What can definitively be said about the Republican National Convention’s weaponizing of Blackness and poverty to spout predictable American mythology?
Trump and his cronies say again and again that he has “done the most for black people.” In fact, every U.S. government has failed and brutalized Black Americans and countless racialized people in the country and outside of it. The most significant positive change to Black life has been made through grassroots activism. Not even Lincoln himself is responsible for the movement that would eventually lead to the eradication of slavery, yet U.S. politicians would have you believe otherwise. Historically, both Republicans and Democrats have taken part in this particularly ugly kind of truth-twisting opportunism, yet, this year as in 2016, it’s the GOP that has most flagrantly employed tokenizing methods to tell lies.
The party brought out Black public housing residents from Frederick Douglass Houses in Manhattan to make complaints about the generally loathed Bill de Blasio and attribute any hope for positive transformation to Donald Trump; they’ve also propped up the deaths of law enforcement, like slain Black retired police captain David Dorn, as a reason why policing as an institution should never be challenged. The Republicans, running an urgent and almost desperate re-election campaign, have strategically run through a laundry list of reasons why racialized people typically distrust conservative government, using them to devise crafty ways to make an age-old conservative-agenda appeal to constituents who are laser-focused on personal benefit. The fourth night of the RNC made it clear as ever that the Trump-led party is more concerned about winning than they are about governing, and right now, Black people and the poor are irresistible assets.
Mainstream political rhetoric has often been cynical—any set of individual or even collective realities can be twisted to serve any party’s purposes; and for some, it might be hard to see beyond one’s own circumstances to make sense of what would be effective harm reduction (to me, that’s the best that U.S. electoral politics have ever offered). Many of the speakers at the RNC have demonstrated that their greatest concerns lie within—power beckons and fear rattles the souls of voters who can bestow it. The concept of America and Americans is a convenient abstraction, a mass of law-abiding, patriotic, Chevy or Ford-driving freedom-lovers; everyone else is merely an inconvenience to that idea. The protesters, activists, strikers, rioters, socialists, progressives, and even the Democrats are troublemakers, domestic threats, haters. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said as much when he praised Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old white vigilante who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters days ago. Of course, this kind of hateful rhetoric has been recycled by politicians since the beginning of this nation, yet, recently, the GOP has used the most violent application of it to deliver victory.
With the possible re-election of Donald Trump looming over us, the Democrats have argued that allowing the president to continue threatens to extinguish what’s left of democracy in this country; Republicans, on the other hand, have argued that the Democrats are radical elitists who want to unleash mayhem (mayhem that has somehow already been unleashed under Trump’s presidency) on—and this is the not-so-quiet part—white Midwestern Americans or “stoic machinists and steel workers,” as Ivanka Trump put it. Republicans also charge Democrats with hating America since they refuse to unequivocally praise its every shape and form; Democrats, in contrast, have offered a deep love for America as the reason to fight for its soul, echoing Michelle Obama.
“No, the U.S. is not a superior nation, it is a young one that has survived precisely because its most marginalized people fight so fervently against its worst legacies.”
The majority of people don’t watch conventions, but what you hear in them finds its way around. That every election hinges so heavily on a bifurcation of all political beliefs into Democrat and Republican offers insight into the bedtime stories that prop up the American exceptionalist narrative that the Republicans tout so gleefully. No, the U.S. is not a superior nation, it is a young one that has survived precisely because its most marginalized people fight so fervently against its worst legacies. The more America’s leaders try to suppress its most committed dissenters, the more existential trouble it is in for. In this way, we are just like everywhere else—the people who have been the most cheated by this place are the most likely to transform it for the better.
But at the RNC’s fourth night, it wasn’t merely the trotting out of Black Trump supporters that served the prime-time hour, but the shiny sloganeering of Ivanka and then her father, propping up an unimaginatively-crafted fiction of executive competence and compassion. Ivanka ran through a list of issues that are typically important to those on the left as a way to potentially seduce disillusioned Democrats to the right. This list included the claim that Trump provided more jobs for women and tax credits for childcare; according to Ivanka, he got things done while partisans sat on their laurels. These kinds of claims aren’t new amongst nearly any politician, they’re just very easy to express. Other speakers accused the Democrats of being the social welfare party, communists on the verge who want to hand out free checks to the lazy and criminal, since to the Trump Republicans, the greatest honor America can offer is the ability to hustle for a check cut by your boss, and not the state.
“It seems that Trump is running a rhetorical campaign against the progressive wing of the Democratic party, a segment of the party the Democratic leadership has largely rejected.”
There are, of course, those of us who would be thrilled if the Democrats were genuinely sly radicals gearing up for revolution. Yet, it’s clear the core of the Democratic party are moderate and capitalist, even as Mitch McConnell claims they are unabashed Reds, foaming at the mouth to start state programs and give away free resources. Trump seemed to contradict his own narrative when, during his seemingly interminable speech, he falsely claimed that Democratic leadership wants to institute progressive policy like defunding the police while remaining rich and protected, as he is himself; in fact, the progressive policy that many communities have demanded is almost nowhere to be found. It seems that Trump is running a rhetorical campaign against the progressive wing of the Democratic party, a segment of the party the Democratic leadership has largely rejected.
What’s so frightening about the RNC is that the spectacle paints a very real portrait of what the U.S. is on the verge of becoming if it hasn’t already: a country where fervent settler-derived nationalism and selectively-bestowed citizenship offers you not necessarily riches, but the ability to use your rugged individual survival as proof of your domestic and global superiority. We know that the majority of Americans who vote, and likely the majority of Americans period, are not totally convinced by this narrative, but the Electoral College is another story. Mythologies take hold where the promise of power is dangled, and the Trump administration knows who to taunt.