This is going to be an awful, awful election.
That is not exactly a surprise. It was clear as early as April, when a tag-team effort from the corporate sector and Democratic Party elites finally snuffed out the closest thing to a movement for social democracy that’s existed in the United States for a long time. But the back-to-back hits of the Democratic and now Republican conventions should make anyone with even a passing interest in some kind of normal future queasy.
If you like your Republican conventions glassy-eyed, cultish, and untethered from reality, then unlike most people, you may be in for a treat this week. Judging by its first night, this year’s RNC promises to be as darkly surreal as one would have expected from a GOP now fully taken over by Donald Trump, complete with plum speaking spots for Trump family members, viral right-wing weirdos like the McCloskeys, and at least one reference to “human sex drug traffickers” — a nod to the violent QAnon conspiracy theory slightly more subtle than Barry Goldwater’s wink to the Birchers fifty-six years ago. Then there was the man himself, who at one point sat in a room of freed hostages and praised one of their former captors.
Much of the press will be, and already are, treating the convention as some sort of illegitimate hostage scenario, hijacked by Trump, with the result forced onto a captive GOP. But this is Goldwater’s party through and through, the logical end point of the various extremists, conspiracists, and grifters who have peopled “mainstream” conservatism for decades, albeit never festooned on prime time like this.
The Trump era has simply dispensed with all pretense, and brought all this proudly front and center. There’s a reason why Trump became the Republicans’ nominee, and it’s the same as why he’s enjoyed an almost unbroken stretch of sky-high approval ratings from them since the day he took office. Nothing we saw last night is inconsistent with a party the majority of whose members doubt Barack Obama’s citizenship, turned Sarah Palin into a star, and had members release videos during the Obama presidency earnestly warning of “a thousand years of darkness” if he were to be reelected. The GOP base actually controls its party, at least more than is the case for their Democratic counterparts.
None of this is new. What last night did crystallize was just how removed the almost total spectrum of US politicians is from the concerns of the vast, vast majority of the working public, and the dire prospects that public has for getting a lifeline through the ballot box this November.
From time to time the RNC speakers lazily gestured at class politics. “The party of Harry Truman became the party of hedge fund managers, Hollywood celebrities, tech moguls and academia,” Pennsylvania GOP candidate Sean Parnell complained about the Democrats. “Democrats started their convention last week with Eva Longoria, a famous Hollywood actress who played a housewife on TV,” said RNC chair Ronna McDaniel. “Well I’m actually a real housewife.”
There were even perfunctory attempts to shout out the idiosyncratic right-wing populism that helped Trump appeal to non-Republicans four years ago. Brief allusions to the progress on criminal justice reform made under Trump were peppered throughout. “[Trump] ended once and for all the policy of incarceration of black people,” Georgia state representative Vernon Jones claimed with a straight face. “President Trump is the first president since Reagan not to start a new war,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, though leaving out that it was not for lack of trying.
But the bulk of the first night was red meat for the Republican base, a bonanza of culture war and white grievance nonsense irrelevant to the lives of most of the working-class Americans the party pretends to speak for. Statues, guns, God, police, Colin Kaepernick, cancel culture, the “1619 Project” — every petty hang-up of perennially aggrieved party loyalists made an appearance. “Make no mistake: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution,” warned South Carolina senator Tim Scott.
Much of the running time was devoted to dreary warnings of the “socialism” that Biden, Harris, and the rest of the Democrats are supposedly planning to sic on the country (if only), including banning fossil fuels and defunding the police. “They want to abolish the suburbs,” griped the McCloskeys, before singling out the “Marxist liberal” Cori Bush, the DSA-endorsed Black Lives Matter leader poised to enter Congress this year.
In this alternate reality, Americans aren’t living through an epochal depression, abandoned to mass eviction and hunger by their political leadership. Nor are their families and communities being ravaged by a deadly virus that the United States has, almost alone among major industrialized countries, all but given up trying to get under control. What mention there was of COVID-19 was limited to brief glances into a parallel universe where Trump had successfully wrestled the pandemic into submission, with the gratitude of various Democratic governors. “That means we don’t have to be afraid of you at all,” Trump at one point told a police officer who had recovered from the coronavirus, on the very day researchers confirmed you can contract it twice.
In many respects, the RNC is an ugly mirror image of last week’s Democratic convention. Neither offers any real solutions to the growing number of Americans desperately trying to keep their heads above water in an unprecedented crisis; each offers only empty signaling instead of actual policy, right-wing grievance for the RNC, and lip service to tolerance, inclusion, and civility for the DNC; each talks up the limitless potential of the American people that mysteriously can’t extend to halting the pandemic, for Republicans, and achieving universal health care, for the Democrats; both are corporate-funded affairs headlined overwhelmingly by millionaires and billionaires pretending to be the tribune of workers; and both are aligned with different news networks who spend the proceedings aggressively gushing over or fact-checking what they see, depending on whose convention.
Just as the Democrats solemnly played footage of the accelerating climate crisis the day after the party quietly weakened its climate platform (it’s since been reinstated), McDaniel prefaced her attacks on Biden’s made-up climate policies with her thoughts and prayers for the Californians, Iowans, and Louisianans facing down climate-induced disaster.
These parties need each other. It’s the increasing lunacy of the GOP that keeps frightened liberal voters satisfied with the meager crumbs of progress promised and unevenly delivered by the Democrats; and it’s the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the New Deal and embrace of shallow corporate liberalism that keeps white working-class voters flocking to a GOP that only uses and abuses them.
This is the bleak symbiosis that keeps the United States steadily drifting further and further rightward as crises pile up. But it doesn’t have to be the future.