I didn’t watch Trump’s speech at the GOP Convention, and as an historian, albeit not one of United States history specifically, I felt a considerable shade of guilt. My decision was deliberate: rather than watch him feel his way through his latest and most rigorously constructed attempt to reach out to what he apparently sees as the common man, I watched television with my wife and did some reading. I knew in advance it would be monumental, not that this hints at any specific insight on my part. The leaking of his speech only confirmed that contrary to what would have seemed the clever thing to do, to play against type and to take advantage of the unwavering loyalty of his core support to suddenly take Hillary Clinton on from a mashed up pot of positions taken from left and right. He was going to come out swinging as a “Law and Order” candidate, a bizarre recreation of George Wallace and other half-remembered figures of the past, encapsulated in Trump’s bewildering self-esteem.
So, I missed it. I passed, I suppose. Not because I was bored or disinterested, but because it is now becoming frightening. I came to this country as a bit of a free agent, politically speaking. I do not yet have a vote, but also no team. No one should have a team in politics, but most of those who care follow their politicians in just this way. So it is that the most grievous of sinners in Cleveland this week were not the Trumpian true believers, some of whom are thoroughly racist and some not, but those who are holding their noses, who are sticking with Trump because he’s the nominee. Who stand by as the “Lock her up” chants echo around the hall, who shamefully peddle the false equivalency that both options to the American people are equally as bad.
The GOP had a shot at my vote, coming to this country. There are plenty of things about the Democrats that I do not like, at all. The last few months make it hard for me to believe I will ever vote for a Republican, now. It is unlikely that we will have a President Trump, but it is possible. That possibility stems mostly not from the genuine economic problems facing significant chunks of the electorate despite the overall improvements to the country’s economy, it stems mostly not from the pathetic, lazy racism of the “All Lives Matter” retort to an imperfect but important social movement. It stems from cowardice on the part of many people who should know better. Trump deserves no one’s loyalty.
He promises only fear, and supporting Trump requires leaps in logic impossible to defend. Let’s return to “All Lives Matter” for a moment. That slogan, that idea, has absolutely no meaning without its context. There’s really no reason that Trump’s supporters could not take a position that all lives matter while embracing the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. There would be plenty of disagreement of course, but I would have a much easier time believing the feeling behind the concept was genuine if it was not so transparently rooted in distrust of black Americans. I would find it much easier to support the celebration of the police if we all committed to holding those in uniform accountable. Perhaps we could start with the murders and go from there?
Mostly, I fear Trump’s incompetence and the dizzying abyss of his selfishness. He wants to be president. There’s not much more to it than that. If Clinton were a better campaigner, this would be over, but she is not. It is most likely that she will win, but this fool has a chance. He can do incredible damage. He already has.
I have been reading Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago this week. His descriptions of the 1968 vintage of Richard Nixon reminds me, of all people, of Hillary Clinton: a figure so “resolutely phony” as to make it “small wonder half the electorate had regarded him for years as equal to a disease.” I don’t consider Clinton to be quite that bad, but then I do not really care if she is genuine or not. She does not do what Trump does, with a recurrence now that takes away any benefit of the doubt that it is a symptom of his supreme and cultivated ignorance, taking the deep inlaid racism of this country’s darkest hearts and smiling, whispers “I’m with you, and I’ll bring them back. The suburban households, the whites of the cities, they’ll come back, and the good old days will be here.”
There’s a fascinating passage in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, wherein Mailer examines the deep racial undertones of growing impatience among a large group of journalists waiting for Ralph D. Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King as leader of the Poor People’s March. Abernathy ran forty minutes late, and Mailer describes his fears of the underlying truth of the petty resentment borne of the frustration spreading through the room:
“Now if suburban America was not waiting for Georgie Wallace, it might still be waiting for Super-Wallace. The thought persisted, the ugly thought persisted that despite all legitimate claims, all burning claims, all searing claims, despite the fundamental claim that America’s wealth, whiteness, and hygiene had been refined out of the most powerful molecules stolen from the sweat of the Black man, still the stew of Black revolution had brought the worst to surface with the best, and if the Black did not police his own house, he would be destroyed and some of the best of the white men with him…”
Mailer was of course writing in the context of the Martin Luther King assassination, both Kennedy assassinations and the prolonged fallout of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, probing the idea that beneath the entirely unsubtle opposition to changing (indeed, rectifying or seeking to rectify) race relations in the United States lay deep wells of anxiety and opposition, so overtly divided from the clear truth of civil rights as to be downright near subconscious. Though perhaps not quite so.
Comparisons between 2016 and 1968 have been rather poor, frankly, from an historical perspective. Rather, the United States seems driven to discover, again and again and again, that the great racial problem has not been solved, the recurrence of this awakening doing little to dilute its redundancy or the justified rage and disappointment and betrayal felt by so many. The “All Lives Matter” idea is the latest distillation of this, the refusal of those who use the phrase to admit what is so obvious, that the sentiment guards a core not of desire for equality but of fundamental distrust. Trump understands this instinctively, if only because he seems to lack the patience to garner much understanding of many topics beyond this level, and equally instinctively he capitalizes upon it.
I fear Trump not because of his desires but because of his ignorance. I resent the GOP for nominating a man so careless with the United States’ standing in the world, who could be so incredibly stupid as to take the transactional approach that has benefited him mostly due to a mixture of his own willingness to bully and the reasonable person’s fear of confrontation and take it into discussions with the leaders of large and powerful nations who owe him nothing and do not fear him. A President Trump would likely announce shortly after his inauguration that there would be a summer sale on, during which the United States would honor its treaty obligations for half-price. A President Trump would get the world into terrible trouble, because it is painfully apparent to everyone outside of the United States that he is a coward and the tough guy act has not far to run.
Worst of all, he is venal. Trump’s America takes away the layers of commitment to democracy and human rights and leaves us with his expensive suits and his stupid hats and the image of a man yelling at a crowd in front of a massive screen sending his gaze out beyond him. In Trump’s world there is no need to worry about the similarities between that place and Orwell’s nightmare because nobody will have read 1984. Last night scared me, and I could not watch despite the knowledge it was an event that will be written of for decades to come, because of the very real possibility that this man could win the whole thing. If he does, it will not be because he is loved; he clearly is mostly despised. It will be the fault of those who think an immature, undisciplined fool is a better option than the leader of the other party. It will be the fault of those who just wanted a win. It will be the fault of those who are hung up so completely on the ideological balance of the Supreme Court that they have given up on using their imagination to come up with actual solutions to the problems that worry them so. Those who have been confronted with the evil of turning on one’s fellow human being for their own advance, recognized it, and whispered to themselves “just for now, just this once.”