Sitting with me in the van to the airport on my way to Cleveland was a German family. Our driver turned the radio on, and a top-of-the-hour news update rehearsed the familiar litany of American woe. First, an excerpt from a somber speech by President Barack Obama discussing the latest episode of gun violence, this time in Baton Rouge. Next, a reply from Donald Trump, days away from receiving the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, who attacked the president on Twitter for turning the country into “a divided crime scene.” Rounding it out was an item about the Cleveland Police Department’s worry that demonstrators outside the Republican National Convention would take advantage of Ohio’s concealed carry law by arming themselves to the teeth. Listening in the back seat of the van to this recitation of carnage and absurdism, my thoughts drifted immediately to a friend of mine, the Washington correspondent for a major German daily, with whom I had been emailing earlier in the week. He could make a name for himself as a sort of reverse William Shirer, I would tell him, only half-jokingly, chronicling for a German readership the rise of fascism in America.
July 19, 2016, should go down in history as the date the Republican Party deservedly died—“political Jonestown” as the novelist Thomas Mallon called it earlier this month. For that was when the GOP finally nominated Donald Trump for president, officially sanctioning the idea that the fate of the free world ought to be entrusted to an aspiring authoritarian reality television show host. Mallon is an ingenious novelist of historical American political fiction, but I doubt even he could have dreamed up a scenario so bleak as the travesty that unfolded in Cleveland last week, one that, as an agitated observer of the Trump phenomenon, I felt compelled to witness from the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena, or “the Q,” as it is affectionately called.
My sojourn into the madness of Trumplandia began with a Monday noon foray to the “America First Unity Rally” held on the banks of the Cuyahoga River just a few blocks from the convention center. Organized by the conspiracy theory-spouting radio host Alex Jones (whose usual fare consists of claims like juice boxes are part of a government plot to make children gay or that the “chemtrails” from jetliners are elements of a giant mind-control experiment) and Nixon-era political operative Roger Stone, the event had the feel of a Guns ‘n Roses concert put on by the John Birch Society. Over the course of several hours, a motley cast of characters addressed a crowd of about 200 people, all united by grievance toward “the establishment,” a pathological hatred of Hillary Clinton, and an abiding belief that Donald Trump will single-handedly fix America’s problems. The mother of a man murdered by an illegal immigrant shared the heartbreaking story of her son’s death. A black Tea Party activist and perpetual congressional candidate from Maryland reassured the audience that Trump (“an outsider like myself”) is no racist, and closed out his pep talk with a put-down of the “disgusting, disgusted, and busted” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Musical interludes were provided by a low-rent, right-wing Stevie Nicks lookalike and a 16-year-old Russian immigrant who sang her own song titled “Political Correctness.” John McCain’s Tea Party challenger in the Arizona Republican senate primary railed against a “global tuxedo club” of elitist overlords and declared herself ready and able to “mix the mortar to fix the border.” Offering muscle for the afternoon was “Bikers for Trump,” the leader of which boasted that “we’ve got guys all over the city” to “do whatever’s necessary” to keep the peace.
There exists a vast academic literature on the sociological composition of American voters (at the demonstration, graduate students from a nearby university passed out questionnaires to attendees as part of a research project on the attitudes and backgrounds of Trump supporters). Reams of articles have been written on Trump’s appeal to downscale whites, who appeared to compose the majority of people at the riverside rally (far from all Trump supporters are working class, however; the median income of his voters is $72,000). But there are elements of a candidate’s support base that are unmeasurable, common characteristics that no sociological study or series of polls can reveal. This is particularly true of Trump’s more high-profile backers and official surrogates. Indeed, the degree to which supporters of Donald Trump reflect the candidate in temperament, style, and even diction, across subgroups like gender, race, sexual orientation and class, is remarkable.
The Donald Trump for President campaign has become a fly-trap for seemingly every American dimestore huckster, grifter, scrounger, has-been and wannabe. The roll call of D-list celebrities and politicians who spoke at the convention, along with the raft of lesser-known opportunists and frauds who decided to become Trumpkins so as to get on TV, resembles a list of fictional characters from the collected works of Billy Joel. Scott Baio, Antonio Sabato Jr., and Robert Davi embody the distinctly bridge and tunnel, alpha-male thuggishness of Trump’s “celebrity” support. Scott Brown, whose political career crashed and burned years ago after a brief stint as senator from Massachusetts, enlisted himself with Trump in hopes of escaping life as a hawker of diet supplements, ironically the perfect preparation for a snake-oil dispensing presidential campaign. (Brown, unsurprisingly, brought along to the convention his aging local news anchor wife and daughter, a former contestant on American Idol and budding starlet.)
The porcine duo of Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, both of whom waddled past me on the convention’s first day, are physical manifestations of what the Republican Party has become under Trump, whose fleshy jowls at times render him indistinguishable from a bullfrog. Unlike the fit and trim House Speaker Paul Ryan, a visibly reluctant Trump supporter who clearly would have rather spent the entirety of last week in a dentist’s chair, Gingrich and Morris are engorged, mercenary, and utterly lacking in self-control, as willing to stick whole plates of food down their gullets or reach for the nearest “beautiful piece of ass” (or prostitute’s toe) as they are ready to adapt their principles to the moment. Listen to Eric Trump talk about his father’s future cabinet and you get the gist of the intellectually hollow, wise-guy chutzpah that exists in place of a governing ideology or worldview for those who’ve chosen to degrade themselves by supporting Trump. “If we’re going to have the biggest deals in the world, which are trade deals, why not have the best guys negotiate this?” he told The Hill, as if taking a sip from his tall boy on the LIRR. “Why not have the Carl Icahns or the top guys of Wall Street? It’s why they’re worth millions and billions of dollars. It’s because they’re tough and they’re shrewd.”
Reflecting the outsider status of its sponsors Jones and Stone, the “America First” rally initially seemed to be a gathering of people too wacky to speak from the convention stage. But it became readily apparent Monday evening that the themes of this “shadow” convention would, in fact, be parroted by the ostensibly more respectable delegates inside the Q.
The night began with a benediction from Brooklyn priest Kieran Harrington, who, head bowed, made reference to “deliberations,” declared “we stand before you, contrite,” and asked the Lord to “bless those who endured torture,” sentiments completely at odds with those expressed by the man about to receive the crowd’s enthusiastic nomination for president. Following that uncharacteristically humble opening, the message of the evening proceeded as follows: Mexicans and Muslims want to rape and kill you. Relatives of people murdered by illegal immigrants joined people like Pat Smith, mother of a foreign service officer killed in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack, in a festival of fear and loathing.
It would have been one thing if this shameless retailing of victimhood (something conservatives usually blame liberals for doing) was limited to tales of self-pity. What made it truly terrifying were the calls for blood. At the “America First” rally earlier in the day, I had seen dozens of people sporting “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts, what I took at the time to be nothing more than a token of Roger Stone’s virulent mischief. Inside the hall, I was appalled to hear, repeatedly and on every night of the convention, delegates cry “Lock her up!” whenever Clinton’s name was mentioned. It was an exhortation issued directly from the stage. Darryl Glenn, a senate candidate in Colorado, declared that Clinton should be outfitted in a “bright orange jumpsuit.” Pat Smith, who, in the exploitation of her grief the right has fashioned into its own Cindy Sheehan, insisted that the former secretary of state “deserves to be in stripes.”
The degeneration of the Republicans into banana Republicans reached its apotheosis on Wednesday evening, when Chris Christie, apparently worried that his reputation as a fat creep hadn’t yet taken hold within the minds of a majority of Americans, led the crowd in a call-and-response show trial-cum-lynch mob. Going through a laundry list of Hillary Clinton’s alleged crimes, the former federal prosecutor ended each accusation with the question, “Guilty or not guilty?” Most of Christie’s charge sheet consisted of political initiatives like the Russian reset and opening to Cuba, which, whatever their wisdom (and I, for what it’s worth, think they lacked it), had not the faintest whiff of criminality. But none of this mattered to the Jersey boy play-acting as Red Army hanging judge.
On the surface, the proliferation of anti-Hillary revenge fantasies smelled like the work of Paul Manafort. Trump’s roguishly handsome campaign manager spent years working as a consultant to former strongman president of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, who in addition to stealing vast amounts of money from the public purse, was also famous for locking up his major political opponent. If Clinton weren’t imprisoned under a Trump regime, I cynically speculated, she might become the victim of dioxin poisoning, the fate that mysteriously befell Yanukovych’s other main rival.
But the single-minded obsession with throwing Clinton behind bars is an organic malady rather than a Manafortian import. It’s but one of many fixations that used to exist on the right-wing fringe but which the GOP decided to place front and center as part of its policy agenda. Last week’s convention saw an entire alternative media and political ecosystem (a potpourri of websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter) take control of the party apparatus and dictate its own version of reality. Trump’s followers inhabit an America in which “SJWs” (social justice warriors) make life intolerable for white men, where unsuspecting individuals are forced to watch a feminist Ghostbusters movie like Alex was subjected to audiovisual torture in A Clockwork Orange, and everyone must dodge a proliferating number of Mexican and Muslim rapists and murderers. When Uday and Qusay Trump ceremoniously announced the votes of the New York delegation, and the light board in the rafters flashed “OVER THE TOP!” it was more than just a literal description of Trump’s campaign.
With the ritualized incantations of approved slogans, resolute messaging from the dais and deification of the candidate, political party conventions are the closest America comes to the one-party state. In this respect, the Donald did not disappoint. A biographical video that was more “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” praised him for “dominating” the world of real estate and, now, politics. As an image flashed by of Trump in a ridiculously oversized top coat waving his hands at a crew of actors posing as hard-hatted construction workers, I was reminded of the parody website “Kim Jong Un Looking at Things,” which features photos of the North Korean dictator hectoring generals and inspecting random objects like an airport lounge table or processed food machinery.
With Trump, however, the authoritarian milieu extends beyond the mere aesthetic. It’s not unusual for a presidential candidate to showcase his attractive family. But never before has the nominee’s progeny played a more crucial role in a campaign, with the promise that they will play a crucial role in the future administration—the sort of dynastic nepotism one expects in a Third World country. I’ve lost track of the number of Trump supporters who cite his children as a chief reason for their support of the man; Maureen Reagan, Meghan McCain, and the five Romney boys never inspired such fawning.
Supporting Trump is an inherently masochistic act, and not only because one must surrender his conscience to do so. It is a form of intellectual and moral surrender. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump declared, in the most chilling and terrifying line of his acceptance speech. Trump’s tacit admission of corruption was paired with the implication that, if elected, he would be corrupt on behalf of the American people. This, I believe, is why the never-ending stream of stories attesting to his gross deceit and venality has done, and will do, nothing to dissuade his hypnotized supporters. Buddy Cianci, the tough guy former mayor of Providence, had a similar appeal, earning high approval ratings not in spite of, but because of his corruption: Citizens thought he was greasing the wheels to “get things done” for their city. A pair of political scientists even wrote a research paper on the phenomenon, titled “Popular Rogues.” But even if Trump could boast Cianci’s record of achievement in public office, which he can’t, his sins are far greater than those of the racketeering ex-mayor of the Renaissance City.
Overpromising is nothing new in politics, but Trump takes it to another level. He is a political alchemist whose followers longingly see him as a Rumpelstiltskin ready to spin their hay into gold. “Come January 17, all things will be possible again,” promised the alluring and attractive Ivanka Trump, sounding (and looking) nothing so much like one of those models in a television ad for a phone-sex line (and curiously choosing the date three days before the inauguration as that of America’s salvation). When Trump took the stage, his promises repeatedly brought the audience to its feet. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he declared. “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
“I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”
“I am not going to let companies move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequences.”
“I’m going to make our country rich again.”
I, I, I. But nothing about how.
Hours before Trump’s address, Manafort tried to explain how his candidate would appeal to women. “They can’t afford their lives,” he told MSNBC. “Their husbands can’t afford paying the family bills.” A similar explanation has been offered for President Vladimir Putin’s popularity with Russian women, many of whom lack a father figure or reliable husbands, having lost them to the bottle. Trump’s repeated avowals of being a singularly transformative figure (“I alone”) make his predecessor’s prediction of lowered sea levels upon his own election look tame by comparison. A party that spent the past eight years lambasting Obama’s expansion of executive powers lost all credibility as I stood among a sea of people imploring an aspiring authoritarian to “Keep us safe!”
There is an unspoken social contract in democratic politics: Candidates should not overtly appeal to citizens’ basest instincts. As citizens in the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, we place a great deal of faith in the judgment of individuals, trusting that they would never willingly elect a tyrant to power. And thankfully, there are multiple, mediating institutions in our system of republican government to prevent a single individual or movement from assuming absolute control. But what if a totally unscrupulous demagogue—one with undeniable charisma and mass media appeal—comes along and decides that the unspoken social contract, like every other rule he has ever encountered, does not apply to him?
That is what Donald Trump has done: He has broken the social contract between the American people and their political leaders by banking on the assumption that unvarnished nativism, bigotry, and ignorance will win him the presidency.
Even worse, Trump has been rewarded by purportedly responsible and reasonable people, people whom I once respected and had to watch barking like seals as this madman and would-be tyrant brought them up to their feet again and again with his empty promises of salvific national recovery. When the delegates cheered him, did they think about the time he ridiculed John McCain for being “captured?” For me, like many others, that was the first moment I thought, “it’s over” for Trump. How many insults, stunning professions of ignorance, and outrageous revelations ago was that “gaffe”?
As they rose to hoot and holler, did the Republicans in Cleveland remember, even in the distant recesses of their minds, when he mocked a physically handicapped reporter? Did they recall the many loathsome remarks he made about women, or the praise he offered the Chinese communists for running their tanks over people in Tiananmen Square, or the encouragement he bestowed—just a day prior—upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruthless purge? The morning after accepting their nomination, when Trump—citing a supermarket tabloid—once again speculated that Ted Cruz’s father had been involved in the JFK assassination, did they reflect upon what enabling a plainly demented individual says about their patriotism? Did these latter-day Pontius Pilates, many of whom pridefully advertise themselves as adherents of Judeo-Christian faith, pause a moment to consider what their ancient texts say about the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, about those who lust for power at the expense of everything else? I hope they did, and that they felt at least a pang of guilt at their participation in this moral obscenity masking itself as an exercise in American democracy.
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