Liel Leibovitz, I Can’t Stop This Feeling!
I watched the second night of the Republican National Convention the same way you fall in love or go bankrupt: gradually, but then suddenly stricken by a strange and somewhat inexplicable premonition. It was this: Donald John Trump is going to win in November, and win big.
Yeah, I know all about the polls. I understand the deep distaste many Americans, including some traditional Republican voters, feel for the president. I am well aware of the criticism of his conduct in handling COVID-19, or the riots following George Floyd’s death, or any number of issues. And yet, as Trump’s first surprise election ought to have taught us by now, when it comes to modern American politics, the only principle that truly matters is the Ooga Chaka principle: We vote for the candidate who gets us hooked on a feeling and high on believing.
Last week, the Democrats used their convention to deliver three key messages: Joe Biden is a very decent person; Joe Biden is not Donald Trump, who is not a very decent person; and, being both a very decent person and not-Donald-Trump, Joe Biden is passionate about amplifying the voices of women and minorities, which is one important way to prove both your decency and your not-Trumpiness.
Who, precisely, might get hooked by these messages, and on what feeling? That Biden is a decent person is indisputable anywhere outside the airless quarters of the most quarrelsome partisans. That he shares little with the man he hopes to defeat is obvious—by now, Trump’s fans and detractors alike have very few misconceptions about the man’s character. That leaves us with the DNC’s heavy schmear of identity politics, a sentiment that doubtless resonates with the party’s educated, affluent base but says very little to those weary Americans who wonder why their cities are burning and why on earth anyone would ever want to defund the police.
The RNC, on the other hand, had a much more hearty offering on hand. It had no actors, singers, comedians, billionaires, academics, or former presidents present to offer perfectly polished paeans to character. Instead, it had people of faith affirming the singular importance of safeguarding the freedom of religion; immigrants affirming the notion, not controversial until very recently, that an American citizenship was an exceptional honor, not a universal right; blue-collar workers affirming the all-American reliance on small businesses, not tech behemoths; law enforcement officials affirming the foundational truth that, in America, when we disagree, we talk things over, not burn things down; and African Americans affirming the belief, central to the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. and entirely alien to the current crop of race hustlers, that it’s the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin, that ought to matter.
In other words, whereas one party had the same narrow dogma repeated verbatim with very little variation, the other had—dare we say it?—diversity: of gender and of race and of experience, but also, more importantly, of interests and ideas.
This is not to say that watching both conventions will get a sizable number of voters to stop worrying and learn to love Donald Trump. But it is to say that it’s becoming increasingly more clear that the Democrats’ real problem isn’t the party’s aging candidate or its rambunctious left flank but, rather, its relationship with reality itself.
A party seriously interested in recapturing the White House would’ve done well to launch its bid by drafting a road map that roughly corresponds to America’s territory. It would’ve benefited from going long on big ideas and short on big personalities. It would’ve sought to vigorously court the millions who rejected it last time around, choosing instead to bet on an imperfect upstart. The Democrats orated, emoted, and fixated on nothing but the orange-haired object of their obsession.
To make matters worse, if you were watching the convention on TV—as fewer and fewer Americans do these handheld, device-driven days—you were treated to the dizzying but not altogether unpleasant experience of seeing the talking heads on cable news ask you to believe them rather than your own lying eyes. To hear the pundits tell it, the RNC is one part Thunderdome, one part plantation owners’ meeting, a series of dark and stormy nights dedicated to hating anyone or anything that isn’t white, rich, and smug. Examples are plentiful and sordid, but here’s one: After suing CNN and settling for an undisclosed sum, Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student who was portrayed as a baby Grand-Wizard-in-training by our malicious media, appeared last night to tell his story. He was polite, earnest, and engaging but that didn’t stop our moral and intellectual betters from once again telling a very different story. Sandmann, sneered one cable news stalwart, was a “snot nose entitled kid” who was best ignored. That stalwart? Joe Lockhart, of CNN. There’s no better way to describe the last four years of American journalism than the mantra coined decades ago by Seinfeld’s showrunners: No hugging, no learning. And, like Seinfeld, all MSNBC, CNN, and their likes can produce these days are shows about nothing.
For better or worse, Americans want something—anything—else. Many dislike Donald Trump, and so will not vote for him no matter what. But many more, when in the privacy of the voting booth, will do what voters so often do and vote for the party that looks—and feels—more like them, and that can get them high on believing in an America that looks like the one they know and love—an imperfect but good nation ever slouching toward a brighter tomorrow. These last two nights, the RNC has made a very convincing case why that party may very well be the party of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.