The cabaret of hate and fear that is currently playing at the Republican National Convention allows us to see what happens when a party’s rhetoric equates political opponents with terrorists. When the hyperbole of partisan pundits becomes the rhetoric of politicians, the first casualty is the truth. The second, I fear, is our ability to self-govern.
The Republican party, with help from the now possibly deposed Roger Ailes at Fox, has spent 20 years ramping up their rhetoric. A real estate deal on which the Clintons lost money became a witch hunt that resulted in the impeachment of the president of the United States for infidelity (a crusade waged by men who had been or were at that moment being unfaithful to their wives– not to mention Denis Hastert’s past as a serial child molester). But it also spawned a host of conspiracy theories including one that accused Hillary Clinton of murder. John Kerry was a traitor and Barack Obama is a Muslim Socialist Dictator who hates America and colludes with terrorists both foreign and domestic. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used an unsecure email server for which she should be tried for treason and hung on the mall in Washington. And Benghazi has spawned its own share of conspiracy theories – some of which took center stage on Monday night.
When that much fear and hatred have been stoked for so long, I suppose Cleveland is the logical result. And that is the only logical thing about Cleveland. Because it is fundamentally divorced from reality. It is unhinged and unbalanced and terrifying.
But more than anything else, it is dangerous. And not just dangerous because it seems to liberate the id of average citizens such that they behave in ways that violate the norms of decorum taught in kindergarten. It is dangerous because it destroys democracy.
I can work with people with whom I disagree. I can reach compromises with them and even like them as people.
But I cannot work with the enemy. I cannot negotiate with terrorists.
As long as our political discourse is dominated by ideologues who see their fellow citizens as terrorists, there is no chance for civility, progress or even governance.
I was actually going to write this post last week when I saw a link to a website that said that Black Lives Matter activists were planning attacks in multiple cities (the cities were locations of demonstrations). When I saw it, I despaired that progress could ever be made.
If there is to be any kind of progress on the separate and unequal way that African Americans are treated by law enforcement, there must be dialogue. Police must be willing to sit down with citizens of the communities they are supposed to be serving and those citizens must be willing to sit down with police (as was so nicely done at this protest turned cook out).
But if the right sees the peaceful demonstrations of Black Lives Matter activists as “attacks”—as terrorist activity- there is no chance for dialogue. When demonstrations become attacks, demonstrators become attackers. Attackers are terrorists and we do not negotiate with terrorists. We cannot sit down together. We cannot listen to one another. We cannot see each other’s humanity. We cannot address injustice. We cannot solve our problems.
Cleveland shows us that it is not only the frought issue of race that brings out the worst in people. Rather, in Cleveland we see that list of enemies is long: immigrants, gays, Democrats, Muslims and Black activists who dare to proclaim that their lives have value. Republicans in Cleveland will not negotiate with these enemies of the state. We cannot talk. We cannot solve our problems.
To those on the left feeling smug- I will also say that the right is not alone in this. There are those on the left who see any compromise on liberal principles as capitulation. These people, in their demand for purity, see no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They suggest both are equally bad and that perhaps the country needs to be burnt to the ground by Trump for renewal to begin. Their apocalyptic fervor, fear and righteous anger feels like it would have good company in Cleveland.
I do not know how we come back from the brink. I do not know how to restore civility.
Cleveland is full of fear. And so am I.