On Thursday night in Cleveland, a supposedly very frightened orange man took the enormous, flag-littered stage at the Quicken Loans Arena. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Donald Trump laid out an apocalyptic vision of the United States he evidently lives in, a place where cities are flooded with lawlessness and crime, police officers are slaughtered en masse, the economy is crumbling, and someplace called the “inner city” isn’t safe to tread.
“Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities,” he thundered. “Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims. I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”
The speech was classic Trump: an over-long, self-aggrandizing, ideologically incoherent mess, long on proclamations and promises and short on concrete details. But it also showcased Trump’s unique lack of ideals: apart from his apparently implacable hatred of NATO and NAFTA, does he have any strongly held beliefs? Just one, it seems, a relatively recent conviction for a former Democratic sympathizer: that America is bad and getting worse, weakened by a hideous, multi-colored stew of Muslims, illegal immigrants, and political correctness. Trump criticized what he called “the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.” And he implied that any right-thinking American is filled with fear and dread, desperate for someone to save us.
“In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate,” he promised. “The irresponsible rhetoric of our President, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone.”
It’s rich for a man who’s pledged to ban Muslim immigration to accuse President Obama of sowing division. And it was striking to realize, as the speech went on, how sincerely Trump seems to hate Muslims and undocumented people these days. It truly is a new one for him, relatively speaking. And yet somehow he’s learned—remarkably quickly for a political novice and an actual idiot— that it’s much more acceptable, when you’re running for office, to claim fear than to express hate.
There’s a bit of a mystery here: I don’t know why Trump hates those people, when that particular seed took root in his charred walnut of a heart. Muslims have never done anything to him and undocumented people made some of his buildings. Maybe he’s just getting more bigoted as he gets older, as happens to some people. Maybe he relishes the applause when he delivers those lines about “radical Islamic terrorism,” an intensity of approval he’s never quite been able to muster before, not in his entire adult life. (As McKay Coppins noted in a stellar piece last week, mockery and a realization that nobody takes him seriously seems to have played a large role in driving Trump to finally run for office for real.)
Either way, one of Trump’s main successes is realizing how, exactly, to pander to the most hateful, base and bigoted sentiments of white America: pretend to be afraid. We don’t tolerate open, naked hatred in this country in quite the same way anymore. In much of polite society, you can’t use racist or anti-gay slurs, (even in a campaign like Trump’s, one that’s made an extremely cozy place for both angry, resentful whites and actual Nazis to live).
So you can’t always nakedly appeal to people’s bigotry, not where everyone can see (a Trump foreign policy advisor had to apologize for sharing a blatantly anti-Semitic tweet over the weekend, just like the Trump campaign had to find excuses earlier this month for posting an image of a six-pointed star on a pile of cash next to Hillary’s face). But you can use the language, as Trump and much of the RNC’s full lineup did, of fear and concern, of safety and health, of cowering women and endangered families.
“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police,” Trump promised. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.” Politico reports that Trump’s speech was a big success with GOP insiders, who thought he’d hit the nail right on the head.
Even before he appeared, the convention dealt in hate masquerading as fear. The entire first night was dedicated to the theme “Make America Safe Again,” and featured a litany of people who’d lost loved ones either in the Benghazi attacks or at the hands of undocumented people, a lineup that was almost breathtaking in how aggressively and cynically it exploited personal tragedy for political ends. At different points in the week, both Joni Ernst and Marsha Blackburn also claimed that there are ISIS cells in “all 50 states.” That’s a terrifying and very wrong claim that relies on an aggressive misreading of a statement from the FBI from last year, which said the agency is probing people with potential terrorist ties in all 50 states.
What’s interesting, too, is how starkly this language of fear failed to correspond with what was happening literally right outside the convention center. A truly massive, increasingly bored police presence patrolled the Cleveland for the four days of the RNC: some 5,500 local, state and federal officers were on the lookout for a dangerous protester element that mostly never arrived. The National Lawyers Guild said there were two dozen total arrests over the course of the week. The most highly publicized incident came when free speech activist Gregory “Joey” Johnson set an American flag alight, which is legal. He was arrested anyway for disorderly conduct, with police claiming he’d set himself on fire (a claim not backed up by video evidence or any independent observer at the scene).
The police scanner, too, carried increasingly absurd rumors: At one point, the mounted patrol had the poop from their horses hastily swept up, fearing that the protesters were planning to weaponize it. At another, a false rumor spread on the scanner that an angry activist was sticking cops with syringes. That one was debunked an hour later.
But if Trump had bothered to step outside in the afternoon before his speech, if he’d looked beyond the restive, muttering walls of police officers spreading in every direction, he might, in a way, have been reassured. In downtown Cleveland’s Public Square, there was evidence everywhere you looked of a free and democratic country, one where people haven’t descended into full-scale lawlessness and wanton murder just yet.
The streets were full of people who violently disagreed with one another, people who feared each other, even people who sincerely, viciously hated each other: the Westboro Baptist Church faced off with Black Lives Matter faced off with open carry activists faced off with thousands of representatives from the godless, sodomite-promoting liberal media. And yet we all managed, somehow, not to tear each other to shreds.
One corner of Public Square that Thursday was a particularly stark example, when protesters from the nutty and fairly cult-like Revolutionary Communist Party stood facing both a phalanx of cops and a few hoarse counter-protesters. The discussion that ensued was both boring and hilariously circular. “America was never great!” from the RCP, followed by “Leave, then!” from the outraged counter-demonstrators, on and on for hours, a conga line of shouting and insults, until I got dizzy and hot walking around in circles and took my leave.
But as the RCP and the cops and reporters chased each other around the square, democracy went on as usual. People expressed their views. Other people expressed their counter-views (usually that the original person was a fucking idiot). Observers from Amnesty International and the National Lawyers Guild patrolled in bright yellow and green shirts and hats. A heavily pregnant TV reporter in stacked wedge heels stood doing a live shot next a pack of leathery, jovial Bikers for Trump. A beaming older woman in a floral dress walked two tiny dogs feet from where the RCP and their counter protesters screamed at each other about the Iraq War. A woman in a walker rested on it, watching the double line of police officers shifting on their heels. One of the dozens of church groups who descended on the RNC paraded through, handing out icy water bottles with a logo that read “Elect Jesus.” Third-party candidate and friend of Jezebel Vermin Supreme strolled by, wearing his customary boot on his head and a pale pink fake ass hanging from his pants. He lightly teased a guy in an InfoWars t-shirt.
“I’m sorry I beat up Alex Jones!” he declared, referencing a very light scuffle the InfoWars founder had with some of the communists. “I didn’t mean to hit him so hard.” The InfoWars guy smiled uneasily. Everyone disagreed, and judged each other, and a few people were even filled with hate. We all went home whole, though. The twilight of fear descending on Trump’s version America wasn’t visible, even as the sun set in Cleveland.
If they’re smart, the Democrats will use their own convention week in Philadelphia to emphasize that they’re not afraid, that the America they live in is stronger and richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it. But it’s just as likely that there, too, fear will be a driving force—fear of Donald Trump, who is, it’s become clear, much more worthy of our dread.
Trump at the RNC. Photo via AP