On MSNBC last night a bunch of really smart guys were saying how Trump would and must be outraged at how a staffer/speech writer on his campaign let his wife down, embarrassed her on a global stage. That person would immediately be fired. I thought to myself at the time: what campaign have they been watching? There’s nothing we have seen about this enterprise that makes that outcome remotely likely. Far more likely: deny, deny, deny and attack, attack, attack.
Remember, as embarrassing and as message stomping as this was, there’s a pretty straightforward way to contain and end this story: “A speechwriter on our campaign got sloppy and made an inexcusable mistake. He let Melania and the whole campaign down. He’s now resigned from the campaign.”
Done and done.
That’s just not how Trump works. When you’re under fire, you attack. When you’re caught, you lie. These are all things that can work in small settings, with small groups of people you can bully and intimidate, with yes-men and compliant media. It can also work before an electorate focused not on policy but on provocation, revenge and dominance. It is not sustainable at this level of national media exposure, with other power players in the mix who are not so easily cowed, bullied or tricked. Not can it with an electorate more focused on governing and the future.
In substantive terms, the much bigger story from last night was a hastily thrown together program focused on violence, bloodshed and betrayal by political enemies. We’ve become so inured to Trump’s brand of incitement that it’s barely gotten any notice that Trump had three parents whose children had been killed by illegal/undocumented immigrants tell their stories and whip up outrage and fear about the brown menace to the South. These were either brutal murders or killings with extreme negligence. The pain these parents experience is unfathomable.
But whatever you think about undocumented immigrants there’s no evidence they are more violent or more prone to murder than others in American society. One could just as easily get three people whose children had been killed by African-Americans or Jews, people whose pain and anguish would be no less harrowing. This isn’t illustration; it’s incitement. When Trump first did this in California a couple months ago people were aghast. Now it’s normal.
Even more disturbing, numerous speakers from the dais, including some of the top speakers of the evening, called for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned. At least two – and I think more – actually led the crowd in chants of “lock her up!” There has never been any evidence of criminal activity on Clinton’s part. An investigation with a lot of pressure to find something amiss concluded that no charges should be recommended against her and that no prosecutor would bring charges against her for anything connected to her private email server.
It goes without saying that it is a highly dangerous development when one presidential nominee and his supporters make into a rallying cry that the opposing candidate should be imprisoned. This is not Russia. This is not some rickety Latin American Republic from half a century ago. This is America. For all our failings and foibles this is not a path we’ve ever gone down.
This is not a disagreement about a matter of law: it is a demand for vengeance and punishment, one rooted in the pathologies of the current Trumpite right and inevitably to some extent about the fact that Clinton is a woman. If you have a chance rewatch the speeches by Rudy Giuliani or even more ret. Gen Michael Flynn. These are not normal convention speeches. It is only a small skip and a jump to the state legislator in West Virginia who demanded Clinton by executed by hanging on the National Mall. In such a climate, don’t fool yourself: worse can happen.
The Trump campaign has always been about revenge and reclamation. Trump is a catalyst not a cause. It is all borne from the social and cultural transformation that is currently changing the country. Hillary Clinton has plenty of flaws. But they have no necessary or clear connection to the venom and increasingly violent anger directed against her. She’s simply the symbol and target. “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!”. This is an American political convention. She’s the opposing party nominee. This is not normal. Not normal at all.
It is no exaggeration to say the driving themes of last night’s program – with a brief interlude of uplift from Melania Trump – were a pervasive vision of insecurity, violence and bloodshed, committed by national outsiders and abetted by the betrayals of political enemies. We debate the definition of fascism and just what governmental structures it involves. But setting that largely academic and mostly unhelpful debate aside, this is precisely the kind of febrile victimology and demands for aggression and revenge against enemies that gives rise to it. ‘Fascism’ is a distraction that is more a cudgel than an explanatory device. What Trump is, however, is a would-be authoritarian ruler. And, as we’ve discussed, authoritarian rulers require violence and disorder because it is their justification for rule.
The fact that the current First Lady’s speech from eight years ago showed up in Melania Trump’s speech is largely irrelevant in comparison to these developments. It is simply another example of the amateur grifterism and slapdash Potemkin village that is everything Trump. He is a dangerous man for a dangerous moment.