When Donald Trump’s Republican Party convenes in Cleveland, three shadows will haunt the arena. They won’t talk about these shadows on television, but if you look closely you’re sure to see them.
The first shadow is that of the extremist Republican right. Since the infamous Lewis Powell memo of 1970, it has invested billions in think tanks, academia, and politics to promote its agenda of individual greed over the common good.
Their free-market voodoo and corporate pandering is promoted by wild-eyed believers and cutthroat cynics who know that their ideas are unpopular and their theories disproved. That’s why they rely on deception and disenfranchisement.
This is the Republican Party establishment. Its goods are peddled by the likes of Paul Ryan, a human smiley-face sticker with an extremist’s heart.
The second shadow is that of a new fundamentalism, both political and religious, whose followers worship an angry white god of their own creation. They’ve claimed their religion on behalf of their political ideology, but despise what it and all spiritual traditions really represent: generosity, equality and community.
“The Vision of Christ that thou dost see,” wrote the poet William Blake, “is my Vision’s greatest enemy.”
Where their Bible teaches togetherness, their leaders preach a brutal individualism. Where it teaches love, their preachers shout in anger. They’ve been taught to hate government rather than greed. They have reason to be angry, but they’re angry at the wrong things.
This is the Tea Party.
The third shadow is that of Trump himself, a bloated bleached-blond Narcissus transfixed by his own silhouette. “He worships at the altar of a stagnant pool,” says an old Dylan song, “and when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.”
Under President Trump, the Oval Office would become a hollow sarcophagus, the vessel for an aging and soul-dead boy king.
Trump seeks power by summoning the basest of human emotions, especially hatred of the Other. That hatred will shine in a million blue eyes this week. Trump contains multitudes: the man who objectifies women is running on an anti-porn platform.
They won’t talk about these three shadowy monsters on cable TV, but they’ll be there just the same: sipping cocktails in expensive suites, smiling through politicians’ faces, lurking in the corners that camera lights can’t illuminate. And they’ll be out in the streets, ready for a fight.
Watch, and be afraid.
The nation is a tinderbox. There’s bloodshed in Baton Rouge, in Dallas, in Minneapolis, and in hundreds of neighborhoods where network news reporters never go. African Americans keep dying – through gunfire, and in the many unseen ways people die when they’re impoverished, malnourished, when they’re deprived of safe homes and communities, of economic opportunity and adequate health care.
And there’s a new lower-class white despair, too, traced in rising death rates from alcohol, drugs, and suicide. Inequality and class injustice, mixed with ancient strains of racism and hypernationalism, make a dangerous combination. These whites have seen their middle-class lives collapse. They’re exiles from the world of their upbringing, and some of them are looking for someone to hate.
Racism and fear, wrapped around each other like the double helix of some dark DNA. Republicans have been eager to respond, with coded race messages designed to distract struggling whites from their own financial exploitation. Trump’s innovation is to strip away the code and deliver the message straight.
Establishment Republicans hate that. It embarrasses them. But even as Jeb Bush condemned Trump this week, he repeated the covert lies that Trump dares to make overt.
The Republican Party’s a jerry can filled with gasoline, and Trump’s holding the match. Burn down the old order, bring in the new.
It can’t happen here? Listen to your inner voice. It’s saying, This is how it begins.
If you’re not afraid, you don’t know your history. People say Trump is a buffoon, a fool. They’re wrong. He’s smart, determined, and utterly without scruples. He’s a changeling and con man extraordinaire.
Yes, his sentences are simple – so simple they could be tapped out with symbols, like Koko the Gorilla did on her keyboard. That way his words go straight to the lizard brain: Great. Beautiful. Winning. Fantastic.
Laugh if you want, but you won’t laugh for long. Hillary Clinton is beating Trump by 5 percent or less in the polls. If Trump’s so laughable, why isn’t it 50 percent? Maybe for the same reason, some Americans like to gamble. When your luck’s this lousy, why not take a long-shot roll of the dice to change it?
If Democrats run as the status-quo party, the unthinkable can become the inevitable: Trump could win. And win or lose, he has polluted political discourse – perhaps for generations.
As for Republicans, consider their ethics. In December Ryan, the House speaker, condemned Trump on moral grounds, saying his anti-Muslim bigotry is “not who we are as a people or a country.”
Ryan will address the convention on Tuesday night.
Not that he’s an exception. They’ll all be making their deals with the devil this week, these cut-rate Fausts in the Quicken Loans Arena. Don’t they remember the first Faust? The loan is offered quickly, but the debt always comes due.
Who supports such mediocre figures? People seized by a collective insanity. Remember Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”:
“Not a soul/But felt a fever of the mad … the first man that leaped, cried, ‘Hell is empty/And all the devils are here.’”
If you think your ship is burning, you’ll fight for the chance to jump.
The convention’s Day One theme is “Making America Safe Again.” It features the guy who played Chachi in Happy Days. Tuesday, on “Make America Work” night, two of Trump’s trust fund kids will address the crowd.
Wednesday is “Make America First” night. That’s when we’ll meet Trump’s VP pick, Mike Pence, who’s famous for supporting his state’s anti-gay hate legislation. Pence also denies that climate change is real. Like other Republicans, his deliberate ignorance threatens the very planet.
“America First,” humanities professor Susan Dunn notes, was “the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”
Newt Gingrich will speak on Wednesday too. He’s a historian. Gingrich knows exactly what “America First” means.
The final night’s speakers include Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who spends the money he made from government-created technology – the internet – trying to destroy government. Thiel once wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He also said that “the extension of the franchise to (women and minorities) have (sic) turned ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
Not that Trump supporters can’t be nice people. I met some this weekend at a hotel in St. Louis, where they had come for a ballgame. They said “good morning” and “excuse me” and carried an elderly woman’s suitcase. They were enjoying their weekend, they said, but they were afraid – for themselves and their country.
It’s time for a change, they said.
Trump’s no fool. He is a clown, but that’s something different. There’s a reason people hate and fear clowns: their makeup hides their intentions. The hard man, the caudillo, the iron-fisted one, often softens his hard edges by playing the fool.
Fear the man with the painted face.
A President Trump might be like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi: an embarrassment for society and a disaster for the country. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst one begins, “First, they came for the Muslims …”
You know how it ends.
Quicken Loans Arena advertises itself as “home to the Cavaliers, the Monsters, and the Gladiators.” They’re referring to Cleveland’s sports teams, of course, but any confusion on the reader’s part is understandable this week.
There will be brightness and color in Cleveland. The talking heads will talk. Klieg lights will reflect off the orange skin of the nominee as he makes his acceptance speech, bathing ideologues and observers alike in a Tequila Sunrise-colored glow. Believe me, it’ll be fantastic.
But underneath the hall or in the clouds overhead, unseen by the crowds and unphotographed by the cameras, three dark figures will spread their wings.
And they’ll wait for their hour to come around.