Seldom have our national conventions provided such enlightenment.
Usually these quadrennial talkfests are mounds of verbal tapioca, as riveting as a four-hour walking tour of your own living room. Their ostensible purpose is to unify the party and burnish the candidate, launching the campaign with a burst of enthusiasm which swells the hearts of voters. But this year's conventions sharpened our divisions and exposed one candidate's craving for adoration and submissiveness, provoking waves of uncertainty and fear.
The Republican convention was notable for its emptiness -- of vision, ideas, or even hope. Its singular aim was to frighten us into entrusting our future to a demagogue with a barren soul.
The strategists for Donald Trump have concluded that stoking anger and division is their only way to win. An opening night dedicated to the theme "make America safe again" became a hymn of hatred against Hillary Clinton. The second night was more venomous yet, its centerpiece Chris Christie's indictment of Clinton as delegates shouted "lock her up".
Indeed Clinton, not Trump, was the central figure of both nights. Bereft of credible reasons that Trump should be our president, the party resorted to hysterical reiterations of why Clinton should not.
A grieving mother of a son lost at Benghazi essentially accused Clinton of murder. A state representative from New Hampshire said she should be "shot for treason". And the inimitable Ben Carson revealed that Clinton is the handmaiden of Satan himself.
Like Lucifer, we discovered, Hillary Clinton is responsible for all evil in the world. Thus Paul Manafort's revelation that Melania Trumps plagiarism -- a stunning example of organizational ineptitude -- had become an issue only because of Hillary Clinton's war on other women.
And what of Paul Ryan, the GOP's erstwhile man of big ideas? His presentation was largely Trump-free. To tepid applause, he assured those assembled that unity is everything and Hillary must go -- truly a program for the ages.
To whom, one began to wonder, are they appealing beyond partisans who are as beyond reason as Pavlov's dogs? Even the assembled loyalists began evincing a certain fatigue of spirit.
So they seemed resuscitated by Ted Cruz -- whose remarkable achievement it was to give them someone other than Hillary Clinton to hate. Specifically, Cruz himself.
True, inspiring loathing is his greatest gift. But your own party's convention is a unique opportunity, and Cruz did not disappoint.
Like the legion of others who can't stomach Trump and have ambitions of their own -- John Kasich leaps to mind -- Cruz could have stayed away. Instead he delivered a self-satisfied paean to principal which ran 15 minutes overtime, which he capped by imploring conservatives to vote their conscience in November. He might as well have said that any conservative with a conscience should never vote for Trump.
True enough. But delegates booed the apostate vociferously. So visceral was the atmosphere that Heidi Cruz had to be escorted from the floor.
Were Cruz not the enemy of oleaginous opportunism, an observer might have seen his moment of payback as simple justice. It was Trump, after all, who mocked his wife's appearance in a tweet, and who linked Cruz's father to the JFK assassination -- low points even in a year where The Donald dragged our politics into the primordial ooze.
But where the two antagonists so richly deserve each other, we were left to wonder why Trump allowed yet another night to veer from any sane person's idea of a message -- especially given that Trump's people knew what was coming well beforehand. Leaving us to wonder yet again whether Trump is stupifyingly incapable of running a convention, a campaign or, God help us, country, or whether his idea of a successful liftoff stems from World Wide Wrestling.
And so Mike Pence's moment in the sun became an afterthought. Though he proved himself a serviceable attack dog, his speech was standard right-wing boilerplate which had little to do with anything Trump purports to believe.
This raised a question -- had Trump indeed taken over the party or, in the minds of its establishment, was he merely a veneer on the same old stuff which had gotten the GOP in such trouble with its base. A companion curiosity is whether Trump even noticed.
But the ostentatiously Christian Pence recycled another familiar trope -- lying. Invoking the deaths at Benghazi once again, he declaimed, "It was Hillary Clinton who left Americans in harm's way in Benghazi and after four Americans fell, said,' What difference at this point does it make?'"
This was no casual lie. Quite deliberately, Pence wrenched Clinton's response to a question about the attacks during a congressional hearing completely out of context, converting her comment on the question itself to an expression of indifference about four tragic deaths.
The GOP makes much of Clinton's supposed character flaws. But Pence's self-proclaimed Christianity, it seems, does not preclude slander and mendacity in the service of ambition, especially when Pence is forging a personal relationship with his political savior -- not Jesus Christ but, regrettably, Donald Trump. Even more lamentable is that his master has made such smears so routine that his acolyte's emulation went widely unremarked.
As for Trump himself, there was no mistaking the meaning of his acceptance speech.
It introduced a GOP without pride or principle, an empty sound stage in the service of Donald Trump. As David Brooks put it, "This is less a party than a personality cult." And the personality it serves is that of a demagogue who stampedes the electorate with lies and fear in order to serve himself.
His speech was a remarkable moment in our political history. As a matter of intellectual rigor, I routinely deplore the facile references to fascism and its progenitors which the left too often deploys as a shorthand for leaders or movements they deplore. I will try to do better here.
But first, a confession. When Trump appeared on stage, I began wondering where I had seen those mannerisms before -- the semi-comical strut, the pursed lips and look of self-satisfaction, the self-preening tendency to present his profile for the crowd, first left, then right. Then the original came to me: film clips of Benito Mussolini.
You can't say this in a column, I admonished myself at once -- it's too glib, too cheap and, ultimately, explains nothing. Then Trump started speaking. And so honesty requires me to acknowledge the historical antecedents for Trump's performance -- all the more so because far too many in the media have normalized this speech beyond its due.
Its components were classic and quite simple.
Relentlessly, Trump painted a dystopian America for Obama and Clinton are killing off our safety and our future. Best to simply quote examples:
"The irresponsible rhetoric of our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment than, frankly, I have ever seen."
"Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another."
"I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good."
"Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by the administration's rollback of criminal enforcement."
"Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records... are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens."
"But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn't worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice in the altar of open borders."
"This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism and weakness."
And on and on, depicting America as too dangerous to place in the hands of a woman who "wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment" -in order, we learned, to deprive Americans of their means of self-defense against the barbarism that she and our first black president have unleashed.
With respect to crime, Trump deployed falsehoods as a fear-enhancer in order to depict a violent country swamped by a rising tide of murder.
In truth, since 1991 the rate of violent crime has been cut in half. Trump's assertion that the murder rate for police has risen by 50 percent this year is a blatant lie. And his claim that decades of progress in reducing crime are being reversed -- a lie in itself -- also throws our federal system and Constitution on the trash heap of mendacity.
As a matter of basic civics, the federal government is not responsible for law enforcement in American cities. Either Trump does not know this or, far more likely, does not care. In this area, is in so many others, Trump's America is a fiction conjured to serve his grasp for power, here enhanced by a peculiar irony -- the suggestion of a federal takeover of law enforcement which abridges the GOP's commitment to local control.
Trump's dire economic portrait is also daubed in lies. His claims about black unemployment and Hispanic poverty -- virtually his only effort to address minorities -- are blatantly untrue. He doubled the unemployment rate for black youths, and ignored that the percentage of poverty among Hispanics has declined. His assertion that household incomes are down more than $4000 since year 2000 is based on stale numbers from 2014, and ignores that incomes have risen substantially in the intervening years he so conveniently omits.
His claims about taxes are equally deceptive. His charge that Clinton "plans a massive... tax increase" ignores that 95 percent of Americans will see little or no change. His promise of the "largest tax reduction" proposed by any candidate this year ignores that virtually all of the benefit goes the very wealthy. And it omits another inconvenient truth -- that according to non-partisan experts Trump's proposals will explode the deficit by $12 trillion in a decade.
Ditto Trump's appeals to xenophobia. As one example, he asserts that there is no way to vet the Syrian refugees who, in his telling, threaten our lives. In truth, the thorough vetting process which already exists takes 18 to 24 months And of all the immigrants admitted since 9/11, not a single one has committed an act of terrorism. Here, as elsewhere, one marvels at Trump's shamelessness and cynicism, the harbingers of an utter lack of conscience.
But the most disturbing element was his only solution to the problems he conjured from fear and lies -- himself.
Throughout, the speech was naked of concrete remedies. All he offered us was the authoritarian promises of history's man on horseback, a malign fairy tale told to children with no power to reason or even to think: that his mere presence in the White House -- and only his presence -- would become both ends and means, our last hope of salvation from all the forces which beset us.
Again and again, Trump invoked the magical power of himself. And, again, only quotation will suffice:
"Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it."
"On January 20, 2017, the day I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced."
"I have a message for every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country."
"I have made billions of dollars in business making deals -- now I'm going to make our country rich again."
"I'm going to bring back our jobs in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in New York, in Michigan and all of America."
"I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great trade agreements."
"We're going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS. And we're going to defeat them fast."
How will he accomplish these wonders? He certainly doesn't know, clearly doesn't care, and never even pretends to tell us. Why should he? He is not like other men and women -- he is Donald Trump. And because no claim of uniqueness is complete without forging a mystical personification of a people in the leader who will determine our fate, he assures us: "I am your voice."
A very loud voice. Trump shouted most of his speech in the tone of a man bent on compelling fear and hatred -- of all those who oppose him, and all of the enemies he promises to crush on our behalf. There was little warmth or humor, little effort to be likable. Such variations in tone do not befit a national father.
Nor did Trump display any real interest -- in tone or substance -- in reaching beyond his base of angry and disaffected whites. There was no recognition of diversity, no appeal for support from people of color. There was no uplift, no indication of any high or noble purpose in the American spirit. Demographically and spiritually, Donald Trump's America is as small as the man himself.
I should be clear. America is not Italy in the 1920s. We have a Constitution, and our traditions are democratic, not authoritarian. Trump cannot transform our institutions by himself; one doubts that he's even considered the difficulties. Still, as president this man on horseback can do America great harm.
He can overreach, provoking a Constitutional crisis. He can mire us in a dangerous drift caused by his own incompetence and incomprehension of our institutions. He can use the levers of government to intimidate the media and harass his host of enemies, real or imagined. He can plunge us into disaster through ignorant and impetuous decisions. He can deepen the violence and severity of our racial divide.
Quite possibly, he would do them all. And his failure to make good on his magical promises would surely create further anger and alienation among his followers, fracturing our society in a way that threatens our stability and our capacity for self-governance.
No responsible political party would give us this man.
Yet the GOP left Cleveland bearing the stamp of Donald Trump -- the party of white identity and populist economics, led by a demagogue on horseback. That, sadly, is likely sufficient to rally most Republicans in such fearful and polarized times. The party's soulless gamble is that the souls of enough other Americans have shriveled sufficiently to drink from its poisoned chalice.
It is Hillary Clinton's job to persuade them they should not. And so she came to Philadelphia needing the very good convention that she is quite capable of putting on -- one much more positive in tone and substance than the Republican festival of rage.
In this disturbing and volatile season, Clinton has the aura of experience and competence to reassure an electorate which, in the words of public opinion expert Peter Hart, is not "aspirational..but one that would just be satisfied to find peace and quiet." But 25 years of relentless partisan attacks, accentuated by her own missteps, have planted misgivings about her trustworthiness.
Part of her difficulty is that after two terms of a Democratic president, Clinton embodies the status quo for those who desire change. But the email controversy has become a magnet, attracting iron filings of other doubts and discontents, its power reinforced by James Comey's damaging exoneration.
The act at its heart was never indictable, but its incaution was a serious mistake. And her shifting explanations provide an echo chamber for the further controversies which dog her, like Benghazi, long after the central question has been resolved in her favor.
This curse cannot be exorcised by November -- the narrative that she is careful with the truth is too deeply embedded, a GOP mantra. So she must find alternate avenues of trust, including to younger voters, and this convention is where she must start.
One theme is to remind voters that she cares about issues which are important to them, and has for decades. Another is that she actually has solutions which -- unlike Trump -- she can describe in a credible and persuasive way. Still another is that, as a senator, she enjoyed good and productive relationships with Republicans, and that she cares to do so as president.
A convention is the ideal setting for expert witnesses -- Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren -- who can vouch for her as a caring and capable leader. Here Bernie Sanders is critical. She needs his voters, and they need to be reminded of all the ways that she has embraced the themes of his campaign. And Sanders needs to say repeatedly and emphatically, as he did last night, that Trump should never be president.
Another crucial partner is Tim Kaine. Here Trump was helpful -- his selection of a garden-variety evangelical conservative as his running mate helped free Clinton's hand to make a pragmatic choice.
In this context, Kaine was a smart and solid pick. While the left is riled by Kaine's support of financial deregulation and the TPP, Trump's Halloween convention should help consolidate progressive support. And Kaine's record as civil rights lawyer, opposition to the death penalty, advocacy of gun control and strong relationship with the black community in Virginia commend him as a liberal of conscience.
His resume bristles with attributes. He has been a mayor, governor and senator. He is widely respected and universally liked, with a reputation for integrity and good judgment. He speaks fluent Spanish. He knows foreign policy. He can help carry a swing state. He is a former chairman of the DNC. And, critical to a candidate who cares deeply about governance, Kaine is qualified to serve as president.
Finally, he is an affable white guy from a modest background -- an observant Catholic whose idea of religion was doing missionary work in Honduras instead of, like Pence, burning gay rights and reproductive freedom at the stake of theocracy. He can appeal to the center in a way that Pence does not.
In a bracing contrast to Trump's botched unveiling of Pence, Clinton's rollout of Kaine was a ten- strike. Trump spoke about himself; Clinton took pride in reciting Kaine's qualifications to be president. Trump seemed indifferent to his running mate; Clinton and Kane displayed an easy camaraderie. Trump vanished after introducing Pence; Clinton's smiles throughout Kaine's speech underscored how terrific it was.
In fact, a bit of a revelation. Though his presence is unimposing, he combines a likable, everyman appeal with the sense that he knows his stuff. Even when attacking Trump -- which he did to great effect -- Kaine's verve did not obscure a pleasing amiability, a sense that he is quite human and accessible. He explained what he cares about, and why, with unforced passion. He made his family -- parents, wife and kids -- come alive. He spoke in Spanish, firing up the crowd. And far from seeming rote, his account of Clinton's qualities humanized her claim to leadership.
One could not watch him without appreciating Clinton's choice, and the care with which she had made it. Which was the biggest contrast of all -- Clinton looked like a president; Trump like a petulant fool who rued his most crucial decision.
And so, unlike the GOP, an upbeat spirit carried the ticket into Philadelphia.
But on the eve of the convention, vexing fissures suddenly re-opened, threatening to roil the proceedings: emails from within the DNC suggesting an anti-Sanders bias; renewed calls for Debbie Wasserman Schultz to go; discontent on the left with Kaine; a divide over superdelegates which lingered from the campaign; a progressive protest march which dramatized these grievances.
The immediate solution was obvious to all but DWS. Obama himself was forced to request her resignation, and for a time she insisted on speaking to the delegates -- a prescription for further discord -- oblivious to the reality that, Ted Cruz aside, supporting actors are not entitled to a divisive soliloquy. But at length she relented under public pressure, and the next challenge for the campaign was to minimize divisions at the convention itself.
In the meanwhile, a CNN poll showed Trump with a bounce from the GOP convention. And the email controversy had so revived the bitterness of Sanders delegates that, in the morning, a gathering booed Sanders himself when he urged support for Clinton. All this made last night's opening session yet more critical, the speech by Sanders most of all.
It began badly, with a hard-core cadre of protesters booing speakers from the floor. It took, of all people, Sarah Silverman to lance the anger -- a Sanders supporter, she admonished the dissidents "you're being ridiculous" to considerable effect, and then asserted that she was proud to vote for Clinton. While this did not fully tamp down the outrage, it changed the atmosphere for the speeches to come.
Here the Democrats had the advantage. The GOP convention was so bare of star power that it relied on Trump's children to give polished, but curiously impersonal, testaments for their father. But the high-voltage Democrats who took the stage for Clinton were important not only for who they were and what they said, but what they symbolized.
Cory Booker gave a fiery speech which evoked the one given 12 years before by another young black senator, Barack Obama. The first black first lady, Michelle Obama, summoned a stunning star turn which framed the case for Clinton in terms of her own kids -- and everyone else's. Another woman, Elizabeth Warren, reminded her audience that the alternative to Hillary Clinton is an ignorant misogynist. All acknowledged our challenges; all summoned the hope we can surmount them. In words, but also by their example and their presence, they captured the difference between the parties, and between Clinton and Trump.
Unlike Ted Cruz, he came as a rival whose mission was to unify. He did so in full voice. He reminded his adherents of all they had accomplished -- not least in moving the party, and Hillary Clinton, in their direction. With clarity and passion, he spelled out how contrary a Trump presidency would be to the spirit he had helped inspire. So when he said that he was proud to stand with Clinton, the cheers drowned out the dissent.
Dissent remained, and a core of bitterness lingered in the hall. But Bernie Sanders had done all he could. And so for that evening, at least, the tide of anger had subsided a bit, subdued by a spirit more generous and inclusive than anything seen in four angry nights in Cleveland. By November, that may make the difference.