The Democrats had a simple message on the first night of their convention: America doesn’t need to be made great again. It already is great. And Donald Trump threatens that greatness.
At the core of the Democratic rejoinder to Trump is a vision of American greatness that foregrounds diversity and inclusivity. Trump sees a country where the people who once made America great have been left behind — they have seen their jobs go to immigrants, their factories go to Asia, and their safety threatened by Muslims.
Democrats see a country that is greater than ever because it’s more diverse and inclusive than ever — a country where an African-American woman plays with her children on the White House lawn, where the first Muslim member of Congress introduces the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary, where even the children of unauthorized immigrants can grow up to become doctors and lawyers and teachers.
This argument was made in its cheerful form by Michelle Obama. "Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great, that somehow we need to make America great again," she said in a speech that may well prove the highlight of the Democratic convention. "Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth!"
Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged in this race as the Clinton campaign’s id, offered the sharper-edged version. "Donald Trump’s America," she said, is "an America of fear and hate. An America where we all break apart. Whites against blacks and Latinos. Christians against Muslims and Jews. Straight against gay. Everyone against immigrants. Race, religion, heritage, gender – the more factions the better."
This is the argument coursing through this election. Democrats believe America’s rising diversity, its increased emphasis on inclusion, is making it greater. Republicans have nominated a candidate who represents and channels the fears of that diversity, the sense of displacement — both real and imagined — that accompanies that inclusion.
You could see it in the speakers’ lineup. The first night of Trump’s convention featured Sabine Durden, whose son, Dominic Durden, was killed by an unauthorized immigrant in a car crash. Durden was one of three speakers that evening with a family member killed by an unauthorized immigrant. In his acceptance speech, Trump warned that "nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens."
The first night of Clinton’s convention featured Astrid Silva, whose parents brought her to the United States, without papers, when she was 4. "My family believed so deeply in the promise of this country that we risked everything for the American dream," Silva said. "As an undocumented student, I felt like college was out of reach. After a journey of 10 years, I finally graduated from Nevada State College."
This is the choice offered by the two parties in this election: Democrats believe the country is growing stronger as it becomes more diverse, more inclusive, more welcoming, and they are proposing to go yet further, to elect the first woman president in the history of the United States, to pass comprehensive immigration reform, to listen to the concerns of Black Lives Matter activists. If that’s the path to American greatness, electing Trump is literally the worst thing you can do.
Republicans have nominated a white man who promises to restore "law and order," who focuses on the threats posed by outsiders, who burst onto the political scene arguing that the first African-American president wasn’t constitutionally fit to serve. If that’s the path to American greatness, electing Clinton would be giant step in the wrong direction.
I’ll say this for the 2016 election: The choice, at least, is clear.