The president disqualifies himself

Michael Gerson Syndicated Columnist
Monday, August 31, 2020
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There is much that can be said about President Donald Trump’s intemperate, interminable convention speech. It combined the generous, unifying spirit of an average Trump campaign rally with the concision and amusement value of a typical State of the Union address. After a week of speeches from Republicans attempting to humanize their nominee, Trump demonstrated that it is possible to be brutish and boring at the same time.

The speech was ripe with rhetorical tensions. Trump called for “a new spirit of unity that can only be realized through love for our great country.” So, Americans can be united – but only if they accept Trump’s version of American nationalism. The president is, in essence, urging national unity against people who don’t accept his version of unity. The point is subtle to the point of absurdity.

In another bold challenge to coherence, Trump said that “we have ended the rule of the failed political class” while depicting a country overrun by “illegal aliens,” political correctness, the “China virus,” violent criminals and godlessness. Trump’s incumbency requires a record of sterling achievement; his insurgent populism demands a dystopia to overthrow. Trump’s America must remedy the horrible ills of . . . Trump’s America.

I could pick at loose threads of logic all day. But Trump’s speech Thursday should be ultimately judged by its treatment of the two largest issues of our time. How did Trump respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that has thrown our country into economic crisis and cost at least 177,000 lives? And how did he deal with deep divisions of region, race and ideology that paralyze our politics and threaten our union?

On COVID-19, Trump demanded from his followers an unconditional surrender to fantasy. In the president’s version of events, he confronted the disease early, coordinated necessary supplies, kept mortality rates low, ensured the existence of treatments and vaccines, and now leads a country on the mend. For once, Trump’s lies lacked ambition. It would have been just as accurate to claim that most Americans have already received the vaccine and that mortality rates have been reduced to zero.

In fact, Trump was caught by surprise, dithered for irreplaceable weeks, never produced a national strategy, accepted essential measures reluctantly, then actively undermined those measures in sympathy with gun-wielding militia groups, all of which helped to cause a resurgence in infections. The best laugh line from Trump’s convention speech was this: “To save as many lives as possible we are focusing on the science, the facts and the data.” Somewhere there are government warehouses filled with hydroxychloroquine that stand in mute refutation.

Trump’s malpractice on matters of racial and social division were damaging in a different way. We are accustomed to being a country where acts of injustice result in principled, non-violent protest and positive social change. But these important moments of national reflection are now routinely exploited by groups that dream of dramatic, righteous violence. Some are anarchists and looters. Most are armed militias, which feel legitimized and empowered by a sitting U.S. president.

Trump’s convention speech came in the immediate aftermath of deadly violence against protesters in Wisconsin. It was an easy opportunity to distance the Republican Party from militia violence and white supremacy in any form. But Trump did nothing of the sort. Instead, he deepened social conflicts for his perceived political benefit.

Trump’s speech was a clever but dangerous recasting of the culture war. The national cleavage he chose to widen was not primarily Republican vs. Democrat or liberal vs. conservative. It was urban vs. suburban (and small town). According to Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the radical left will multiply the “left-wing anarchy and mayhem in Minneapolis, Chicago and others.” They will spread the “violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America.” They will “make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon.” They will “give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals.” They will “demolish the suburbs.”

This is the image of Trump’s campaign strategy, carved out of pure bigotry. In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats detached many White suburban voters from the Trump coalition. Trump is attempting to win suburban voters back by feeding their worst fears of urban chaos. This, like the Southern strategy before it, has roots in racism. The line between real Americans and fake ones is conveniently drawn to exclude both cosmopolitan elites and urban people of color.

(Contact Michael Gerson at michaelgerson@washpost.com.)

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