They didn’t riot in the streets of Cleveland, as Donald Trump said his supporters would do had things not gone his way. But you saw the raw essence of a riot, the madness and loss of reason, on display in four days of chaos at the Republican National Convention.
For a campaign now devoted to “law and order,” the launch was mob rule: in spirit, in tone, in words. Long after we’ve forgotten Trump’s closing speech — that paean to self, that nightmare portrait of an America where the lights have gone out — we will remember the savagery just below the surface.
Starting on night one, when Republicans chose to manipulate the grief-deranged mother of a terrorist victim, the build-up to the hanging of Hillary Clinton was never subtle. Imagine if one party had exploited a widow of one of the 241 service members killed in the 1983 suicide bombing of Americans in Beirut — the deadliest single attack on marines since World War II — as a stick against Ronald Reagan, whose administrative negligence was much to blame.
You can’t imagine. Because nothing about this Republican Party, whose leader now stands ready to repudiate nearly 70 years of security for our European allies under an “America First” banner, even remotely resembles the Grand Old Party of before. You could not find a City on a Hill, a single Point of Light, no Morning in America. Only doom, dystopia, dread, darkness — and a bumper-sticker solution to restoring greatness.
The man who couldn’t manage his own convention, the creator of a “university” built on fraud, bet his shot at the top job in the world on a panicked public and collective amnesia of his serial misdeeds. “I will restore law and order to our country, believe me, believe me,” he said.
And the instigator of four corporate bankruptcies, the man who stiffed plumbers and carpenters, the failed casino owner, promised to use his dark arts to “make our country rich again.”
One of the main speeches, that of Melania Trump, was stolen in part from the wife of a president that Donald Trump has long tried to delegitimize. That and the speech of Ivanka Trump, which would have fit perfectly at a Democratic convention, were the only hints of hope.
Early on, at least one speaker mentioned the importance of the rule of law. But that was drowned out by what became the mantra of this convention: “Lock her up!” Chris Christie, a former prosecutor, tried to lead the crowd into chants of “guilty” at his summoning of bad events that he blamed on Hillary Clinton. But the mob already had the noose around her neck, and they kept it up until the balloons dropped.
There’s usually a pastor around whenever vigilantes gather for an execution. For moral justification this week, the pious Dr. Ben Carson linked Clinton to Lucifer — the devil himself. So, little wonder that it produced barely a shrug when another delegate, and Trump’s adviser on veterans, Al Baldasaro, said Clinton should be “shot for treason.” The Salem witch trials had more respect for due process.
Inside the convention, the hatred was also directed at one who dared members to vote their conscience, Ted Cruz. True, he may be the most disliked politician in the United States. But somehow, it was expected that Cruz would bow to a man who had defamed his father and insulted his wife. Heidi Cruz had to be escorted out of her party’s convention by a friend who feared for her safety.
On Thursday, an openly gay entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, was cheered. But outside the convention, boos and obscenities greeted the lead singer for Third Eye Blind, who had earlier urged delegates in the audience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be more accepting of gays and “not live your life in fear.”
Individually, many of these Trump delegates are nice people. In personal chats, you might get them to understand why Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” broke a long silence to say that he is terrified of Trump because he’s a “sociopath.” Listening to the acceptance speech, he tweeted, “This is the Donald Trump I came to know, not a word about hope, not a word about possibility, all doom, all the time.”
But in a group, the emotions of the Trumpites pool to hatred and mob single-mindedness — all Mexicans are rapists, all Muslims are terrorists, all crime is rising, Hillary Clinton is the devil and should be shot.
On one level, this convention was Fox News on steroids — the half-truths, the grievances, the demonizing, and certainly the elderly audience, as overnight ratings for the first nights showed. But what a strange irony it was that the mastermind of all that broadcast polarization — and, arguably, of the party that gave us Trump — was forced out on the night that should have been Roger Ailes’s apogee.
Ailes will be an asterisk. When the convention closed, fear had won the hall. And we should fear — for the republic, for a democracy facing its gravest peril since the Civil War.