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Tablet Magazine
August 24, 2020

This article will be updated throughout the convention. Read our commentary on the Democratic National Convention here.

Instead of presenting you with the hard-hitting and in-person team coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions that we planned back in January (a big shout-out here to Tablet’s Airbnb hosts in Milwaukee and Charlotte, who gave us our money back), we will proudly be sharing our remote impressions of this year’s Democratic and Republican Party-branded Zoom calls—which for all we really know are Deep Fakes produced by Kremlin agents or by a high school kid in Tampa, Florida.

It’s August, and our brains are fried by six months of anxiety about the pandemic and the prospect of ever-wider social collapse, and by watching baseball games with no people in the stands, and ballooning credit card debt, and the knowledge that we are all wholly owned subsidiaries of Google and Amazon. None of us wants to begin thinking about what happens after Labor Day, when schools will attempt to reopen and flu season starts.

So why not enjoy the rest of our social distanced summer at a national park or drinking vodka with Xanax? Well, because no matter which party you believe poses the most immediate danger to America, this year’s election seems likely to have a profound effect on the future of the country that most of us are stuck living in even after the Canadian border reopens. It therefore goes without saying that the 45% or more of our fellow citizens who will vote for the wrong party in November are corrupted traitors who should be canceled, banned, and hopefully fired from their jobs, if they are lucky enough to still have them, before being sent to reeducation camps. That’s what it means to be an American.

Take it away, gang. —The Editors

Jump to our continuing coverage of the Republican National Convention:

Dissapointing the Doomsayers by Liel Leibovitz
2020 is not 1968 by Jonah Raskin
The Boaters by Armin Rosen
Horror and Demagogy by Paul Berman
The Custodial Conventions by Sean Cooper
The Loomer Conundrum by Jacob Siegel

This article will be updated throughout the convention.


DoomsayersDisappointing the Doomsayers

Here’s what I wore when I was 16: A torn tweed jacket with a Dead Kennedys patch; Doc Marten’s patent leather boots; a scowl; my hair in a Mohawk, dyed platinum blonde; a beard, shaved down the middle for shock effect; the patience of my parents and my teachers very thin. If you tried to talk to me about anything, I would tell you that you were WRONG and that you were BAD if you didn’t want to BLOW UP a system that allowed for SO MUCH RACISM and INEQUALITY.

Would you be shocked to learn that I didn’t get much done? Moral outrage, like pornography or a White Castle Crave Case, is great in the moment but quickly leaves you feeling queasy and defeated. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how politics actually worked, and how you could only move forward if you listened—truly listened, with an open mind and an open heart—to what others thought and felt and wanted, sought common ground instead of opportunities to score cheap points, and struck difficult compromises instead of petulant poses.

It’s easy, if you spend too much time watching cable news shows or glaring at Twitter, to mistake this sort of maturity for some rare and precious metal. It’s not. It’s the animating force in the lives of Normal Americans, who make up the majority of this great country. Some are wealthy, and some are slumped at their kitchen table at night, wondering how to pay their bills. Some are Black and some are white and some celebrate a rich heritage comprised of numerous ethnicities and experiences. Some live in urban high rises and some down on the farm. They’re separated by many factors, but irrevocably united by three: They all believe that America is the greatest nation on God’s big, green earth; they all believe that we’ve many more opportunities than challenges, many more virtues than vices; and they all believe that the way to fix what needs fixing in America is talking it out, not burning it down.

Who will these normal Americans choose as their president?

One party, the Democrats, is betting that it would be the man who talked a lot about character and virtue and very, very little about what to do with the looters and the arsonists, the censors and the inquisitors, the haters and the bullies. The other, the Republicans, is betting that in its deeply imperfect candidate, the Normies can still recognize someone who shares their basic convictions about this American life we all share.

Which is why, if you’re the sort inclined to view the possibility of Trump’s reelection with terror, you ought to have viewed his acceptance speech last night with sheer, abject fear: For 75 interminable minutes, Captain Chaos proved he could be the one thing no one would ever think to accuse him of being: Pleasantly boring.

Sure, from time to time there were flare-ups and small, tingly flights of fancy, but for the most part last night’s Trump wasn’t the harbinger of American Carnage. He was a plump old man in a suit and a smile who talked a lot about how much he loved America and seemed to mean every word. You could quibble with his exaggerations about achievements and breakthroughs; you could, as CNN had petulantly done, throw shade on his bright moment by affixing a chyron counting the toll of Americans who had died of COVID-19; you could carry on about the Hatch Act and whether or not Trump violated it by speaking from the White House. You could do all this and more and still miss the point entirely: What the Normies saw last night wasn’t the Despicable He haunting the dreams of pundits and professors but an American president who has traveled a long way, from the dark and stormy nights of 2016 to something approaching morning in America, speaking loudly and confidently about our collective goodness leading to our inherent greatness. That he did so after four nights of excellent television, anchored by a truly diverse cast of inspired speakers made his message resonate even louder, louder still as it concluded with an opera buffa and a fireworks display that called to mind that eternal embodiment of the American capacity for sui generation, Las Vegas.

Now look: It’s not even September. The Democrats can still change course. They can shake themselves loose of the grip of the outraged and the petulant, and speak boldly and inspiringly of just how they intend to make the streets of New York and Portland and Minneapolis safe and pleasant once again for all of their citizens. They can learn a new song that isn’t a dirge, and they can discover new meaning beyond exclaiming, loudly and repetitively, that they are, in the abstract, nicer and kinder people than Donald John Trump. If they do that, they could easily secure a victory in November. But last night, the president, calmer and more cheerful than ever, seemed harder than ever to beat. He seemed to be the one thing you would never think that glitzy showman with a penchant for self-aggrandizing could become: An ordinary Normal American, here to make you believe that the grown-ups were in charge.

19682020 is not 1968

2020 is not 1968, contrary to what I’ve been told over and over again. I am no longer 26 years old. I know no one now as I did then who is dying in the jungles of Vietnam. Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon, the Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of then, nor is the Democratic Party of today the Democratic Party of that era. Chicago is not the same city it was in ‘68 when the police rioted and cracked the skulls of reporters. History does not occur twice, as Karl Marx insisted, and it’s not deja vu all over again, as Yogi Bera noted. Joe Biden isn’t Humbert Humphrey and Kamala Harris isn’t Ed Muskie, Humphrey’s running mate. Antifa is not The Weatherman, Black Lives Matter is not the NAACP of ‘68, and members of #MeToo are not the same as the feminists who protested at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in ‘68.

Yes, there are links between then and now, and echoes of the past in the present, but we’re living in a new era with smartphones and laptops, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, plus all kinds of goods from China. Russia has emerged from the shadows of the U.S.S.R. and Beijing has a revitalized Communist Party that runs a capitalist economy. There ain’t no socialist left in Europe today as there was then. The terrorists of the Middle East are not the same as the guerrillas of Latin America. Fidel Castro is dead and so is Yasser Arafat. Benjamin Netanyahu is not Levi Eshkol. COVID-19 is not the flu of ‘68, and the Lakers of today aren’t the Lakers of then who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals in ‘69. In the present moment, which can feel chaotic, it’s understandable that people want to grasp hold of life preservers, rafts, and even straws, but easy comparisons between 2020 and 1968 won’t help. Global climate change ain’t the same as the fluctuating weather patterns of the past. It’s hotter now than ever before on Earth. I’m no longer a New Yorker, but a Californian living in the midst of unprecedented lighting strikes and devastating fires. It’s the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. I get dressed every morning, put on my pants, make coffee, sit down at my desk and write on my Mac. Welcome to 2020!

BoatersThe Boaters

I write from the surreal paradise of Block Island, where a flotilla of right-wing watercraft greet the arriving visitor, at least a half-dozen Blue Lives Matter, Trump for President, and Gadsden flags fluttering over the gently bobbing pleasure vessels moored in the village port. For many weekend waterman, simply owning a boat is an insufficient expression of one’s Boater-American identity, newly self-aware during the era of Donald Trump.

Even during a breather in liberal New England one can’t avoid reminders of the larger American breakdown, a syndrome by which the members of such a whimsical population subcategory as Boater must declare their Boater-ness, and in which that declaration is tied to a particular candidate, a particular program, maybe even a particular vision of the what this country even is. The boats and banners vanish at Mansion Beach a mile up the road, a ribbon of sand below high dunes, with silent gray wooden houses transposed from an Andrew Wyeth painting looming over the near ridgeline. I always say that there’s no feeling on earth better than the shock of cold saltwater on a northeastern beach. How much of this revivifying substance will I yearn to pour over myself on November 3, and why?

The Trump boats now seem to tell the story of this entire convention and maybe this election as well. This week was certainly more entertaining than the DNC—mission accomplished on that front. The current incarnation of the GOP gave its version of things about as well as it could have. Trump’s speech was somehow even more grandiose than his vaguely Castroesque convention performance in 2016, and he capped it off with enough fireworks over the National Mall to summon forth memories of the Brits torching the place in 1814. Whatever. The marketing might not matter much in the end: Millions of people are going to choose their president based on immutable inner urges, which are increasingly tied to pseudo-mystical feelings of group belonging, many of which would not have made much sense to us in pre-Trumpian times. It is to our misfortune that they make so much sense to us now.

This has been an unusually stable election season, with just about every poll showing Biden on the way to a large victory. There’s little reason to disbelieve that that’s where we’re heading. But there’s reason to doubt that the outcome will bring any sense of closure. Something tells me those Trump flags will still be up November 4. The Boaters aren’t going anywhere.

HorrorHorror and Demagogy

To listen to the president last night, and to his most vivid endorsers, Rudi Giuliani and the president of the New York Police Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, the dreadful threat facing America right now consists of outbreaks of looting and arson here and there, and a spike in violent crime in New York––all of which was presented as the hidden program of a Democratic Party. And, to be sure, looting and arson and violent crime are terrible things.

But what is wrong with these people? The coronavirus death toll by now is inching its way toward 200,000. Some parts of the country have not yet undergone the moments of terror. But New York City, which was a focus of last night’s orations, has experienced a degree of horror that rivals or outrivals the horrors of 9/11. It is not because violent crime has gone into an uptick in a number of precincts in Brooklyn and the Bronx. It is because of mass death. It is because of the months of screaming ambulances racing down the avenues, and the horrors at the hospitals and the morgues.

Trump devoted a portion of his speech to extolling the brilliance of his response to the pandemic, and how brilliantly the economy is beginning to recover––and those portions of the speech were still more grotesque. Endless thousands of people are dead because of the incompetence of his response, compared to the response of other governments around the world. And the economy, with many millions of people out of work? And the future that awaits us in these next months, with the pandemic still out of control? And the schools uncertain what to do? And the terrified parents? And the college students?

The reality of Trump’s response to the pandemic was visible in the White House scene itself, with a crowd of people clumped together, maskless, in the very behavior that doctors and epidemiologists have stressed to us must be avoided. Go ahead, get yourself infected, was President Trump’s message to the American people.

The spectacle was revolting even in its minor aspects. Custom and the Hatch Act ought normally to forbid the use of the White House for a purely political event. The president decided to put the White House to use, anyway––which, in this instance, does not seem a terrible thing to do. But the decision is expressive of Trump’s approach to politics and the presidency as a whole. It is a decision to be unprincipled––a decision to put everything to his own use, regardless of law and democratic tradition.

This is what we have seen in his collusions with the Russians, as documented just now by the Senate Intelligence Committee (even if the committee has delicately preferred the word “cooperation” to describe the collusion of Paul Manafort with a Russian intelligence officer). How terrible those collusions look today! Terrible because they contributed to bringing an incompetent demagogue of uncertain loyalties to the White House! The same spirit of subverting the American interest to Trump’s personal interest governed his attempt to coerce the government of Ukraine. And the same spirit has governed his catastrophic manipulations of the scientific experts and their recommendations.

The present instance––the use of the White House for an overtly political purpose––shows that, even now, he insists on his own narrow purposes. At the Democratic convention, one speaker after another spoke of Trump as a danger to the democratic culture. The speakers were right to do so, and the danger was visible even last night, if only in a small and representative way.

Let other writers go on about the normal categories of American politics––the shifting of one sector of the population or another to the Republicans or to the Democrats, the play of politics in the battleground states, the foolishness or wisdom of the political advisors. The main story is what was visible last night. It is the demagogy of a president who wishes to convince us that we are not undergoing the horrors that we are undergoing. And it is the demagogy of a president who regards with contempt the democratic grandeur of his own country.

CustodialThe Custodial Conventions

Of the however many dozens of speakers that came before us over the past two weeks, the keynote addressees and bootlickers alike, there were a few shared traits, but the primary one, I suspect, which we’ll realize in due time, is that these respective cohorts aren’t around to last. For the Democrats and Republicans both, they strike me now as custodians, caretakers of their respective political vessels awaiting the next leader to come take over the helm.

Vice president Joe Biden has already signaled he’d be a one-term president should he win the election, marking his time in office a transitionary one before he even takes over the White House. For President Trump, he has spent much effort assuring his base that his promises have been kept and no one has been forgotten. Surely this mantra will continue, which is nothing short of a recipe for disaster, as soon as enough of his most ardent supporters begin to break off, realizing that promises have been broken and they are amongst the many with good reason to feel betrayed and left behind. Particularly across the reddest states, where job opportunities continue to decline and drug overdoses remain at some of the highest rates nationwide.

What comes after a Biden transitionary presidency remains unclear. The left is in phenomenal disarray, too many chefs all trying to make a meal in a small kitchen. For Trump and his base, it’s difficult to see a future that doesn’t cultivate more animosity and more strife, both against those he perceives as its enemies here and abroad. That kind of resentment is a powerful tool, and can be leveraged to bring about massive change across American life. To whomever takes over the party after Trump, it seems as though this moment at least was entirely a transition, when the right was watched over but never truly led, a moment that will in hindsight be revealed to be a prelude to what will come next.

LoomerThe Loomer Conundrum

A few days before the start of the Republican National Convention, President Trump and Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who also spoke at the convention, publicly congratulated the young, right-wing political creature Laura Loomer for winning her primary race in a Florida Congressional district. Loomer’s great contribution to the Republican party is the force of her obvious personality disorders, an internal motor she has used to propel herself back into the spotlight in the aftermath of her many public political stunts. Her views are bigoted and demented but never in interesting or novel ways. In all, Loomer is a minor figure and will remain one even if she wins a seat in Congress. Yet President Trump congratulated her from his Twitter account, as did his fellow convention speaker Gaetz.

Why would Trump publicly support someone like Loomer except to stick it in the eye of liberals and the notions of decency towards which they occasionally gesture? The president gains nothing from Loomer. He already has the anti-Muslim kook vote locked down. Loomer may represent a small part of the voting base but she has an outsized significance as a symbol of state-sanctioned counter-radicalism. How different the Loomer endorsement was from the convention itself, which repeatedly and, prominently featured women and non-white speakers, a move that would be truly unusual for a white supremacist party, though not for a nationalist-populist party.

All I could think of on the last night of the Republican convention was the violence and rioting and deaths in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Three people were shot Tuesday night, two of them killed, by a 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled to the city to act as a lawman and general do-gooder. He walked the streets presenting himself for interviews and documentary footage before the livestreaming cameras with a rifle and medical kit slung crosswise on his underdeveloped frame, ready to prevent looting and render first aid.

The police were not out in force in Kenosha and so the streets belonged to whoever claimed them. Ownership reverted to the young multi-hued and sporadically armed demonstrators and insurrectionaries protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and the far smaller group of young, mostly white, and uniformly armed militiamen belonging to organizations like the Kenosha Guard or the Boogaloos or to none at all. The militiamen like 17-year old Rittenhouse were not exactly counter-demonstrators so much as they were attempting to be the law in those places from which the law had retreated or been strategically withdrawn by local government. Of course Rittenhouse had no right to be on those streets but neither did the people lighting fires and attacking elderly business owners.

Rittenhouse has been charged with murder and prominent Democrats have labeled him a white nationalist and white supremacist. There is no evidence this is true, except that he appears to be a Trump supporter and police enthusiast. Rittenhouse, by all appearances, is not half the wacko that Congressional candidate Laura Loomer is. He gives the appearance of belonging to a classic American archetype: A nerdy police groupie with an amateur kit, not enough training, and a half-formed sense of his own heroic destiny. An out of work young man in search of a useful social function that he apparently could not find closer to home and in less dramatic, less livestreamed circumstances, and who was energized by the madness around him—the same profile likely would fit many of the demonstrators in Kenosha.

From the editors at Tablet Magazine