Thursday, July 21, 2016

Witnessing The GOP Convention

The Last three days have been some of the most interesting (and scary) I've experienced as a politics-watcher (a period that goes back to 1976, when I was eight). The whole Trump deal, from his actions as a candidate to the events of this week's convention, have been staggering. Unprecedented.

What's been so remarkable to me is not just Trump and his manifest incompetence and ignorance. He is a piece of work, but he is only an extension of the same pathologies we've seen emerge in figures like Sarah Palin--the naked racism, contempt for knowledge and expertise, and that shocking melange of arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance. He's not different from Palin, he's just a more concentrated version of all the same qualities.

No, what's remarkable is that he has shattered the norms that govern politics. Societies function not because of formal laws, but because of unwritten agreements. It's the way civilized people navigate the world. These unwritten agreements undergird government function, and critically. In 2000, Al Gore acceded to the nakedly political (and internally inconsistent) fiat by the Supreme Court that installed Bush as president. In functioning governments, the judiciary's rule is sacrosanct--if it is nothing but a rubber stamp to the party in office, then there's really no law. Once one branch defies another, things fall apart. And there's no law that says they can't defy each other. Had Gore said, "Nah, I don't accept it. Democrats, stand with me as we continue to fight this battle," things could have gone sideways very fast.

The GOP has been nibbling at the edges of this kind of norm-flouting for years. Obama's got the constitutional right to have his Supreme Court nominee considered by the Senate, but they've refused. Earlier, they shut government down as a negotiation ploy for their preferred policies. They impeached Clinton. They questioned Obama's legitimacy and legal right to be president. But in every case, there was an acknowledgement that certain lines of conduct couldn't be reasonably transgressed. There were lines, even if they wanted to push them to the limit.

Not anymore! Trumpism means letting your freak flag fly. Like rebels in a developing country, they call not only for their political opponent's jailing, but sometimes even her death. (An elected official in New Hampshire--and an advisor to the Trump campaign--did that yesterday.) It means constructing grievances over things that are not happening. In Trump-world, everyone is red-faced because Obama has diminished the US's standing in the world (false), because he has illegally used executive decisions to thwart Congress (false, but a necessary rhetorical precursor for a party that means to ignore the rule of law), because the economy is collapsing (false), that jobs are all gone (false), that Hillary Clinton is a criminal and murderer (false, as if it even needs to be said). A speaker at the Republican National Convention did indeed literally call Clinton a murderer.

All this grievance (and it's clearly authentic; these people are melting down in real anger) means the folks at the convention, and in the GOP generally, feel that they can break all norms and cross all lines. The Democrats, by this line of thinking, are the ones who crossed the lines. Any reprisal is justified. The Democrats are the ones who flout the law; they are the ones who have nominated a criminal. We have to stop them for the greater good. The ends justify our means.

Last year I could see how the GOP would elect Trump. He is floridly bad, but he's not entirely different from other Republican politicians.  I couldn't see how he'd open the door to the GOP's darkest fantasies and paranoias and that we'd be witnessing such a shocking inversion of political norms. Social scientists say we all have "thresholds" of appropriate behavior. When riots start, people's thresholds collapse, and they become capable of behavior they would normally never engage in. Trump was the riotmaster. He keeps egging his followers on, lowering their threshold for bizarre behavior.

All of this has culminated in a convention in which a former candidate for president (Chris Christie) put Hillary Clinton on a show trial, and which the constant call-and-response refrain is "lock her up." In politics, once you delegitimize  your political adversaries, you'd dropped the threshold--measured by adherence to unwritten rules of conduct--and justified any action you take. This is how third world countries lurch from coup to coup and devolve into constant wave of civil war. We're obviously not immediately devolving into civil war, but we're also not standing on the same firm ground we enjoyed in 2000. (Indeed, imagine an election that close happening this year; would you rely on the GOP to stand down in identical circumstances? Of course they wouldn't.)

That I did not foresee.


debaser said...

I had the unfortunate experience this evening of overhearing a drunken couple (likely on a date... of some sort,) debating Drumpf v. Hillary. I'd intended to appreciate a much deserved hoppy beverage at a brewpub's sidewalk table. The Drumpf supporter was a fifty-ish man of approximately my own demographic -- middle-aged, white, lower-middle class, male. His debate partner was maybe a few years younger (just as intoxicated,) female, and slightly less informed than her date/debate opponent. I was quite settled in by the time Buckley and Vidal broached politics. His opening statement was something like "Do you really want to do this now? Here?" How I wish she had said no.
He proceeded to mansplain global politics as "business" and Donald Drumpf as a successful business man therefore, the President we need. In his words, "what successful business-person hasn't gone bankrupt once or three times?" Now, I'm still confident that most of these ignorantly privileged dullards aren't registered to vote (and likely never will be, thus saving the "Democracy,") but I'll admit that simultaneously my forced eavesdropping gave me chills and the impulse to insert my comments into their "private" conversation. The same chills I get when watching footage of McCarthy. I remember being being stunned upon realizing that more than 50,000,000 of my fellow Americans voted for McCain/Palin. I'm extremely confident that this will not be a close election, but damage has been done. It is so sad that does not seem to be a compassionate, liberal counter to right-wing, conservative, christian hate that has anywhere near the same impact.

Jordan Bertagnolli said...

The GOP still makes a lot of people rich. Even though they have lost much of their power, the GOP has not lost their ability to enrich themselves. Trump comes from reality tv. He made millions there. He received an education in reading the audience and going home with a fat pay check. There is a reason why Trump is a caricature of the worst the GOP has to offer. He plays that role well.

Perhaps the abandonment of the GOP's 2012 autopsy was intentional. Perhaps they are just in it for the money now. The convention, as you put it, defies all precedent. But that could be because the reality of the situation has set in for the party elite; that they can no longer win nationally so it is best to cash their chips in now while the going is good.