinister jokers in the movies whose villainy lurks behind a painted smile, Trump despises anyone else’s happiness and only seeks to consolidate power and malevolence through chaos.
In a 1787 letter, patriot John Jay, the man who would become our first chief justice, asked, “Shall we have a king? Not in my opinion while other Expedients remain untried.” Our constitutional presidency was the answer and its success would be tied to the faithful adherence to the three separate yet equal branches of government and the system of checks and balances.
But nine years later, in his Farewell Address, the man to whom Jay asked his question, our first president, George Washington, warned that our government could be manipulated by “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” seeking “to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Send in the clowns. Those men and their despot at the top are here. When it comes to our democracy, if Donald Trump is reelected and the Senate remains Republican, you’ve only seen the beginning—and caught a glimpse of the end. Contrary to all the GOP convention bombast, the worst is yet to come.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.