The most honest moment of a Republican convention built on lies and deception came midway through Donald Trump’s droning slog of an acceptance speech, when he pointed to the White House and ad libbed, “We’re here. And they’re not.” If you were one of the very few Americans who sat through the entire four-day hall of mirrors grievance fest masquerading as a nominating convention, you could have spared your sanity by just tuning in to hear that fleeting passage, because it distills the essential pitch of the Trump campaign and serves as an ominous warning about how events might unfold in November.
Trump’s occupancy of the executive residence, turned into a literal fortress by its embattled resident through rings of fences and barricades, is all that protects the aggrieved heirs of traditional privilege from being supplanted by the diverse America that celebrated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last week. In his us-or-them understanding of the country he ostensibly serves, Trump views the trappings of a rental home as possessions for projecting the power of his faction over the rest of the country. He knows no one will stop him from using the South Lawn as a personal playground and the White House as a political prop in violation of law and custom and all things sacred to a republic. As long as he has possession of the presidential office, Trump doesn’t have to think twice about politicizing the government or flaunting his desecration of public symbols. But there is a cautionary subtext to his vandalism: if “they” find a way force “us” out it will be the end of life in this country as “we” know it, and we can’t let that happen.
This was the message of a convention that whipsawed between uninteresting and unhinged. Faced with an electorate holding the entrenched belief that Trump has failed spectacularly at addressing a pandemic that has taken the lives of over 180,000 Americans and counting, the campaign decided to counter-program reality. Images of thousands of mask-less supporters packed into a crowded space on the South Lawn were something out of 2019, and were designed to communicate the campaign’s manufactured insistence that the pandemic is over and life has returned to normal.
Trump wasn’t about to let Covid-19 step on his message of a triumphant president who created the greatest economy in history, so he conjured up an alternative world where nothing has changed since last February. Similarly, he wanted to run against Bernie Sanders and put socialism on the ballot, but when he didn’t get his wish he simply invented a narrative that Joe Biden is Bernie Sanders, or at least Biden is under the spell of leftist-radical-socialist Democrats who are coming to destroy your freedom, abolish the suburbs and decide how many hamburgers you’re allowed to eat. Problem solved.
Some of the contortions of the Republican alt-world were impossible to follow. Biden was characterized as both sleepy and sinister, a senile old man yet in possession of superpowers strong enough to end life as we know it. Though out of office for four years, he is mysteriously responsible for turning our cities into violent hellscapes that can only be fixed by not changing course and re-electing the guy who is presiding over the chaos. If you reside on Republican Island it all makes sense – or maybe it doesn’t matter if it makes sense because we’re here and they’re not and we have to keep it that way.
The convention had two apparent targets: the already converted and Trump himself. There was sufficient Great Leader adulation to serve the candidate’s unquenchable ego needs, which flowed naturally from the party’s decision to forgo a platform and just put their faith in whatever Donald Trump wants to do. Portraying a country that’s on fire despite the inconvenient fact that Trump is the incumbent fire chief was designed to remind an already frightened slice of white America about the battle they are in and the threat they face if the Great Leader is dethroned. If the objective was to stoke fear among base voters while keeping the candidate from getting bored, it was a successful four days.
But that’s not enough to win an election when three of every four people feel the country is heading the wrong way. While energizing the faithful is critical in a contest that will ultimately turn on mobilization – Democrats, too, used their convention to get supporters excited about Joe Biden – it’s insufficient just to send a charge through your base when you’re 8-9 points behind. Those outside the Trump orbit could be forgiven for finding the RNC deeply discordant or deathly dull, or – as television ratings indicate – for just not paying attention. Suburban voters who flipped the House to Democrats two years ago and who Trump needs to be re-elected are primarily concerned with the lack of presidential leadership that is producing some of the worst public health outcomes in the world. The priorities on display at the RNC are jarringly at odds with their experience.
The Trump campaign will try to peel off some of these voters by pretending the biggest threat they face is not from the pandemic but from racially motivated crime. This may be the only way Trump can hope to make inroads to the larger electorate without abandoning the doomsday appeal to his base. And polling does show softening among some white voters to the Black Lives Matter movement from the peaks experienced in early June. But there is as yet no movement in the way the public views Trump’s horrendous response to race relations, and it is unclear how successful a play like this can be as long as the pandemic continues to be the top national concern. Trump’s attempt to spin a narrative about Kenosha and Portland for suburban voters whose daily experience is about how to find adequate child care and health care is reminiscent of the failed stunt of sending troops to the border to defend against a nonexistent immigrant caravan days before the midterm elections, and is better suited to swaying voters living in the racially segregated all-white suburbs of 1956 that still seem to exist in Trump’s head.
Beneath the irony of Trump trying to win a second term on an appeal to law and order in a lawless acceptance speech is the frightening implication about what might happen if he fails. If he is unable to scare the millions of additional voters he needs to win a second term into ignoring the death, disease and disruption they are living with because of his leadership failures, if he is unable to deflect their attention away from worries about sending their kids to school or losing their jobs and small businesses, he will be left primarily with the voters who fear the imminent loss of privilege for whom the RNC was a rallying cry. And he will fall short of victory. Then the rest of the country will be left to confront the genuinely unhinged possibility that the “we’re here and they’re not” message has an unspoken next line: “Try to make us leave.”