The Republican convention is over and the post-mortems have begun. Did Ted Cruz commit a cardinal sin by failing to endorse his party’s nominee? Did the Trump campaign wait too long to admit that Melania Trump’s speech was plagiarized? Did Donald Trump manage to “pivot” to a presidential demeanor?
Anyone tuning in to the Cleveland circus would have found these and other questions of fleeting moment being endlessly masticated.
But the forgettable journalistic murmurings must not obscure the central fact of the convention, one demonstrated indelibly in Trump’s deranged post-convention press conference: The party of Abraham Lincoln has fallen to an unplumbed, never previously imagined depth.
It aims to install a demented bigot, a chronic liar, a human cesspool in the sacred precinct of White House. With the roll call of states awarding the presidential nomination to Trump, the terrifyingly abnormal has been officially normalized.
Lying has always been incidental to American politics. But it is at the core of the Trumpian political brand, just as it was at the core of his Trump University and his various other scams. “Here, at our convention,” said Trump in his acceptance speech, “there will be no lies.” That itself was a lie. The convention was rife with every conceivable kind of falsehood.
Team Trump spent almost three days adhering straight-facedly to the preposterous claim that any resemblance of Melania’s speech to Michelle Obama’s was purely a coincidence. When they then abruptly chose to admit the obvious truth, so inured was the journalistic world to Trump’s incessant lying, that no one batted an eye at the reversal, which Team Trump claimed, just as preposterously, was not an admission of fault at all.
Trump’s prevarications — and those of his obedient thug subordinates and those of his children — are brazen, numerous, and pertain to matters both trivial and great. They are often uttered in such rapid succession and with such insistence and determination, that journalists, particularly those operating in the instantaneous medium of live television, are unable to perform their cardinal duty of policing the truth.
On the eve of the convention, Leslie Stahl of CBS listened deferentially as Trump claimed, as he has on innumerable occasions, to have opposed the Iraq war. Like so many other journalists (Andrew Kaczynski and McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed are the two most conscientious exceptions) confronted with this naked falsehood, Stahl let the lie stand. She pushed back not at all.
Stoking of hatred is another key feature of Trump’s political product line. In a country already divided deeply, he offers animosity in a virtual Baskin-Robbins of flavors: misogyny, bigotry, racism, nativism and anti-Semitism are five of his favorites. Throughout his campaign they have been promoted sedulously with winks and nods and dog whistles and tweets and entire policy roll-outs like the Muslim ban.
At the convention, Trump kindled the spirit of viciousness with the terror-inducing picture he sketched of an America beset by crime.
Given that in poll after poll only a tiny fraction of the population identifies crime as among the nation’s most important problems, one can conclude that the fearmongering is aimed at stirring racial anxieties and animosities among his base of white uneducated voters without saying as much.
The responsive chants in the stadium of “lock her up,” answering to talk at the podium of Hillary Clinton’s “terrible crimes” and treachery, mark another form of descent in our political discourse.
Coming on the same day that Trump heaped praise on Recep Tayyip Erdogan for conducting an unrelenting purge of alleged plotters in every nook and corner of Turkey, we can glimpse the authoritarian reflexes that would be at the core of Trump’s governing style should he ever gain access to the levers of power.
If one embraces the criminalization of political differences, as the Trump camp does, it is only a small downward step to the view, vocalized by a Trump adviser, that Hillary Clinton should be “shot for treason.” One gets the sense that many of those around Trump, if not the candidate himself, would gain a great deal of satisfaction if more scores could be settled, resentments acted out and violence let loose.
American history has been a long march upward toward freedom and more perfect equality before the law. But beginning with the original sin of human bondage, American history has also been punctuated by dark chapters in which we betrayed our own ideals.
In the last century, we saw the Red Scare of 1919-20, the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the ruining of innocent lives during the McCarthy era in the 1950s.
If we are fortunate and cooler heads prevail, the Republican Convention in Cleveland may be the high-water mark of another such episode. But we may not be fortunate. Given the proximity that Donald Trump has already attained to the most powerful position in the world, and given the grotesque and disgraceful behavior he has already succeeded in cultivating and normalizing, the Trump phenomenon is perhaps the most disturbing chapter in all of our modern political history.
Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior adviser to the Romney campaign in 2012.