On the second season of the HBO series The Leftovers, various religious cultists and ordinary, lost people have converged outside of a Texas town, turning the area into a seedy apocalyptic carnival. That’s what it felt like outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where burly hellfire prophets hoisted signs condemning sinners, Hare Krishnas chanted, and protesters and Trump supporters swirled together in packed streets while rows of stone-faced police lined the sidewalks. But the end-of-the-world feeling came from more than just the throngs of believers. It came from the fact that a bizarre and inconceivable calamity has been visited upon us, and yet ordinary life grinds on. A major party has just nominated Donald Trump for president.
In the end, the feared clashes between protesters and armed Trump supporters never came to pass. Only a few hundred demonstrators showed up on Thursday, and an endless flow of cops massed around them every time they made a move. The shocking scenes were all inside the oval bowl of the Quicken Loans Arena, where Donald Trump presided over the most base and demagogic convention in modern history.
It was poorly run, though that is of secondary importance. The convention made it clear that Trump lacks management skills and can’t even put on a good show, the one thing that even those who despise Trump thought him capable of. It consisted of long stretches of soporific tedium with brief bursts of absurdity, ugliness, and chaos—Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama, Chris Christie presiding over a mock show trial, Ted Cruz being booed off the stage.
All of this bodes ill for Trump’s ability to govern a country. Nevertheless, we should be glad for his indiscipline, because the one thing standing between Trumpism and full-blown fascism is Trump’s lack of organizational skills. He has no cadres or shock troops. There’s just him, a few lackeys, and the mob of atomized voters who’ve elevated him.
On Thursday night, he was introduced by his daughter Ivanka, who seemed to be speaking about another man entirely. She invoked the gender pay gap—a gap many on the right deny exists—and said that her father “will fight for equal pay for equal work.”
This is not a promise that Trump has made before. It was certainly heartening to hear such progressive ideas voiced at a Republican convention. But as the crowd cheered sentiments that were diametrically opposed to everything they claimed to believe yesterday, it underscored the degree to which the party has been intellectually gutted. The GOP is now purely a cult of personality.
Trump entered to the soundtrack of the Harrison Ford movie Air Force One. His speech—on a night dubbed, perversely, “Make America One Again”—showed his eagerness to play to the mob’s lowest impulses. The rate of violent crime remains far lower than it was when Barack Obama took office—never mind during the administration of George W. Bush—but Trump conjured a country beset by crime and disorder, crying out for a strongman to put things right. “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities,” he said. “Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims. I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
He had little to say about how this remarkable feat would be accomplished, beyond building a border wall.
“The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015,” he said. “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”
The convention has repeatedly focused on violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, despite the fact that first-generation immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. In his speech, Trump continued waving the bloody shirt. He invoked the story of Sarah Root, a young woman killed by an undocumented drunk driver. “I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family,” he said. “But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting.” Cries of “BOOOOOO” echoed through the hall. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders,” said Trump.
In a way, “Make America One Again” was an apt slogan. Nothing unites people like a shared hatred. Trump shows us a party bound not by a common ideology or political project but a common identity. “This is a very dark and frightening speech,” former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mary Kate Cary tweeted on Thursday night. It was a dark and frightening week.