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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Republican National Convention (Day One)

The Republican Convention was both an embarrassment and a bit frightening.  Donald Trump told us that he would be putting on a more “entertaining” convention than past conventions.  I can’t say that was true for me.  At the same time, it wasn't any less entertaining than conventions of the past that I have seen.  It was embarrassing, however, to see that one of our two major political parties can’t offer us an evening in which the issues of domestic safety and national security can be discussed in an intelligent way.  The speeches offered little more than a partisan focus on a unique event (the mayhem in Benghazi) and indignant calls for retribution against inflated enemies, foreign and domestic.  It was frightening to hear rhetoric in speech after speech that seemed at very least jingoistic and sometimes fascistic – and I don’t use that term lightly.  One of the more chilling moments was when a speaker called upon a new generation of patriots to recognize that the arena of war was here in America.  It was not clear whether his perceived enemy was foreign fighters infiltrating America or American citizens not conforming to his ideology. 

The theme of the evening was “Make America Safe Again.”  So one should not be surprised that speech after speech stressed that America is unsafe, despite the decline in the crime rate and the paucity of terrorist attacks in comparison to other countries.   Terror attacks were a persistent theme in the speeches, along with insecure borders.  Of course objectively speaking, if they were serious about making America safe again, they would be talking about auto safety and public health, but politics is about who controls sovereign power.  So terrorism -- which is mainly a political threat to those in power -- is more important to the politically powerful than are the real dangers to Americans.  Those who hold power will always decry terrorism first and foremost and inflate its significance as a danger to citizens. 

Speech after speech was written to promote fear and to uncritically extol the valor of the police and the armed forces.  I do not doubt and I deeply respect the individual valor and self-sacrifice of law-abiding police officers and conscientious members of the armed forces.  So it saddens me to see their dedication to ideals greater than themselves used all too often to prop up injustice.   Even more worrying is that the convention's speeches frequently identified a wide spectrum of people as enemies.  They usually were not named explicitly, but by implication they included “illegal aliens,” Black Lives Matter activists, and of course, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Explicitly naming “our enemies” as “radical Muslim terrorists” also was a persistent theme, and while Rudy Giuliani was at pains to distinguish this group from all Muslims, Trump’s previous statements give one little confidence that his supporters agree with Giuliani in practice.  The main prescription for “making America safe again” was “strength” as opposed to the "weakness" that was said to be the hallmark of the Obama administration and which could be expected of a Clinton administration.

The idea that the Obama administration and a prospective Clinton administration would be weak or too reticent to employ violence against enemies should be astonishing to anyone but proponents of the most violent response to social and political conflict.  To name only the most prominent uses of force by the Obama administration:  the administration was painfully slow to de-escalate the war in Iraq and periodically re-escalated that war.  It conducted an air war against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya.  It is participating in the war in Syria, both directly and through proxies.  It expanded the war in Afghanistan and it has escalated drone strikes around the world.  Hillary Clinton has strongly supported all of these efforts and shows a strong willingness, even a commitment, to engage in additional war and violence.  But the "weakness" of Obama and Clinton was a major theme tonight.  It is clear that the convention speakers selected by Trump were pleased that he would be yet more belligerent than Obama and Clinton.  The obvious conclusion is that in this election cycle, the Republican Party has been taken over by a more extreme group of jingoists and militarists than have been seen on the political stage since at least the 1960s.

There were occasional references to Jesus, Christianity, and “our Judeo-Christian tradition.”  I am not a Christian as most people would understand that description, but I was pained for the Christians I know and respect that their religion would be appropriated by people who seem so opposed to the beautiful ideals and teaching of Christ.  How vengeance and violence could be associated with a religion whose most edifying tenets are love, peace, and non-violence has always baffled me.  Has Christianity in America really become merely a tribal affiliation of American chauvinists with no relation to the universal love espoused by Christ?  If the Republican Party convention is our authority, then the answer is yes, most definitely.  The phrases “America first,” “American exceptionalism,” and “the greatest country God ever created” (as if God might have bungled the creation of other countries), was heard in the convention speeches.  There seemed no question in the minds of the speakers that this ancient religion that proclaims a message of universal, impartial love and respect held a special place for America and that it justified brutal assaults on its enemies.  For many Republican Convention speakers, God was clearly on the side of the American Christian soldier marching to war, a song which I don’t think Jesus of Nazareth ever would have sung. 

I am still convinced that Donald Trump will not be elected president, but one should not be complacent about our long-term political future when, in the most powerful country in the world, a faction so belligerent and convinced of its divine righteousness takes control of one of the country's two political parties.  I expect women, with the help of Latinos in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada and blacks in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will sweep Hillary Clinton into the White House, but that won’t make the angry, hostile members of this subculture change the way they think.  We must find ways to bring people toward the conviction that national and international disagreements must be resolved peacefully though political agreements or everyone will suffer.

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