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A loyalty test for the GOP, a reality test for the country

The Republican Party has become a personality cult.

President Trump walks on stage during the Republican National Committee Convention on August 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Evan Vucci/AP

In the era of President Donald Trump, the news develops the quality “of being shocking without being surprising,” wrote Masha Gessen in Surviving Autocracy. Each week’s events are “an assault on the senses and the mental faculties,” and yet, somehow, “just more of the same.”

That’s how I felt watching the first night of the Republican National Convention. It was a night that I couldn’t quite believe. It was a night I could not have imagined going any other way. It was bizarre, unnerving, and unprecedented. It was banal, predictable, and expected.

“If you really want to drive them crazy, you say ‘12 more years,’” Trump said as he opened the convention. The crowd happily chanted “12 more years.” It drove me a little crazy, but mostly left me tired. It’s a performance of provocation hiding a convention that had nothing to say, only enemies to fight, social changes to fear.

What is there to say upon hearing Trump described as “the bodyguard of Western civilization?” It’s not an argument so much as a loyalty oath, an offering cut from the speaker’s dignity and burnt for the pleasure of the Dear Leader himself. But the outrageousness is the point. Protest and you’re triggered — just another oversensitive lib who can’t take a joke. Ignore it and you’re complicit. To care is to lose.

The Republican Party on display Monday night didn’t represent an ideology or a governing agenda. It was a personality cult, and a tired one at that. Republicans, in a break with tradition, refused to write a party platform. They chose, instead, to recycle their 2016 platform. But the delegates agreed that if they had met to fashion an actual agenda, they “would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration,” and as such, “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

They also called “on the media to engage in accurate and unbiased reporting, especially as it relates to the strong support of the RNC for President Trump and his Administration.” And here, I want to fulfill their request: The RNC’s support for President Trump and his administration could not possibly be stronger. I have covered American politics for two decades and never have I seen a party more ferociously committed to supporting whatever it is their leader tells them to support.

The problem for Republicans is that the main thing Trump has told them to support is himself. There are no detailed policy proposals, much less a coherent ideology or set of governing principles. And so speech after speech followed the same template: How was America going to stop the coronavirus? By reelecting Donald Trump. How was it going to revive its economy? By reelecting Donald Trump. How was it going to ensure domestic harmony? By reelecting Donald Trump.

The contradiction at the heart of the convention, of course, is that Donald Trump is currently president. I’m dead serious. How would reelecting Trump resolve these crises that Trump has proven unable to resolve — and has, in many cases, worsened — in office? No one even took a shot at that Rubik’s cube. Instead, the speakers awkwardly talked around the fact of Trump’s incumbency. He was presented, strangely, as both incumbent and challenger; the man who had fixed America’s problems, but also the man needed to fix an America beset by more problems than ever.

My personal favorite formulation came from Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA). “President Trump has delivered for the hardworking people of this great nation,” he said. “It’s going to take that kind of bold leadership to get us out of this COVID crisis.” You mean, this crisis, the one that has overwhelmed America on Donald Trump’s watch, even as our peer nations have wrestled cases down to more manageable levels?

The night developed a peculiarly sci-fi quality, as if every few minutes the channel had changed to the 2020 Republican Party convention in another, slightly parallel universe. Here, an address from an America in which Trump had led the United States into an unparalleled era of domestic tranquility and shared prosperity; now, a speech from an America on the brink of anarchy, where the wolves are at the door and the nation could disintegrate at any moment. America has never been stronger, but also never weaker.

“The best is yet to come” was the tagline of the evening, but the optimistic slogan teetered on a knife’s edge: If Trump lost reelection, then calamity was inevitable. “I am here tonight to tell you — to warn you — that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it, and eliminating everything that we love,” said conservative activist Charlie Kirk.

Donald Trump Jr. fist-bumps his girlfriend, Fox News host and Trump campaign surrogate Kimberly Guilfoyle, after they prerecorded their addresses to the Republican National Convention.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr.’s speech closed out the first evening of the Republican National Convention.
Susan Walsh/AP

At times, Joe Biden was an ineffectual creature of Washington’s permanent establishment, “the Loch Ness monster of the swamp,” as Donald Trump Jr. put it. “Joe Biden has made a career in Washington for 47 years promising things he’s never delivered,” said Scalise. But then the channel flipped, and Biden was a revolutionary force who could, in a few short years, reshape the country. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution, a fundamentally different America,” warned Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). “If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia,” though he meant utopia as a bad thing.

The falsehoods flew thick. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said Biden wanted to eliminate private health insurance and defund the police. Biden just won the Democratic primary loudly opposing the elimination of private health insurance and proposing a $300 million boost in funding for police. Fact-checkers will have a field day with all this, but it’s a bit beside the point. The sort of lie Trump and his supporters tell, writes Gessen, “is the power lie, or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it—while denying that he took it.” That is the sort of lie that suffused Monday night’s proceedings. The point isn’t that it’s true; it’s that they can say it and no one can stop them.

The core of Trump’s agenda has always been untethering American politics from factual reality, and among Republicans, at least, he’s been startlingly successful. The convention is a loyalty test for Republicans, and a reality check for the rest of us. What are they willing to say? What are we prepared to believe? Do we still have it in us to be surprised?

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