‘It was everything’
Eliot Weinberger watches the Republican Convention
Donald Trump vowed that the ‘convention in Cleveland will be amazing!’ It will probably be the only campaign promise he ever fulfils, but indeed, as watched on television, it was amazing, unlike any other, if not quite, as he later summed it up, ‘one of the most peaceful, one of the most beautiful, one of the most love-filled conventions in the history of conventions’.
Amazingly, most of the major figures in the Republican Party stayed away: all of the previous presidential and vice-presidential nominees (even Sarah Palin), with the exception of the nonagenarian Bob Dole; the Bush family and anyone who held an important post in the administrations of either Bush; 11 of the 16 candidates who ran against Trump in the primaries; the two most prominent Republicans in the host state (Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman); and scores of Senate and Congress members, governors and mayors nervously up for re-election, facing the prospect of having to defend or refute whatever would be Trump’s latest wacky pronouncement and losing voters either way.
Instead we were given a pageant of Trump family members, Trump business pals, D-list ‘celebrities’, grieving mothers, and angry soldiers and policemen. There was a caravan of minor officials from the Confederate states (‘Y’all … this is what a real Arkansas woman sounds like … Raised on a cattle farm, married to a row crop farmer, I’m a Christian, pro-life, gun-carrying, conservative woman’). There were a few noted committed Trumpistas (Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie); a few party stalwarts (Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell – who was booed) taking a sip of, if not exactly drinking the Trump Kool-Aid; and a breadline of hungry ‘rising stars’, fixed on the 2020 elections, hoping to be discovered as Barack Obama was at the 2004 Democratic Convention.
On the podium were the 492nd-ranked pro woman golfer; a soap opera actress turned avocado farmer, presented against an avocado-green screen (‘for all of you guacamole lovers out there’); a former underwear model and participant on Celebrity Wife Swap, who said of Obama: ‘I believe that he’s on the other side – the Middle East. He’s with the bad guys. He’s with them. He’s not with us, he’s not with this country.’ There was the manager of the Trump Winery and Hotel; the founder and owner of a waterproofing company (‘I’m not a big important person. I’m just a regular guy’); someone who runs a ‘fashion studio’ called MV House of Style in Brandon, Florida; the owner of the Treasure Island Casino; and the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (‘You might be wondering why I’m here’). There was the self-styled ‘hunter and redneck’ from the Louisiana bayou reality show Duck Dynasty and the former teen star of a 1970s television comedy – noticed by Trump for tweeting that Hillary Clinton is a ‘cunt’ – who called Obama ‘a Muslim or a Muslim sympathiser’ who wants to ‘totally eliminate’ the United States, and implored the convention crowd to ‘make America America again’, though one would have thought it already is.
The theme of the convention, like a horror movie based on the sermons of Cotton Mather, was that evil is afoot in the land, incarnate in undocumented immigrants, ‘radical Islamic extremists’ (or ‘radical extreme Islamists’ or ‘Islamic extremist terrorists’), Black Lives Matter and Hillary Clinton. The proceedings opened with a benediction from a pastor asking for God’s help in defeating the ‘enemy’: Clinton and the ‘liberal Democratic Party’. Mothers told sad stories of their deceased children. Two had been murdered in the last eight years by ‘illegal aliens’ in gang-related violence. Three had died in the last four years in car crashes with aliens. (Given that these mothers had chosen to turn their private suffering into a public spectacle in the name of Trump’s plan to deport 11 million people, perhaps it can be mentioned that during the same period, approximately 120,000 others died in car crashes, presumably caused by citizens or legal residents. By this logic, the US should deport every American old enough to drive.) The mother of one of the four people who were killed in Benghazi was unhinged, and painful to watch: ‘I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son. That’s personally … How could she do this to me?’
Chris Cox, the executive director of the National Rifle Association – which he described as ‘the largest and oldest civil rights organisation in America’ – asked the crowd to ‘imagine a young mother at home with her baby, when a violent predator kicks in the door. He’s a three-time loser who never should have been released from prison early. But he was, because some politician wanted to show their “compassion”.’ Marcus Luttrell, a Navy Seal known from the Afghanistan invasion for his (possibly exaggerated) heroism, host of a television talk show produced by the conspiracist Glenn Beck and a former ‘special guest’ on Duck Dynasty, fired up the hall when he suddenly stopped reading the teleprompter to ‘speak from the heart’: ‘To the next generation, your war is here, you don’t have to go searching for it. Your people are afraid … Who among you will love something more than you love yourself? Who among you are going to step up and take the fight to the enemy, because it’s here? The only way we survive this is together.’
An African-American county sheriff warned that Black Lives Matter would soon be teaming up with Isis. Rick Scott – who successfully ran for governor of Florida a few years after his healthcare company paid a fine of almost a billion dollars for defrauding the federal government – helpfully explained: ‘This election is not actually about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. In fact, this election is not about you or me either. This election is about the very survival of the American Dream.’ Newt Gingrich, in his usual mild-mannered student-of-history persona, calmly listed every incident of mass violence in the last 37 days, summarising in bullet-point form (in the official transcript):
We are at War. – We are at War with Radical Islamists. – They are determined to kill us. – They are stronger than we admit. – And are greater in number than we admit. – And there is NO substitute for victory. While THEY [the Democrats] lie about the threat, WE need to tell the truth about the danger … If our enemies had their way, not a single Jew or Christian in this room would be alive unless they agreed to submit.
Then, having killed off everyone in the Quicken Loans Arena, he expanded the devastation: ‘The worst case scenario is losing an American city to terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction… Instead of losing 3000 people in one morning, we could lose more than 300,000.’
Gingrich’s temperamental opposite, Rudy Giuliani – although looking like a Count Dracula who had spent the last fifteen years in his coffin watching clips of himself on 9/11 and the last scene of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – wildly gesticulated and screamed: ‘The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe! They fear for their children! They fear for themselves! … There’s no next election! This is it! There is no more time for us left to revive our great country!’ Even more frighteningly, he promised: ‘What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America!’
The Antichrist in this eschatological scenario is no longer Obama, who, after eight years of marshalling the forces of darkness, has passed the crown to Hillary Clinton. In the vast majority of speeches, she was the primary subject, and she was held responsible for, among many other things, the economic rise of China, the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria, the shootings of policemen in the US, and essentially every terrorist attack and mass murder anywhere in the world. ‘Hillary for Prison’ signs were everywhere in the convention hall, along with such charming items as a button that read: ‘Hillary KFC Special: No breasts, fat thighs and a left wing’. Chris Christie convened a Salem witch trial – a revival of The Crucible is currently a hit on Broadway – with the conventioneers howling ‘Guilty!’ and ‘Lock her up!’ as Christie read the charges against her. (‘Lock her up!’ – in the exact cadence of ‘Kill the pig!’ – was the chant most frequently heard throughout the four days, far more than any expressions of support for their nominee, possibly because the only possible rhymes are words like ‘chump’, ‘stump’ and ‘Forrest Gump’.) The avocado farmer was apoplectic – ‘The Democrats offer up a woman who when she had a chance to stand up for women, did not do so. Instead, she attacked women, denigrated them, called them liars. I personally know victims and they find Hillary’s actions and remarks repulsive!!’ – but it was unclear what she was talking about. And the inimitable Dr Ben Carson, deep in the fruit salad of his mind, took it to the limit by invoking the Horned Man himself:
One of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors, was Saul Alinsky. Her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky. This was someone that she greatly admired and that affected all of her philosophies subsequently. Now, interestingly enough, let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky. He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. On the dedication page, it acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. Now, think about that … So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.
(Although Alinsky – who was, of course, joking about Lucifer as the first successful rebel – died 44 years ago, he’s been a major bogeyman of the right because of his supposed influence on the young Obama. Curiously, Tea Partiers have distributed copies of his book as a handbook for successful grassroots organising.)
Nearly every speaker raised the spectre of Benghazi, although seven Congressional investigations and a two-year House Select Committee inquiry – the longest in history, longer than similar inquiries into 9/11, the Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor – had managed to come up with nothing. Nevertheless, they all quoted the same line from Clinton’s testimony to the committee, ‘What difference at this point does it make?’ as indicative of her heartless obliviousness to the deaths of four brave Americans. In fact, she was responding to a question about whether it was a spontaneous protest that turned violent or a planned attack. Clinton had replied:
With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator … But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.
Speaker after speaker attacked Clinton’s use of private email to conduct government business (which Colin Powell, as secretary of state, had also done). It was the primary reason she should go to prison: she had ‘put our national security at risk’; she had made us ‘less safe’. In the recent FBI report that criticised her lack of judgment – which was true, especially considering that the Republicans are continually on Clinton Red Alert – but found no criminal offence, it was revealed that there were only three ‘confidential’ (the lowest level of ‘classified’) emails. One is unknown. One informed her that Kofi Annan was stepping down as special envoy attempting to mediate the war in Syria, and the third was about Clinton’s forthcoming telephone call to Joyce Banda, the newly inaugurated president of Malawi. Lock her up! (It was inadvertent proof, by the way, that Obama probably ran the most corruption-free administration in American history. Under microscopic scrutiny by the Republicans and Fox News, Hillary’s emails were the only scandal they could produce. They couldn’t even find some low-level bureaucrat who had used his government franking privilege to send out personal Christmas cards.)
Dominated by the coming end of the world and its agent Hillary Clinton, the speeches were notable for their lack of praise for the nominee. This was Trump’s convention, but few had much to say about him. The task of promoting the brand was left to those bearing the brand name: his family. His sons, quickly nicknamed Uday and Qusay in the Twittersphere, previously known for their safari snapshots, posing next to endangered species they had slain, were tan, smartly suited, well-gelled, and clearly unhumbled by the historical moment. The obscure child, Tiffany, was sweet and sad. Her parents married after she was born and split up a few years later, but ‘my father always asked about my family in Georgia to make sure that they are healthy and safe.’ Trump’s current wife, Melania, with her heavy accent and heavy make-up (and possible surgical improvements) brought back memories of Zsa Zsa Gabor, but without the effervescence. She glumly struggled through her speech, which contained no warm and fuzzy anecdotes of life with Don. As everyone knows, it took the legions of amateur investigative journalists on the internet less than an hour to figure out that portions were cribbed from, of all people, Michelle Obama, who for years has been reviled by Republicans as a crypto-Black Panther revolutionary, and whose most innocuous proposals – kids should eat more vegetables! – were attacked as, in Sarah Palin’s words, ‘government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us’. (Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, said about the uproar over Melania’s plagiarism: ‘This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton she seeks out to demean her and take her down.’) Poor Melania didn’t show up again until Trump’s acceptance speech, which she sat through glowering.
It was left to Ivanka – purportedly the smartest Trump and the only one Donald truly trusts – to recover some human qualities in her dad. She exuded a kind of finishing-school perfection, but strangely seemed to have been beamed in from the Democratic Convention, speaking at length about equal pay for working women and subsidised childcare, which Republicans, needless to say, utterly oppose. (If they recognise that women work at all: Manafort explained why women will vote for Trump: ‘Many women feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills.’) Ivanka was probably the most poised, rational and articulate speaker at the entire convention. However Trumps will be Trumps, and the next day she was hawking copies of her dress on the internet. Democracy, as Dad might say, makes for great deals.
Among the rising stars auditioning for 2020 were Tom Cotton, Iraq War veteran and freshman senator from Arkansas, and Joni Ernst, First Iraq War veteran and freshman senator from Iowa. Cotton is widely considered the Great White Hope of the party. Running for the Senate, he revealed that ‘groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico, who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenceless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.’ (Arkansas is six hundred miles from the Mexican border.) Ernst, who was rumoured to be on the vice-presidential shortlist, says that Obama has ‘become a dictator’ and should be impeached. She told an NRA convention that she’d take up her Smith & Wesson against the government ‘should they decide that my rights are no longer important’, and thinks states should be free to nullify federal laws. She is an Agenda 21 conspiracist and believes that George Soros and the United Nations want to move Iowa farmers ‘off of their agricultural land, consolidating them into city centres, and then telling them that you don’t have property rights anymore’. Her senate race produced an unforgettable television ad: raised on a pig farm where she routinely castrated hogs, she promised to do the same to Democrats in Washington. Her slogan: ‘Make ’em squeal!’ Cotton’s speech at the convention was mainly about the generations of his family who have served as soldiers. He mentioned Trump only once in passing, and declared that defence is ‘the chief responsibility of our federal government’. Ernst went on stage late in the evening, after Melania Trump, and spoke to a nearly empty hall. She proudly displayed her camouflage-coloured high heels and claimed that the FBI has stated that Isis is active in all of the 50 states.
Bush Sr’s ‘thousand points of light’ and Reagan’s ‘shining city on the hill’ having been sucked into a black hole, all that remained was for Ted Cruz to come on stage. Cruz, unlike Hillary Clinton, is compared to Lucifer by members of his own party; he is a man whose name is always attached to the adjective ‘loathsome’, the way ‘fleet-footed’ precedes ‘Achilles’. He dragged out his long speech of gloom and doom – complete with a little girl kissing her policeman daddy goodbye on the day he was slain – as the crowd waited for his endorsement of Trump. After he finally dog-whistled ‘vote your conscience,’ he could barely be heard in the roaring boos. Although it was generally assumed that Cruz was gambling that, after the party’s presumed ignominious defeat in 2016, he could return in 2020 as the only man who had kept his sanity amid the madness, it was more than that. Cruz, as has been evident from his short Senate career, revels in being hated, martyrdom being the traditional prerequisite for sainthood.
Somewhat lost in the cacophony was the vice-presidential pick, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, yet another Irish-American Catholic ‘regular guy’ vice-presidential nominee (Paul Ryan, Joe Biden and Hillary’s choice, Tim Kaine). Pence became a born-again evangelical (to his mother’s dismay) and is a hardliner on all issues. He believes that women going to work has destroyed the fabric of the American family, and wrote an article attacking the Walt Disney animated movie Mulan (about a Chinese woman warrior) for promoting women in the military. His anti-gay legislation was even denounced by the Republican mayor of Indianapolis when major corporations started cancelling conventions and expansions in the state. (In the era of Republican control of the Congress and many state legislatures, it is the corporations that have become the agents of progressive social – though, of course, not economic – change.) Before his speech, the Pence family was seen huddled in prayer besides a Secret Service SUV in the parking garage. The speech itself, with quotes from Reagan and the Bible and attacks on Benghazi Hillary, was unremarkable. His public role in the campaign so far is to sit silently next to Trump in joint interviews, with a bemused ‘Can you believe this guy?’ expression. His private role, however, will have Trump gloating over the ‘great deal’ of his vice-presidential choice: Pence is very close to the zillionaire Koch brothers, whose moolah has bought much of the Republican agenda, but who haven’t yet – it takes one to know one – sent a dime to Trump.
Trump had said, ‘it’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention, otherwise people are going to fall asleep,’ and for his introduction to Pence’s speech, he had entered through a backlit cloud of dry ice to Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’, in the style of a World Wrestling ‘smack down’. For his acceptance speech the stage was reconfigured with a gold lectern and a backdrop of Trump’s name in enormous – it’s time to say ‘yuuge’ – gold letters, much as he does on all of his buildings. It looked like Leni Does Vegas, or The Triumph of the Shill.
Republican apparatchiks had been saying that, at the convention, Trump would ‘pivot’: become less of a rabble-rouser and more of a presidential elder statesman. After all, his speech was not only for the roused rabble inside the convention hall, but also for the millions watching on TV. It was wishful thinking. Trump stayed on Trump course, ranting for 75 minutes that the country was in collapse, sunk in ‘crime and terrorism and lawlessness’, with cop-killers and unscrutinised Muslims and ‘180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens’. Inspired by Richard Nixon’s speech in 1968 – a year when there were riots in major cities – he repeated ‘law and order’ four times, dramatically elongating the phrase: ‘I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country … On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.’ Tellingly, where the Obama supporters in 2008 had chanted, ‘Yes we can!,’ the Trumpistas in Cleveland chanted: ‘Yes you will!’
It’s hard to know what Trump genuinely believes. He is indeed an elder statesman, but of the Republic of Entertainment, where he is a duke of two of its most powerful duchies: right-wing talk radio, which rules the airwaves, and reality television, which currently has some seven hundred programmes in prime time in the US. Both are dependent on ever escalating outrageousness to keep their listeners and viewers hooked. Moreover, their audiences have shown an extraordinary capacity for the willing suspension of disbelief. They know it’s fiction – that the two naked people left on a desert island are surrounded by a television crew – but they don’t care: that’s entertainment. Similarly, Trump will say anything – it has been estimated that 60-80 per cent of his facts are lies – as long as it makes news. He launched his political career in 2011 by relentlessly claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. Asked about this later, he said: ‘I don’t think I went overboard. Actually, I think it made me very popular … I do think I know what I’m doing.’ He has repeated many times the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
He ran a campaign where he had a staff of thirty (Hillary had around a thousand) and spent almost nothing on television ads. With his knack for saying something that would dominate the news cycle, he needed neither. He turned the normally unwatched Republican debates into hit television shows. And he won the Republican nomination while denying or ignoring nearly everything that Republicans care about. His acceptance speech didn’t mention God, although he thanked the evangelicals for supporting him. (He once said that his two favourite books are the Bible and The Art of the Deal, though obviously he was lying about one of them.) He didn’t mention abortion; he clearly has no problem with gays. Romney in his 2012 acceptance speech was attacked for not saluting our brave soldiers overseas; Trump didn’t mention them and no one noticed. He spoke of building ‘the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports and the railways of tomorrow’, the kind of infrastructure projects that Republicans oppose as ‘big government’. Although he somehow plans to stamp out Isis, he is opposed to military intervention – even US military bases – abroad. The neocons surely suffered a collective heart attack when he recently told the New York Times that he wouldn’t necessarily support Nato if Putin invaded the Baltic nations. His supposed opposition to free trade agreements and his promises to bring jobs back to the US are pure opportunism and blatantly hypocritical, considering that nearly all Trump-branded items are made in factories abroad.
He has no interest in the details of policy or running a government; he’ll simply hire the ‘best people’ to take care of all that. His message is simple: this country is a mess and ‘I alone can fix it.’ The mess is brown and black people: the one thing that is certain about Trump is that he doesn’t like them. His mindset is the world of New York City real estate in the 1950s and 1960s: Negroes and Puerto Ricans are bad for business; one family moves in and the property values go down; soon the whole neighbourhood is taken over. The bedrock of Republicanism since Nixon has been its simple appeal to racism, the ‘Southern strategy’. Reagan made it more sophisticated: black and brown people are moochers living off ‘free stuff’ (Jeb Bush’s term) from the government paid with white people’s hard-earned tax dollars. The solution is to slash taxes – which, of course, mainly benefits the party donor class – and drastically cut government spending for all things except defence. (As Paul Ryan said at the convention, quoting Reagan, government should not be ‘the distributor of gifts and privilege, but once again the protector of our liberties’.) Rather than overtly racist rhetoric (with a few exceptions) they thinly disguised it with talk about ‘less government’. Trumpism’s open racism, however, is a reflection of the new demographic: white people will soon no longer be the majority in the US. (For the last few years, more non-white than white babies have been born. Obama is the most visible sign of this inevitable future and undoubtedly that is the reason he has been subject to the most extreme vilification and obstruction by the opposing party of any president.) What’s new with Trump – though reminiscent of the anti-immigrant rhetoric at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th – is the replacement of the image of the dark-skinned freeloader with that of a horde overrunning the land: the criminal Mexicans and the terrorist Muslims ‘roaming free’. It is hardly a coincidence that the most popular genre of horror movies and television these days is zombies – mobs of zombies. Our only hope is a fortress – or a wall – to keep them out.
Trump further divides the world into winners and losers. He is, needless to say, the greatest winner: ‘Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world, I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens: “Can you believe what I am getting?”’ (One wonders who those top women were: Margaret Thatcher? Simone de Beauvoir? Mother Teresa?) His self-aggrandisement is so unbounded, his persona has eaten his person. He routinely refers to himself as ‘Trump’ or ‘Mr Trump’ and even his family members at the convention struggled to come up with some anecdotes about the man who inhabits this character. Contrary to that character, however, the man was not all that successful as a real estate mogul. He’s always been a minor player in New York, notorious for never paying his bills or repaying his debts. His projects tend to end in bankruptcy and thousands of lawsuits, and no major American bank will still lend him money.
Luckily for him, he discovered that celebrity could be more lucrative than real estate. In the great American huckster tradition of ‘a sucker is born every minute,’ he realised he could make a small fortune convincing all those losers out there that they can be winners too. As he wrote, ‘I play to people’s fantasies.’ Thus his books: How to Get Rich; Think like a Champion; Think like a Billionaire; Think Big and Kick Ass. Thus the fraudulent Trump University, a self-help scheme where the desperate forked out their cash to receive some recycled business articles or nothing at all. And thus his genius at measuring the mood of a certain demographic: the undereducated, underemployed or underpaid white male. As he said at the convention, ‘I have made billions of dollars in business making deals – now I’m going to make our country rich again.’ Herbert Hoover in 1928 famously promised ‘a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage’. Trump, like those television preachers of the ‘gospel of prosperity’, carries it much further. Many of his campaign rallies were held at airports so he could swoop in on his private Trump-logoed airplane. Forget about chicken: I’m eating my cake and you can have it too.
The day after the convention, Trump still had not pivoted into presidential mode. He was still attacking Ted Cruz – like all egomaniacs, Trump wounds easily – and he was still repeating his quintessentially Trumpian out-of-nowhere assertion that Ted Cruz’s father was close to Lee Harvey Oswald. But suddenly, in the middle of his free-associative ramble, he turned rhapsodic: ‘Now it was the summer of Trump. It was the autumn of Trump. It was the Christmas of Trump. It was everything.’