Cleveland, Day Two
‘Fragments were used,’ Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said of Melania Trump’s plagiarised Monday night speech. It was a Tuesday morning press conference, and Manafort, chief bulldog of Trump’s vintage Nixonian thug braintrust, was ceding no ground. 'Obviously Michelle Obama feels similar things about her family. The American people focused on her message. You people are trying to distort that message. The plagiarism charge was first spread by the Clinton campaign. Whenever Hillary feels threatened by a woman she tries to destroy her.’ Melaniagate occupied the day’s news cycle even though no one would expect her to write her own speech or to say what she actually thinks. Whether anyone cares what she actually thinks is another question.
Melaniagate was an emblematic 2016 campaign story: something substance free, likely the result of a lazy aide or Trump family member pressing control-c and then control-v and then forgetting to conduct a sufficiently thorough rewrite. That one of the cribbed sentences was about the value of hard work was something a few writers enjoyed pointing out. Manafort could shrug off the scolding, as if originality were just another form of political correctness, recapitulating the goodie-two-shoes v. bad boy note Trump strikes when he isn’t saying Clinton should go to jail.
Does a similar dynamic apply to Republicans and bigotry? It’s easy to enter into a conversation with, say, a mild-mannered banker from Missouri about immigration, legal and otherwise, and see the talk slip from the question of depressed wages to gory images of severed heads and testicles being shoved into innocent throats by radical Islamic terrorists. Mention Black Lives Matter and you hear of ‘false narratives’ about police shootings of (unarmed) men who wouldn’t put up their hands. Obamacare has bankrupted insurance companies in the name of taxpayer-subsidised sex-change operations for four-year-olds – ‘I think that’s worse than rape,’ a Texas insurance man told me. So you have the dog whistles: ‘safety’ (Islamophobia); ‘unity’ (untrammelled white male privilege); ‘law and order’ (police murder of innocent minorities).
Walking to the Q on Tuesday I passed a modest anti-racist rally against the murder of innocents by police. ‘The whole damn system is guilty as hell,’ went the chant. It was a small march with a nearly equal police escort, most of them on bicycles. Up the block somebody was hawking ‘Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica’ T-shirts. In Cleveland Public Square the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, was carrying on its famous ‘God Hates Fags’ routine, outnumbered by an absurdist counterprotest carrying ‘God Hates Bangs,’ ‘God Hates C-Sections’ and ‘God Hates Morning People’ signs. People were expecting bigger demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where there would be more sympathetic ears.
Inside the Q, Jeff Sessions, junior senator for Alabama, formally nominated Trump, and soon the states were calling out their votes, each touting their cute identity (‘Idaho, famous for its potatoes’; ‘American Samoa, southernmost US soil and great exporter of NFL players’; ‘New Hampshire, where we have no state sales or income tax’). Trump was put over the top by his son Donald Jr on behalf of the delegates of New York, a state he promised to ‘put in play’ in the national election – a rare instance of modesty from the Trump clan, though an unlikely one at that.
The evening’s theme was meant to be Make America Work Again. A newly minted billionaire sports executive was trotted out, as well as the owner of a Bronx waterproofing company, the manager of Trump wineries, and at the night’s end a former soap opera starlet who owns an avocado farm in California. At Romney’s Tampa coronation in 2012 there had been a relentless focus on small businesses suffocated by Obama’s regulations. This time the message was muddled by a tendency to devolve into all-purpose Clinton-bashing.
There were three types of it on display: Clinton as pampered plutocrat who lives by other rules than the ones that apply to real Americans; Clinton as geopolitical gangster due for a permanent vacation in prison; and Clinton as the national hall monitor of political correctness. Chris Cox, president of the NRA, managed the neat trick of appropriating the rhetoric of abortion rights in the name of gun rights. ‘Imagine a young mother at home with a baby when a three-time loser kicks the door in because some politician let him out of prison early.’ Not a scenario Clinton can imagine: ‘Hillary Clinton hasn’t taken a walk, a nap or a bathroom break without a good guy with a gun right there to protect her.’ And finally the sales pitch: ‘American women are the country’s fastest-growing firearm owners. It's not Hillary Clinton who says women should have that choice. It’s Donald Trump. The right to protect your life is the greatest right there is.’ Mitch McConnell complimented Obama on being honest about wanting to drag the country to the left (Clinton just lies), and Chris Christie repeated the joke before launching into a list of Clinton’s crimes. Paul Ryan put a happy spin on his months of criticising Trump: ‘Have we had our arguments this year? You know what I call those? Signs of life!’ When he said next week’s Democratic National Convention would be ‘a four-day infomercial of politically correct moralising’, I worried he was right about the dullness factor. Still, it was funny to think of the party formerly allied to the Moral Majority as the party opposed to moralising. They seem to have found a fit substitute for morality in paranoia.