Feeling Good Through Feeling Bad

Usually, political conventions are feel-good events. The party faithful congregate, wave flags, and cheer their candidates. Tomorrow is another day! Nothing stands between us and victory except defeat!

These Roderick Spode-like sentiments are echoed and amplified by the cheering masses, who never let a dollop of tautology intrude upon and dampen their enthusiasm. 

This year, as we all know, the Chinese virus—which is to say our quivering response to this new seasonal ailment—has transformed the cheering masses into isolated maskists. 

About the only congregations our masters in the media and Democratic statehouses smile upon these days are those undertaken for the sake of rioting, arson, and general mayhem. Congregating in a church to worship is dangerous to your health and so is forbidden. So are birthday parties for your five-year-old. But scores or hundreds congregating to burn public buildings and to blind policemen is constitutionally protected “peaceful protest.”

Terror about the novel coronavirus—to say nothing of terror at the possible legal and public-relations liability of people getting sick at large in-person events you sponsor—prompted both parties to scrap their plans for a live convention and broadcast “virtual” conferences instead. 

Last week’s Democratic National Convention—four nights of taped hectoring and inadvertently hilarious exercises in politically correct sermonizing—showed how difficult it is to make a virtual event seem like an actual celebration. 

It will be interesting to see if the Republicans are more successful. Details about what the GOP plans are still sketchy. Much of the event, which starts Monday, will consist of pre-taped speeches. As of this writing, however, it seems as if there will be some live programming and even live audiences for some portions of the show. 

Whatever the proportion of in-person performance, it already seems clear that the tone of the two events will be like night and day. 

By “tone” I mean not only what things sound like but also what they propose, what they envision. After all, these quadrennial spectacles of political calisthenics are not only “Vote for me” events. They are also opportunities for the two parties to say 1) What ails the country and 2) What they promise to do to fix what ails us and, furthermore, outline what the country will look like after the fix has been applied. 

The Democrats had a difficult rhetorical task, for several reasons. For one thing, part of their playbook said “Donald Trump, in addition to being an unutterably corrupt and all-round awful person, is a divisive figure. He is mean to people, especially blacks, women, members of the ‘LGBTQ+ community,’ and other suitable certified recipients of official pity and special treatment. We, on the contrary, stand for peace, love, unity, and government largess.” 

The problem here is twofold. The record will show that Donald Trump has been a conspicuous friend of all those candidates for special treatment. 

For example, before the sudden advent of the Wuhan flu, general unemployment was at a generational low. Black unemployment was the lowest on record. Wages were rising, especially wages at the lower end. As for women, take a look at the number of women in senior positions in the Trump Administration. And listen to Richard Grenell, the first openly gay cabinet member, talk about the president’s support. 

Trump’s actual record, as distinct from the tissue of lies repeated endlessly by his opponents, is one problem the Democrats face. The other is their own divisive rhetoric and behavior. 

Take a look at speeches and other performances at the Democratic convention. There were some perfunctory invocations of unity. But the overwhelming message was: “America is a bad place; it has always been a bad place; it is no surprise that such a horrible, racist, homophobic, selfish country should wind up with a crude mountebank like Donald Trump as president. But finally, there is light—it is us! We Democrats can save America by making it poorer, less secure, less free, more socialist.” 

Basically, they want us to feel good by feeling bad. 

Not every aspect of that recipe was explicitly stated, of course. But one does not need an advanced degree in hermeneutics to understand that that is what the embrace of identity politics, the Green New Deal, “a national mandate to wear a mask” (yes, really) and a Bernie Sandersesque view of taxes and economic policy mean. 

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard gave prominence to the concept of ressentiment, a particularly rancorous form of envy. In The Present Age, Kierkegaard makes the Tocquevilleian point that “the ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of leveling; . . . it hinders and stifles all action; it levels.” A “victory of abstraction over the individual,” such ressentiment leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.” 

Looking back at the Democratic convention, I think a good argument could be made that it was a sterling exhibition of what Kierkegaard meant by ressentiment. Go back, if your stomach can take it, to the bizarre chap in his bat costume performing “For What It’s Worth.” Listen, if you can bear it, to Elizabeth Warren or Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or even smooth-as-a-suppository Barack Obama. Their message: “America is terrible. But give yourself to us and we’ll make it better.” 

Were the Democrats to triumph, there would still be a place called America. But its meaning and significance would have been transformed utterly. 

And what is President Trump’s message? We have to wait another few days for the particulars. But it might be summarized in two sentences from the president. First, “Where Biden sees darkness, I see American greatness.” And second, “They want to punish America and its citizens instead of holding them high.” Indeed. 

We don’t yet know all the speakers. But the already-announced program dramatizes how different it will be from what was on offer from the Democrats. Every night will feature a speaker who has lived under socialism—the real thing, where people stand in line for food and face an all-controlling government, not the AOC-free-stuff-for-everyone fantasy. 

The theme on Monday will be “A Land of Heroes.” Tuesday’s theme will be “Land of Promise.” Wednesday’s theme will be “Land of Opportunity.” And Thursday, when the president is scheduled to speak from the White House lawn, the theme will be “Land of Greatness.”

Heroes, promise, opportunity, and greatness versus the round-the-clock obsession with racism and identity politics, climate hysteria, open borders, and higher taxes. Which is the more attractive? 

Joe Biden actually made it through his speech on Thursday intact. There was a great susurration of relief from the blue team. It was, as Michael Goodwin noted, a low bar but he passed it. And at one point he actually said something profoundly true. “This is a life-changing election,” he said. “This will determine what America’s going to look like for a long, long time.” 

True, Joe, all true. The question is, does America want the poorer, more politically correct, less free, less secure, less vigorous country you—or your handlers, anyway—want to install? I do not think so. 

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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