Political conventions are stories. Every four years, the two major political parties come together in conventions to tell us stories about America. These stories are almost always told in three parts: where we came from as a nation, what’s happening to us now, and finally, where we’re going.
The interesting part of collaborative storytelling is that when more than one person gathers to tell a story, that story becomes a living force, with its own agenda. And so every convention is more than the sum of its parts. Through mistakes, personal agendas, and happenstance, the story a convention tells is always different than the story its presidential candidate wants to tell. But the story that the convention tells in aggregate is often more honest than the story that the candidate wants us to hear. In fact, the story that a convention tells is usually a fairly clear indicator of a candidate's worldview, and a decent forecast of how they intend to govern.
So what just happened at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland?
Many hundreds of commentators have acknowledged the Trump campaign’s innate racism, and pointed out how Donald Trump encourages white Americans to fear and loathe minorities. And many others have pointed out the Trump campaign’s inherent fascism, that the rise of this bumbling billionaire bears a striking resemblance to the rise of Hitler or Mussolini. These observations are entirely true.
In fact, on every night of the convention you could find some new piece of evidence of the party’s racism or fascism to stack against Trump’s Republican Party — Steve King’s homage to white supremacy over inferior “sub-groups,” Rudy Giuliani’s over-the-top carnival barker routine where he stoked fear of Islam and agitated for unlimited government power under the auspices of security.
The dog whistle was traded out for a tuba. Many of the speakers talked in terms of “us” and “them,” of “normal America” or of a time when America was truly “great." This is code by, for, and about white people, and it hints back to a time when white Christian men were the favored demographic, and everyone else was labeled, at best, a third-class citizen. Others, including Trump himself, used terms like “law and order” or “America first.” Those are labels of agitation with a long history in American politics. These are the words you use to mobilize bigots and white supremacists, to prepare them for battle.
For me, aside from Trump’s closing night speech — about which more soon — the most shocking moment of the RNC was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech. Christie, a former prosecutor, led the crowd through a ghoulish call-and-response show trial. He trotted out the usual conservative charges against Hillary Clinton and then repeatedly asked the audience if they believed she was guilty or not guilty. Of course, they shouted “GUILTY!” every time. Occasionally, they started chants of “LOCK! HER! UP!” which was a common refrain all week long in Cleveland.
As a (by most accounts skilled) prosecutor, Christie should have enough respect for the law to understand that his pantomime in Cleveland represented a gross caricature of the justice system. He was playing judge, jury, and executioner, and by roping the crowd into his kangaroo court, he was setting a dangerous precedent. I do not believe it was a coincidence that the morning after Christie’s trial of Hillary Clinton, a Trump ally called for Clinton to be “put in the firing line and shot for treason.” That unacceptable threat of violence is a direct consequence of Christie’s cavalier attitude, and it will create still more unacceptable threats of violence through the rest of the summer and fall.
The problem with shock and outrage is that they exist in a continuous state of retreat. You can’t perpetually feel shock. You can’t keep being outraged by the exact same thing over and over. Every time you’re shocked by something a politician says, you’re a little more jaded, you’ve grown a little more scar tissue, and the next politician is going to have to say something a little more outrageous to get a reaction out of you. I worry what will happen next, because the most shocking thing I can imagine right now is a Donald Trump-like figure who knows how to conceal his message a little more effectively than Donald Trump.
But let’s leave the analysis of the racism and fascism to other writers; from where I sit it’s very well-documented. What I’d like to talk about is the central failure of the RNC, by which I mean its total inability to tell a story.
There are two major flaws with the story that Trump told over the last four days. First of all is a problem with the suspension of disbelief. Donald Trump’s RNC acceptance speech was the darkest, dourest acceptance speech of all time. He portrayed America as a hellscape where crime lurks around every corner. To hear him tell it, a horde of terrorists sit crouched in the air ducts of every suburban mall in the nation, just waiting to slit the throats of your children. (In case there’s any doubt here, these claims are all false; Vox published a good debunking of every so-called “fact” in Trump’s speech last night.)
Some speakers didn’t even try to identify a real problem when they talked. Instead, they just dwelled on how things “feel” wrong nowadays. Television actor Scott Baio told the audience that in America, “there's no stability and nothing seems right” anymore. He could not have been more vague without delivering his speech solely in grunts and hand gestures.
It's appropriate that this RNC coincided with the firing of Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes, because Donald Trump is the candidate that Fox News created, the apex of the Fox News narrative. For decades, Fox has pumped a dystopian storyline into the eyes and ears of Americans. They have created an America where everyone is out to get you, where half of all Americans are bad people who want to steal from the good Americans, to thrive unjustly on the fruits of everyone else's labor. They have told the story of a besieged America that is still, by dint of our guns and our freedoms, the safest nation on a hellhole planet. The fictional, fear-based America of Fox News is the America that Donald Trump wants to rule over.
But I do not believe that most Americans see Trump’s dystopian world every day when they open their curtains in the morning. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that America is perfect, or that we don’t have any problems. On the contrary, in America problems are baked into our Constitution. We were perhaps the first government in the world to anticipate problems as a vital part of the process. But the problems that many Americans see every day — income inequality, increasing poverty — bear no relationship to the problems that Trump describes.
Negativity can absolutely win a presidential campaign. Most recently, George W. Bush beat John Kerry with negativity in 2004. But the question that concerns us now is this: can a negativity that is this toxic win a presidential campaign? Can you win solely on negativity? Most presidential candidates leaven their fear with appeals to our better nature: thoughts on character, praise of the American experiment, a celebration of the American spirit. Trump had no time for that hogwash on Thursday night. He started his speech with an argument that good, decent (white) Americans were going to get murdered in the streets (presumably by black people) and he spent a long chunk of the speech picking fights with every nation in the Middle East that is not Israel. He wants wars on crime and Islam and minorities, but he doesn’t want to pay for those wars. Which brings us to the other problem with the RNC’s storytelling: The story that was told at the RNC was not actually a story.
I keep thinking of a meme that was very popular a few years ago. It was lifted entirely from a second-season South Park episode, and it looks like this:
Coincidentally, this is the same structure used by the Trump campaign to identify and address problems. Here are the policies that Trump unveiled in his speech last night:
See? Easy. Trump, who to hear his daughter Ivanka tell it, is supposedly out in the world supervising building sites nearly every day, is supposed to be knowledgeable about construction. If that’s true, why can’t he build a decent story? Read almost any how-to-write book and you’ll see that a story is the solution (or failed solution) of a problem. Almost every movie you've ever seen follows this plot: introduce the problem and then show how the problem gets fixed.
Trump offered no policies. He showed no interest in the mechanics of solutions. For him, there is only before and after, with no middle. "Before” is a tableau of Trump surveying a problem. “After” is, in Trump’s mind, the point when the problem has been solved and America is Great Again. There is no connective tissue, no room for debate or ideas. You simply go from "Once upon a time" to "happily ever after." It’s uninteresting and exhausting as a storytelling technique.
So the story Trump told was full of lies and not even functionally a story, but he’s still attracting fans with shock value. For now, the shock value is working. But we know what happens to shock value; as a concept it wears itself out. What is Donald Trump going to do when he stops shocking people? That, to me, is the most horrifying question.
Now the RNC is over, and everyone is going home. Democrats are preparing for their national convention next week, to tell their own story. This time in between conventions is always a nerve-wracking weekend, but this weekend feels especially suspenseful. And once the DNC is done, next Friday is the official start of the general election season; it’s the day when the candidates turn their stories outward to the general election and to the entire population of America. It’s when we see how effective those stories really are.
I do not yet know what kind of a story the DNC will tell us next week, but I can tell you what I want to see there: I want it to be a story that promotes problems and solutions. I want it to look like the — to steal the Republican language for a moment — real America, the one outside our windows, not the one inside our televisions. I want it to be a story about being decent and human and proud of your country and a part of a larger history. I want the American story to be one of resilience and intelligence and good humor and inclusiveness. Because if Donald J. Trump were to win the White House, we already know what kind of story he’d tell us: a broken one. And a broken story can absolutely and irreparably break the heart of a nation.