I watched a good chunk of last week’s Democratic National Convention. It’s always useful to study the message and morale of one’s opponents. While the Zoom infomercial approach was remarkably boring—a traumatic echo of what we have all had to endure over the last six months—several key themes emerged amid the dead air and absent applause.
Namely, Democrats and Joe Biden are more high-minded and ethical than Trump, who must be cast aside to restore the nation’s moral center.
The Inclusive Party of Nice Guys
One of the more prominent themes of the Democrats’ convention is that their party is inclusive. This is undeniable. A wide range of people were on display, with new Americans and minorities given prominence: immigrants, gays, women of color, blacks, American Indians, a poor boy with a stutter, illegal aliens who aim to siphon off our limited healthcare resources, and the like.
This part of the Democrats’ message makes sense. It’s familiar. It is the key to the Democratic coalition, which has only grown through the social engineering of the 1965 Hart-Cellar immigration law.
Without constant new blood from the Third World, existing Americans—even older generations of immigrants—grow too prosperous, content, and conservative to keep the democrats in power. This is how the ethnic white Democrats of the 1950s became the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s and Trump voters today.
When America was filled with more of its legacy people, as in 1980 and 1984, the Democrats lost badly. Then, the Democrats could not successfully peddle the radicalism that has now become mainstream. Even Barack Obama won by concealing most of his past and his policy preferences. But through the magic of “electing a new people,” today’s much-more-leftist Democrats are within striking distance of an electoral victory, possibly permanently.
America the Hellhole
We also heard the Democrats’ grim view of American history. While there was critical talk of Russian collusion and celebration of the activist patriotism of the 1960s, these jingoist appeals always sound out of place and merely tactical. The more emphatic message was that America is fundamentally a bad, racist, and oppressive place.
Speaker after speaker talked about their brutal childhoods and overcoming oppression. Former President Obama said it like this:
Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
Evidently, then, the only thing worthwhile in America’s past are those minorities who fought against whites and their endemic racism. We can only love this country by making these fighters our heroes, not the pioneers, founders, astronauts, soldiers, or inventors in whom all Americans used to take some pride.
Their achievements and their America was built on oppression and exclusion. They are unworthy of celebration. This is why their monuments must be torn down and their progeny reduced to second class status.
A Question of Character
Finally, the convention focused extensively on the question of character. Democrats’ niceness, inclusiveness, solidarity with the oppressed, and basic goodness—as exemplified by the amiable Joe Biden—was contrasted with Trump. For them, Trump is all things bad: racist, mean, harsh, disrespectful, vulgar, and self-serving. He was mocked, literally.
Former President Obama attacked the sitting president in an unprecedented way, saying:
For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.
In other words, Obama said rather explicitly Trump is both evil and stupid.
Combining these three messages poses some problems. First, as with the racially separatist slogan Black Lives Matter, the implicit message is likely to frighten white voters, who still make up a majority of the country and an even greater majority of likely voters. Far from being inclusive, the coalition of the ascendant is based on an “us versus them” narrative that does not allow any pride of place, or indeed much of any place, for white Americans.
While Biden was the nominal candidate, he was one of very few white men on stage, and the only things he was allowed to be proud of were his family, his willingness to serve under Barack Obama, and his decision to pick Kamala Harris as his vice president. His age reinforced the message loud and clear: this is the last dance for the white man.
Second, the talk of niceness was peculiar. While it was said repeatedly, it was peppered with personal attacks and a note of conceit: We are the good people, and those mean Republicans are the bad ones. The words did not match the music.
For example, Michelle Obama intoned, “This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another. And it is well past time for our leaders to once again reflect our truth.”
Joe Biden, channeling Shirley McClaine, said, “If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness.”
This is not the language of humility. This is the language of triumphalism. Talking about someone else’s character, or lack of it, is always kind of obnoxious and aggressive. And implicit in all of this talk is a threat: not just Trump, but all those mean Americans who think like him and talk like him and voted for him, need to watch out. You are the bad guys, you are not real Americans, and we are going to get our revenge.
So, inclusion, niceness, and revenge. One of these things is not like the other. But the combination makes some sense when you understand that, for Democrats, politics is more like religion.
For progressive Democrats, politics occupies a different mental place; it’s the place of high-mindedness and worldly redemption. As vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris put it during her speech, “To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility.”
Thus, like religious people facing blasphemy, they take all deviations very badly and elevate the stakes of disagreement. In Biden’s words, “We can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite. A path of hope and light.”
Outside the convention’s virtual hall, the praise of “peaceful protests” was hard to reconcile with the violent, ongoing riots in places like Portland and the extensive looting in places like Chicago. These violent uprisings worry people. The DNC rhetoric cannot be reconciled with ugly images everyone with an internet connection has seen.
Even so, the Democrats maintained a respectful silence towards their vanguard, just like they did when the Weather Underground set off bombs in the 1960s. Sincere commitment to the cause purifies believers and excuses their excesses.
Also, the parade of glittering generalities omitted something else important: policy.
In spite of the claim that he lacks substance, Trump’s 2016 message was simple and boiled down to policy: restricting immigration, stopping excessive foreign policy involvement, and fighting for workers on trade. He has made some strides in all of those areas, in spite of significant opposition from the Democrats and members of his own party. In these particulars, Trump’s message and policies are popular. Acting like the sky will fall if he is reelected cannot be reconciled with the prosperity of his first three years and the rapid recovery of 2020.
Finally, the coronavirus loomed large, but specific policy recommendations were hard to find. Many of the speakers took turns blaming Trump for the coronavirus, but most people understand this disease is more like a natural disaster, and that the preferred cure of experts—lockdowns and restrictions—may be worse than the disease itself.
How far Biden will go in the name of “following the science” was unsaid at the convention, but he and Harris and their spouses wearing masks on the dais gave a strong hint: they will hand over the keys to the experts and put freedom and the economy in the trunk.
And, in fact, Biden on Saturday told ABC News host David Muir, “I would shut [the country] down. I would listen to the scientists” if they told him to impose another lockdown in January.
The lack of policy talk was surely intentional, as was the Harry Potter talk of light and darkness. Biden and the Democrats are trying to take a page out of Obama and Trump’s successful playbooks, where the slogans “Yes We Can!” and “Make America Great Again” allowed supporters to project their own wishes and hopes on their candidate.
The Democrats’ platitudes all served the same narrative: the old America is bad, Trump is the old America, and Trump and his supporters will be ousted and punished in order to restore the progressive trajectory of the Obama presidency.
Or as Biden put it: “The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division. Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness.”
You can almost hear the tune of La Marseillaise and the clanging of pitchforks in the background.