Narratives of America’s decline have become so entrenched in the US media that is possible to forget that the same news outlets that created, and continue to foster, such pessimism are responsible for giving Donald Trump an estimated US$2 billion in free media coverage. In fairness, the GOP should also accept a large portion of the blame for turning this election into such a circus. So ineptly did its chosen candidates pander to the party’s alienated base that they ended up making their most opportunistic rival look like a man of principle.
Trump’s nomination speech, his talk of America’s “domestic disaster” and “international humiliation”, his fulsome promises about leading “our country to back to safety, prosperity, and peace” are a death knell for the traditional Republican Party. A New York Times editorial called his nomination “a referendum on the Republican Party, delivered by working people fed up with leaders who want their votes but don’t address their struggles.” It also marks the party’s capitulation to the lowest form of populism, and an admission of its moral and political bankruptcy.
Eight years of an obstructionist Congress and a public sphere riddled with lunatic commentary, has produced candidates whose cynicism matches that of the system which produced them. One party’s nominee is capable of saying almost anything that might win votes; the other, proudly disregarding all counsels of restraint, says anything he feels like, even if it promotes racism and xenophobia.
“Here at our convention, there will be no lies,” said Trump. Then he delivered a screed of half-truths and cherry-picked facts that shored up a narrative of American decline. In the nomination speech, Trump’s speechwriters deployed many rhetorical sleights of hand, none more effective than the idea that he was there for America’s “forgotten men and women … [those who] will not be forgotten long … people who work hard but no longer have a voice.” Rebranding his notorious ad-libbing as a necessary corrective to political correctness, Trump appointed himself a defender of “believers, dreamers, and strivers” against “group of censors, critics, and cynics.” With evident self-satisfaction, he declared: “I am your voice.”
Fortunately, it is still possible to hear more dignified American voices. Outside the political theatre that dominates the broadcast news, there remains a level of intelligence, compassion and grace that is painfully absent within mainstream discourse. Consider, for example, the following remarks by Cameron Sterling, the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, the African American man fatally shot by Baton Rouge police earlier this month. “I feel that people in general, no matter what the race is, should come together as one united family,” said Cameron. “Protest in peace, not guns, not drugs, not alcohol, not violence. Everyone needs to protest in the right way with peace, not violence, none whatsoever.” A few days earlier Cameron had broken down at a press conference held the day after his father’s killing, sobbing “I want Daddy” while his mother read a restrained and thoughtful statement.
Consider also the words of Diamond ‘Lavish’ Reynolds, who witnessed the shooting death of her boyfriend Philando Castile from the car seat next to him – her four-year-old daughter was also in the back seat a few feet away. After being detained by the police, as though she had committed a crime for livestreaming the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Reynolds told reporters: “They took his life for no reason. They did this to my daughter and they did this to me and I want justice and I want peace.”
These messages of extraordinary perseverance and hope could not be more unlike the slogans aired at the Trump convention. Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke proudly declaimed that “blue lives matter” and referred to the funerals of police officers in Baton Rouge before noting that there was, nevertheless, “good news” coming out of Baltimore namely that “Lieutenant Brian Rice was acquitted on all charges” – ie, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office (two others were dropped earlier in the trial) – in the death of Freddie Gray. This ‘welcome’ result had happened despite the “malicious prosecution of activist state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby.” Sadly, Clarke’s pandering, and his disparagement of the minorities who have sought justice for the recent spate of police killings is of all of a piece with the deceptive rhetoric of GOP’s entire campaign.
It is important to remember the voices of ordinary Americans at a time like this – especially amidst all the hollow talk at the Republican National Convention. In Bocaccio’s Decameron, an epic written just after the ravages of the Black Death, there is a story that focuses on the difference between public and private morality. In the story, Abraham, who is considering a conversion to Christianity, decides to visit Rome. When he hears this, his Christian friend despairs, for he knows that when his Abraham sees Rome’s debauched clergy, its gluttons, drunkards, and rapacious money lenders he will likely change his mind. Nevertheless, Abraham converts, because he concludes that if Christianity can not only survive such chaos, but thrive and produce people like his friend, Jehannot, then it must be worth fighting for. In a time of populist demagoguery and political opportunism, something similar is true of America’s democracy.