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Commentary: To President Trump and the GOP, America is just a prop

Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Republican National Convention on Tuesday.
(Republican National Committee)

If you were among the curiosity seekers who tuned in to the second night of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday hoping for a repeat of Kimberly Guilfoyle’s sternum-shaking fervor — and the humorous memes to match — you were likely disappointed.

The GOP’s opening night program may have tried to shore up President Trump’s COVID-tattered image as an empathetic problem-solver, but it foundered on thunderous rhetoric, watery eyes and white grievance, to say nothing of the pandemic’s death toll or the economy’s collapse.

By contrast, Tuesday’s festivities were almost uniformly sedate. In fact, minus the now commonplace references to “radical left” boogeymen and a particularly lurid antiabortion speech from activist — and would-be women’s suffrage opponent — Abby Johnson, one might describe Night 2 of the Republican National Convention as a utopian vision of America, a place where the novel coronavirus was “successfully fought” and Congress “saved the economy” (former CNBC host and current Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow); where overseas wars will soon come to an end (Sen. Rand Paul); where the president is an ardent feminist and the battle against “misinformation” is waged from the highest levels of government (Tiffany Trump).

The problem, of course, is that the utopia portrayed during the RNC on Tuesday is a fiction, and its America just a prop.

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The first night of the Republican National Convention confronted us with Donald Trump’s failure to live up to his own slogan: Make America Great Again.

It’s worrying enough that Trump and company placed the proscenium arch of the nation’s most sacred rituals, the painted backdrop of its most storied locales, in the service of a partisan message, or that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo violated his own department’s regulations to deliver a partisan speech from Jerusalem. It’s far worse to compare the Trump administration’s actions to Tuesday’s mostly rosy rhetoric, and to conclude that the impressment of those rituals, those locales, was anything but sincere.

At the top of the program, the president who assumed Richard Nixon’s “law and order” mantle and displaced peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to stage a photo-op in front of a church, granted clemency to Jon Ponder, the founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that offers training to ex-prisoners attempting to reintegrate into society upon release. At its end, First Lady Melania Trump, who once wore a jacket emblazoned with the phrase “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” to visit captive immigrant children in Texas, described the honor of service in the newly redesigned White House Rose Garden.

Between those bookends, Trump and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf held a naturalization ceremony for five new American citizens; Vice President Mike Pence praised Abraham Lincoln just steps from the “Great Emancipator’s” frontier cabin; and conservative cause celebre Nicholas Sandmann inveighed against “cancel culture” before the Lincoln Memorial.

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The quadrennial conventions are, if not propaganda, then at least four-day advertorials for the two major political parties, so perhaps it should have been unsurprising that no one cared to mention the Trump administration’s attacks on the very system of legal immigration the evening proposed to celebrate — much less remind us of the existence of those children too busy being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border to hear about Mrs. Trump’s anti-bullying campaign, “Be Best.”

Not only is Trump violating a law that forbids federal employees from engaging in partisan activities; he’s also gutted the agency that enforces it.

And yet the almost impossibly craven sight of our national monuments, our better angels, turned into set dressing for the president’s divisive reelection strategy registered as a fresh norm broken, a new line crossed. One can roll one’s eyes at the female Trump officials discussing the president’s enlightenment about gender roles, only to elide his description of both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, as “nasty” women. One can even scoff at former Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi’s description of Biden and his family as the most corrupt in American political history — you don’t need to be Dr. Freud to recognize displacement of such breathtaking heights.

What one cannot do is abide the theft of our shared civic vernacular by a former reality star on national television. Even in “the land of opportunism” that Trump has wrought, to steal a phrase from Bondi, the cost of those ideals — of mercy and inclusion, freedom and tolerance — has been too dear to sacrifice so easily.

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Just ask the president who gave his life for this country, only to see his memory flogged for votes in a gilded pageant of praise for another Republican president. Pence may have stopped by Lincoln’s childhood home, but Lincoln must have been rolling in his grave.


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