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Commentary: The rhetoric at the RNC has gone from disastrous to dangerous

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the third night of the Republican National Convention.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence onstage after Pence spoke at Ft. McHenry National Monument in Baltimore.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Keynote speaker Mike Pence was no match for the news of the day when he took the stage Wednesday for the third night of the Republican National Convention.

A Category 4 hurricane was barreling toward the Gulf Coast, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were closing in on 180,000. The NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS all canceled games as players launched a strike action in protest of another police shooting of a Black man, this time in Kenosha, Wis. A video of an apparent white vigilante shooting and killing #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators went viral. The suspected shooter was arrested. And Fox News personality Tucker Carlson set himself up for another boycott when he defended the suspected shooter for “decid[ing] to maintain order when no one else would.”

News stations periodically broke away from the otherwise sedate RNC to cover the America the vice president promised to make great again — again. Against the backdrop of residents evacuating before the storm, doctors on the front lines of the pandemic, and uprisings in the streets, watching the GOP’s self-congratulation tour felt like being dropped into a different dimension. Speaker after speaker expressed how well things have been going in America since President Trump took office, how great they are now, how all that will change if the Democratic ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris wins in November. Aggrandize the present, fear for the future. Leverage anger and hate.

The utopia portrayed by President Trump and his acolytes during the Republican National Convention on Tuesday is a fiction, and their America just a prop.

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Speaking at Ft. McHenry in front of a predominantly mask-free crowd, Pence touted Trump’s courage. “For the last four years I’ve watched this president endure unrelenting attacks but get up every day and fight to keep the promises he made to the American people.” He also listed his boss’ achievements, which in the RNC’s alternative universe included job growth (but not the devastating recession we’re in) and bettering the lives of women and people of color. He rewrote the history of the pandemic to suggest things are going very well. So well, in fact, that he, Trump and their wives joined the live crowd at Ft. McHenry without masks.

Like Monday’s and Tuesday’s two-hour productions, the event dedicated to the Republican Party’s renomination of Trump and Pence was a mix of rosy accounts about Trump’s first term and fearmongering about the future. Taking a page from the 2016 playbook, several speakers ginned up intolerance and racism to argue for Trump in November. “Americans won’t be safe if Biden wins,” said Pence, using the fear that the Democratic nominee would abolish police and throw in with The Others.

It’s a dangerous game. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who were featured speakers on Monday, are not first-line responders or war heroes. They were asked to appear simply because they brandished guns against peaceful protesters demanding justice for Black victims of police violence. The couple were charged with felonies for their actions, and now they’re heroes in Trump’s book.

Tuesday night, a 17-year-old, said to be a white vigilante, shot and killed two protesters and injured a third, in sight of police and in front of cameras. He appeared emboldened, even validated in his actions. And why wouldn’t he be? The McCloskeys were lionized. He just took the gun-wielding further.

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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.

Words, like actions, have consequences. Even though Wednesday night was an attempt by the GOP to fix their relationship with female voters — a moving speech from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, the acknowledgement of the women’s suffrage movement — the program was still an extension of Trump’s heated rhetoric and damaging policy prerogatives when it comes to women, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, liberals, the media or anyone who scrutinizes, criticizes or opposes him.

Discriminatory and sexist slurs were present in at least half the reader emails I received in response to my negative review of Monday’s RNC, all from folks who identified themselves as Trump supporters. The bigoted insults were accompanied by threats and violent sexual language. One person even hoped my “dirty Muslim children” would be raped. All for writing a negative review.

As a critic, I’m used to being challenged on my opinion and receiving angry feedback. But the tone changed after Trump took office. The feedback from those who identified themselves as supporters of the president became more personal, violent and racist before petering out earlier this year. The convention has clearly awakened those impulses again.


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