Democratic national convention: fight for America's soul moves on to Philadelphia

In Cleveland, Republicans fuelled fears of a broken democracy. In the City of Brotherly Love, Democrats will seek to construct a convincing response

As if watching a dystopian science fiction movie, visitors to the Republican national convention in Cleveland this week were offered a glimpse of what the collapse of American democracy might look like.

Fortified versions of Soviet “Zil lanes” allowed leaders to shuttle safely between venues, behind high fences separating them from the rest of the street. Journalists too were largely walled off from the citizenry, allowed to join the elite traffic corridors but only when escorted in what felt like luxury prison vans.

Outside, expectations of civil unrest had led authorities to ban everything from tennis balls to gas masks – excepting, of course, guns, which are permitted under Ohio open-carry laws and were worn ostentatiously by a group called Bikers for Trump.

But resistance was futile. Thousands of police had flooded the city centre and were patrolling in packs of a dozen officers or more, each flashing the badge of a different local force and yet more weapons.

When a black man protesting against police shootings of African Americans climbed a small wall, holding a megaphone, two lines of cops surrounded him, pushing back onlookers to deter an unauthorised crowd forming in a sunny city centre park.

Inside the convention arena, the theme continued. Republican delegates repeatedly called for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, chanting “lock her up” whenever the name of the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee for president came up in speeches.

Alarmed Democrats wheeled out Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, to try to counter a torrent of abuse.

“When Republicans repeatedly get on stage at their national convention and toss attack after attack at my mom,” she wrote in a plaintive letter to supporters, “calling her things I’d never say in front of my children – let alone on live TV – they’re talking about a caricature they’ve imagined, not the woman I love and respect.”

As he sought to appear more presidential, even the GOP’s nominee, Donald Trump, seemed embarrassed by the baying crowd, waving aside demands for Clinton’s incarceration with hands that encouraged the mob instead to chant “USA! USA!”

Proof that the clemency was cosmetic, though, came when New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who, if appointed US attorney general by Trump, would be in charge of deciding whether to reopen a criminal case against Clinton over her email scandal, decided to conduct a mock trial on the floor of the convention hall.

“We must present those facts to you, a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in living rooms around our nation,” said a lawyer once known for bipartisan moderation.

Trump also has form for scoffing at due process, having been accused of “textbook racism” by the convention chair, Paul Ryan, when he claimed this summer that the judge in an ongoing case against him could not adjudicate fairly because he was of Mexican descent.

Other authoritarian incidents from the campaign trail included vowing to reintroduce torture and urging the “taking out” of terrorists’ families; promising crackdowns on press freedom; and encouraging thugs at his rallies to assault protestors.

“Knock the crap out of them, will you? Seriously,” Trump told Iowa supporters in February. “I promise you, I will pay the legal fees.”

The Fear Factory: the driving force of the RNC

Any hope that Trump might moderate his tone in a “pivot” toward voters in the general election was obliterated on Thursday night when he accepted the Republican nomination with a speech that went further than ever, drawing on fear of terrorism and crime to claim he alone could “restore safety” to a country on the brink.

“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” Trump claimed. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

The Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders and former UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage could be seen parading around the secure zones for much of the week in a constant reminder that this new nationalism can increasingly be found elsewhere.

The usually cautious Washington Post editorial board was so appalled by what it called Trump’s campaign of “snarl and sneer” that it published an editorial on Friday claiming he was a unique threat to American democracy.

What Trump did bring that was unique was his skill as a showman. Throughout the convention, relatives and business associates lined up to regale the audience with tales of the nominee’s financial acumen. Yet none mentioned the venture that made him most famous and was put to most use: his hit TV show, The Apprentice.

As the host strolled onstage to the theme from the movie Air Force One, it was clear that all those theatrical rallies on the primary trail had been mere rehearsals.

Resistance was futile. Though most big-name Republican leaders stayed away, Trump’s closest rival, Ted Cruz, followed a failed putsch by giving a speech suggesting the party should vote “with its conscience” rather than blindly back its nominee.

Some suspected that Cruz was playing a long game, looking to position himself to try again in 2020. But the violence of the reaction against him made clear Trump supporters were not to be taken lightly. Cruz’s wife had to be escorted from the convention hall by security guards. Aides warned his career was over.

“There’s no upside. I can’t see the political expediency here,” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, told reporters the next morning. “It’s a raw political moment in our party.”

Even Cruz’s supporters made clear that questioning Trump was no longer acceptable at the Republican convention.

“I’m very angry at him not keeping his promise to back the eventual nominee,” said one Texas delegate sent to Cleveland to vote for Cruz.

“We’ll remember this for a long time,” added another, from California.

‘The rest of the country doesn’t hate Hillary like they do’

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine greet supporters at a Florida rally on Saturday. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Now, the focus of resistance shifts to another city. Similar tight security awaits in Philadelphia, where the Democratic party starts its convention on Monday, but the mood is likely to be very different. Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton will join an all-star lineup of Washington A-listers trying to deal with the threat from Trump.

The ferocious attacks on Clinton might be uncomfortable to watch, but if anything they are the least of the party’s worries, serving to unify Democrats and alienate independents, according to political strategists.

“Unfortunately for the rabid Republicans, the rest of the country doesn’t hate Hillary like they do,” said Katie Packer, a Washington consultant who was a deputy campaign manager for the GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney. “They don’t know that because they only watch Fox News and mostly interact with people who think like them.”

Under this thesis, those Republicans holding their noses over Trump are deluding themselves in thinking a highly personalised campaign against Clinton will succeed in overcoming their own party negatives.

“There are a lot of people who are falling in line and don’t feel comfortable with it and the only thing they reassure themselves with is, ‘Well, he’s better than Hillary,’ which is not a winning message,” Packer said.

Moderates “aren’t excited by [Clinton] and they don’t really trust her”, she added, “but they don’t hate her, so the message that he is better than Hillary isn’t compelling enough to win elections.”

According to Democratic strategists, a bigger dilemma is how to respond to Trump’s increasingly overt nationalism and economic populism.

By whipping up fears not only of immigrants but also terrorists, criminals and anyone who protests against police brutality, the Republican nominee is potentially well-positioned in a world where all of these seem to be on the rise.

Similarly, by staking out an aggressive stance against Wall Street and supposedly job-killing foreign trade deals, Trump could also outflank Clinton on the left, in a time of deep economic insecurity.

Progressives in the Democratic party would like to see Clinton follow her primary rival Bernie Sanders down a similar road, but she signalled the opposite this weekend by appointing the centrist Virginia senator Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential running mate, rather than the more fiery Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren.

“As we saw in Donald Trump’s speech last night, Republicans will run hard against Democrats on trade this year,” said Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who believes the VP decision is a mistake.

“Unfortunately, since Tim Kaine voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Republicans now have a new opening to attack Democrats on this economic populist issue. The mood of the country is a populist one. The center of gravity in the Democratic party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction – regardless of who is selected by Hillary Clinton as vice-president.”

Many disaffected Republicans, meanwhile, believe demographic changes mean that millennial voters are also up for grabs in the centre of the political spectrum.

“We might be watching the funeral of the Republican party at this convention,” said Richard Tafel, founder of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that advocates for gay rights in a party still slowly coming around to the idea.

“There is an opportunity for a new centre-right opening up,” he added.

Another strategic question that Democrats will be grappling with in Philadelphia is how to deal with Trump’s authoritarian bombast.

The initial temptation has been to take the celebrity billionaire at his word. Early campaign messaging by Clinton focused on what many saw as the devastating consequences of his promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants or ban Muslims from entering the US.

But as Trump’s reputation for playing fast and loose with policy leads him toward ever more outlandish claims, some Clinton strategists are beginning to wonder whether taking him too seriously is a mistake. Pointing out how unrealistic his policies are may be less risky than countenancing them.

A sign of the fantasy land that Trump increasingly inhabits came on Friday, when he responded to Cruz’s resistance by dredging up – again – widely debunked rumors that the Texas senator’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

Cleveland protest
In Cleveland, police were quick to close down the slightest sign of trouble. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

Trump appears more vulnerable to ridicule than outrage. The lowest moment in his convention week came when his wife Melania Trump was shown to have given a speech that plagiarised parts of a 2008 address by Michelle Obama. And perhaps his swiftest, and only recent, campaign U-turn came when his team unveiled its appointment of Indiana governor Mike Pence as vice-presidential candidate, only to have the internet guffawing at the inadvertently phallic logo.

Nonetheless, the sight of yet more terrorist atrocities in Europe this weekend has left no one in the mood for jokes. Clinton’s VP rollout was delayed until it was lost in the weekend news desert. Trump appeared more polished than when he responded to the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando with braggadocious tweets.

The fear is that many more such attacks, particularly in the US, could leave the most unlikely presidential candidate in the country’s history in prime position to capitalise. If November’s election favours an authoritarian backlash, the temporary police state on show in Cleveland this week could be just the start.


Dan Roberts in Cleveland

The GuardianTramp

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