It took me until the last night, but I finally figured out the theme of this convention. And it’s not really “American Carnage 2.0.” The riots were mentioned but not by a yelling cop like Sheriff Clarke. Instead, it was by Melania Trump.
There were some hard-edged messages at the RNC. Abby Johnson’s graphic description of abortion stood out. So too did some of the speeches by non-politicians. Former NFL player Jack Brewer’s speech was openly confrontational with the media. But the difference between the 2020 and the 2016 campaigns is really striking.
In 2016, Trump campaigned on the threats to America from without. China was ripping us off. Mexico wasn’t sending their best. The bumbling political class allowed ISIS to take over part of Iraq and couldn’t stop them. It fit a mood on the American right at the time. 2015 was a year punctuated by spectacular terrorist attacks in Europe, some of them directly associated with the chaotic refugee flows into Europe. Events like the San Bernardino shooting made it feel like America was next.
But in 2020, the message is that the threat from America comes from within. Phrased in a slightly gentle way, it’s the threat of Americans no longer believing in themselves, or their country. Trump opened his speech promising that his party would be welcoming anyone who believes in “the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people.”
That was also the message in Nikki Haley’s speech, when she said America is not a racist country. It was the message of Tim Scott’s speech, and Madison Cawthorn’s: This is a good country that deserves your allegiance and support. We should be proud of our history. It was the message of Cuban refugee Maximo Alvarez. It was the message behind the anti-cancel-culture sections including the short speech by Nick Sandmann. Believing the worst about Americans leads to disaster, division, and injustice.
This message fits with a certain kind of omnipresent spiritual culture in the suburbs, in which people seek wellness through affirmation, and try to silence the hyper-critical thoughts that keep them from achieving the goals or realizing the kind of life they deserve. It also motivates conservatives who feel misunderstood as “wicked” by people who may be blind to the virtues of conservatism.
Both conventions seemed to be aimed at women in the suburbs. And it makes me wonder if both parties think that most viewers are already committed one way or the other. Those wanting more substance on immigration, trade, and nationalism must hope that Trump is targeting the “forgotten man” and the Obama-Trump voters in different venues than the convention.
Trump and his party invoked the specter of socialism, and only a little about the riots. But really, they cast all of these as forms of destructive national self-doubt. And that set Trump against the nattering nabobs of negativism.
In the 1970s, there was “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” At the 2020 RNC, the message was: I’m Not Evil, You’re Not Evil. This country is not evil.