I watched the second night of the Republican National Convention the same way you fall in love or go bankrupt: gradually, but then suddenly stricken by a strange and somewhat inexplicable premonition. It was this: Donald John Trump is going to win in November, and win big.
Yeah, I know all about the polls. I understand the deep distaste many Americans, including some traditional Republican voters, feel for the president. I am well aware of the criticism of his conduct in handling COVID-19, or the riots following George Floyd’s death, or any number of issues. And yet, as Trump’s first surprise election ought to have taught us by now, when it comes to modern American politics, the only principle that truly matters is the Ooga Chaka principle: We vote for the candidate who gets us hooked on a feeling and high on believing.
Last week, the Democrats used their convention to deliver three key messages: Joe Biden is a very decent person; Joe Biden is not Donald Trump, who is not a very decent person; and, being both a very decent person and not-Donald-Trump, Joe Biden is passionate about amplifying the voices of women and minorities, which is one important way to prove both your decency and your not-Trumpiness.
Who, precisely, might get hooked by these messages, and on what feeling? That Biden is a decent person is indisputable anywhere outside the airless quarters of the most quarrelsome partisans. That he shares little with the man he hopes to defeat is obvious—by now, Trump’s fans and detractors alike have very few misconceptions about the man’s character. That leaves us with the DNC’s heavy schmear of identity politics, a sentiment that doubtless resonates with the party’s educated, affluent base but says very little to those weary Americans who wonder why their cities are burning and why on earth anyone would ever want to defund the police.
The RNC, on the other hand, had a much more hearty offering on hand. It had no actors, singers, comedians, billionaires, academics, or former presidents present to offer perfectly polished paeans to character. Instead, it had people of faith affirming the singular importance of safeguarding the freedom of religion; immigrants affirming the notion, not controversial