This week’s Republican National Convention was a spectacle, as we always knew it would be. If the Democrats’ conclave was dark, as the GOP claimed, Trump’s week was the event horizon of a political black hole. As he told the country on Thursday night, “This election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”
Traditionally—and that word should be retired after this election—national party conventions are meant to introduce nominees to the country, lay out a governing vision for the future, and rally the faithful.
Donald Trump needs no introduction. His entire life is a case study in overexposure. Despite this, his internal psychology seems to demand not only that he be on television, but that he be able to see himself on television. Like Jim Carrey’s character in The Cable Guy, for Trump, if it doesn’t happen on the magic box, it didn’t happen.
The Republican party no longer has any guiding or governing philosophy. Today, the GOP is preternaturally incapable, as is Trump, of projecting into the future. Even with three years under their belt, they couldn’t come up with a platform on which to run. There’s a reason for that: Because the GOP no longer has any core beliefs that exist outside of Trump’s whims. So they can’t commit to anything ahead of time because they don’t know where he might land in the future. As Timothy Snyder notes in On Authoritarianism, cults of personality cannot look into the future, because they can’t control it.
Like all good authoritarians, Trump and his collaborators understand that the past is where they plant their flag.
Look at how America used to be, they proclaim. Trump will make it so again.
We must re-elect him or they will take all you’ve worked for, all you hold dear, your very way of life.
How and when will Trump do this? If he is so powerful, why do his supporters still face an existential threat three years into his administration? Will there ever be another election where the stakes are not literal life-and-death? These are questions Republicans do not ask because they have no answers.
And in any case, they would be beside the point. Trump has power because tens of millions of “his people” believe in him. Republicans are either with these people, or against them, and deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Authoritarians are little more than gangs on a national scale. And we should make no mistake: The leaders of today’s Republican party, from Trump on down, are a gang. Their only objectives are, for a select few, to obtain and maintain power, enrich themselves, and take and hold territory.
Consider the conventions.
The Democratic convention was a traditional affair in the sense that it was a carnival of outreach bringing Democrats, Republicans, and independents together in an attempt to persuade voters to join a specific vision for the country. It featured people as far apart from one another as John Kasich and Bernie Sanders.
The Republican convention featured mostly Donald Trump, his family members, and his most obsequious aiders and abettors—Mike Pompeo, Kellyanne Conway, Matt Gaetz. The RNC had no interest in reaching Democrats, independents, or anyone who might be persuadable. The rhetoric was so over the top that they weren’t even trying to reach Trump-skeptical Republicans.
So whom were they speaking to? Exactly the same 28 percent to 32 percent of the country who live in the Trump-Fox-Bannon-Limbaugh flywheel of doom. That’s it. Trump has literally no interest beyond those who follow him unconditionally. Anyone else, to his gangster’s mind, is not worthy of his attention. Just ask blue state residents.
Trump and his campaign look at their polling and know he can’t win a majority of the vote. They’re not even trying. Instead, Trump is hoping to do nothing more than keep the election from being a total blowout on Election Day. That way he has a chance to roll the dice and hit the Electoral College the hard way. Or, failing that, utilize his goon squad to stir up trouble, contest the election and make the transition from his administration to Biden’s incredibly disruptive and painful.
Not for him, of course, but for the country, and its 330 million residents.
Know this: The race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will tighten this fall. The numbers will close as both Republicans and Democrats come home to their respective tribes. As usual, it will be those 10 to 15 percent of swing voters in a handful of states that will ultimately make the decision about which direction America will take.
What’s lucky for us, Donald Trump doesn’t care about them any more than he cares about the rest of us.