By Jeff Cahlon
H. L. Mencken once wrote that (to paraphrase) no one ever lost an election by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency, culminating in the Republican convention, has been a testament to his instinctive understanding of this axiom, coupled with his complete absence of qualms about exploiting it.
By most measures, the Republican convention was not a great success. Ratings were mediocre and reviews were even worse. Even many conservative commentators were aghast at the bizarre, surreal cross between comedy and horror show put on by the former “reality television” star—amusing in its farcical absurdity, horrifying in its bare pathological ugliness.
But the most frightening aspect of the Republican convention was its ultimate effectiveness. As Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their own convention, post-convention polls showed Donald Trump surging to a lead over Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s post-convention “bounce” only amplified the importance of the Democratic effort. In some ways, Democrats had an easier task than that of the Republicans. The Democrats were relatively united, with virtually all elected Democratic officials offering their unqualified support of the Democratic nominee. They had a lineup of prominent, reasonably popular past and present officeholders and leaders, including a sitting president and vice president, a first lady, and a former president, ready to sing the praises of the Democratic nominee. And they had, as Michael Bloomberg put it at the convention, a “sane, competent” nominee.
Nonetheless, the Democratic convention presented the party with some significant challenges. One such challenge was a result of the fact that, to a greater extent than in at least a generation, a substantial contingent of the Democratic party is not merely liberal or “progressive” but deeply and fundamentally radical. This faction found its voice in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an avowed “democratic socialist” who, in past elections might have suffered the fate of a “fringe” candidate like Dennis Kucinich in 2008. As the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders won 22 states.
Though Sanders ultimately conceded defeat and endorsed Hillary, the response of Sanders supporters to his defeat ranged from resigned acceptance to angry defiance. While polls showed a majority of Sanders supporters planning to vote for Hillary, a vocal “Bernie or Bust” minority vowed they would never do so, and some even promised to disrupt the Democratic convention.
The first night of the convention was devoted largely to assuaging the Sanders wing of the party. Sanders himself spoke, as did Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of the Sanders wing of the party. While Warren has often served as an effective “attack dog” against Trump, her speech fell flat, due in part to repeated heckles from some “Sanders or Bust” delegates. Sanders’s speech was largely a reprise of his greatest hits (spoiler alert: Sanders still isn’t overly fond of billionaires or Wall Street), but it was rapturously received at the convention and served as a catharsis of sorts for his backers.
As much as night one of the convention sought to mollify the Sanders wing of the party, the remainder of the convention laid bare that the mainstream wing of the party still holds sway. Sanders’s hard-edged left-wing populism, with its vision of a “rigged” economy and political system–nearly as dystopian in its own way as that offered by the Republicans, albeit with different villains–was little heard of again. Instead, most speakers sought to portray a positive vision of the state of the country, emphasizing gains made under President Obama and the continued progress possible under Democratic leadership.
The convention also featured the expected denunciations of Trump as a menace and fraud. Yet even four days filled with attacks on Trump seemed barely to scratch the surface of why Trump should not be allowed near the Oval Office.
The Democratic lineup of all-stars did not disappoint, all bringing their particular gifts to making the case for Hillary over Trump: Bill Clinton, his effortless, beguiling charm; Barack Obama, his eloquence and grace; and Joe Biden—who stole the show with the most powerful speech of the convention—his heart-on-his-sleeve passion.
Alas, Hillary herself brought, well, none of those things. Her speech served as a stark reminder of the other major challenge of the Democratic convention: the weak link at the top of the ticket. Those expecting a breakthrough performance by the star of the show would be sorely disappointed. Hillary is still Hillary, the same person who Americans have grown to know and not love over the past 24-odd years. After the parade of all-stars hitting home-runs (even “boring” Tim Kaine, the vice presidential nominee, with his pleasant if underwhelming affability, earned a solid double), Hillary seemed like she barely belonged in the majors. A viewer could be forgiven for wondering: wait, this is the nominee? The person everyone has been gushing about for the last 4 days?
That’s not to say her speech was terrible, merely adequate and forgettable. It was strongest when she warned of the dangers of the Trump presidency, such as her argument that a “man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons”. Substantively, the speech’s biggest flaw was an overemphasis on the misguided obsessions of the Left, like raising taxes on the rich and the supposed scourge of money in politics—even as Trump shows how a devious clown with a Twitter account, a knack for generating free publicity, and almost no traditional (read: expensive) campaign organisation poses a far greater threat to democracy than all the slick campaign ads money can buy.
But the most striking, repeated theme of Hillary’s speech, and that of the convention generally, was an optimistic, positive view, not only of the condition and future of the country but of the American people, in contrast to the nightmarish, cynical vision offered by the Republicans in Cleveland.
“That is not the America I know”, President Obama insisted, of Trump’s belief in a country that would elect a president who offers nothing but a “fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.” It was an insistence born of sheer necessity.
Somewhere, H. L. Mencken was laughing.