Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves to delegates after speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican conventions didn’t always used to be like this. They used to be only partly like this.
For generations, GOP national meetings were sites for one of the longest-running ideological blood feuds in the nation. In 1952, the Grand Old Party’s moderate and conservative wings almost fought to a draw. The right-wing partisans of Senator Robert Taft marched into Chicago’s International Amphitheater locked arm in arm, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and left united in the dubious conviction that the convention had been “stolen” from them by the better-organized supporters of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower—just one more instance, many of them went on to insist, of what Joe McCarthy called a Communist “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
In 1960, the battle was joined once again when Richard Nixon’s endorsement of a civil rights plank was decried by Barry Goldwater as “the Munich of the Republican Party.” Thrilled conservatives tried to draft Goldwater instead. By 1964, Goldwater’s partisans succeeded in winning the nomination, but the civil war continued unabated on the convention floor when the moderates’ innocuous plank opposing “the efforts of irresponsible individuals and extremist groups to infiltrate our party” (endorsed by a governor named George Romney, who had a then-17-year-old son named Mitt) was shouted down in a voice vote.
In 1976, the first GOP convention since 1952 when the nominee’s identity wasn’t known at the outset, the moderates prevailed on the final roll call, but not in the show on TV, which was ruined when the convention band had to play “God Bless America” four times in a row to silence the shrieking air horns blasted by churlish partisans of the defeated Ronald Reagan. But the civil war didn’t die with Reagan’s ascension four years later. It was just displaced—for instance, into back-room fights over platform planks on the abortion issue: “one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” the platform read in 1976; a “complex” issue with “differing views…among Americans in general,” it said in 1980; then finally the bat-shit assertion in 1984 that the “Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
And in 1992, when the moderates had the upper hand with the renomination of party elder and incumbent president George H.W. Bush, the shriekers won the keynote speaking slot—and Pat Buchanan declared “a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the cold war itself.” The ghosts of the Republicans’ civil war were even in evidence at the 2004 convention, when, by most accounts, the party had become a vehicle for conservatism tout court: recall the claim, repeated in speech after speech there, that a key reason George W. Bush deserved re-election was that he’d increased the rate of minority homeownership.
Well, that war is over and done with. A major American political party, shorn of all moderating influence, has finally, unalterably, gone insane. The striking thing is how many of the estimated 15,000 journalists who were with me in Tampa for the 2012 convention were missing this story of a lifetime—one sixty years in the making.
To be fair, the dramaturgy confused a lot of observers. After all, when I arrived inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the fellow onstage singing “God Bless the USA” was such a big black teddy bear of a man—and “God Bless the USA” seems like such an ideologically neutral, innocuous, goose-pimply kind of tune—that it would be easy to miss the blindingly reactionary stanza with which this anthem, featured at every last Republican and Tea Party rally, begins:
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife,
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today,
Because the flag still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away.
And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…
Think about that lyric. A man’s security is wiped from the face of the earth. That passes without further comment: shit happens. In any other civilized nation, government protections—decent unemployment insurance, national healthcare, good public education, childcare—make such a thing unimaginable. But in America, Old Glory is the only consolation a patriarch needs. It’s almost a privilege to be wiped out here.
Mitt Romney’s father, whom Mitt claims to revere, called this cult of rugged individualism a “political banner to cover up greed.” President Obama made a mild feint toward a more robust vision of collective obligation in a speech in July, when he pointed out that “if you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help”: teachers taught you, infrastructure served you, firefighters protected you, government research gave you tools like the Internet. “Some things we do better together,” the president added, like building “the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.” Obama also uttered the fateful line “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Republicans willfully misheard the “that” to refer to the businesses themselves—which meant Obama was crapping on every American entrepreneur who’d ever lived. And upon that rickety claim, the 2012 convention built its entire rhetorical appeal. God bless the USA.
Mia Love, a small-town mayor running for Congress from Utah, kicked it off: “This is the America we know,” she said, jabbing her finger, “because we built it.” It got a solid thirty seconds of applause, as delegates waved their party-provided “We Built It” signs. “Yes, we did,” she punctuated, Obama style, letting another eight seconds of rapturous applause ride. Country singer Lane Turner sang a brand-new song written for the convention, “I Built It.” The titanic job creator Janine Turner—a radio host who played Maggie on the TV show Northern Exposure, last on the air when today’s 18-year-old voters were in diapers (for connoisseurs of D-list celebrity, a Republican convention is the place to be)—cried, “And President Obama, I’m here to tell ya, government didn’t build it. God and the American people built it!” (That Palin-style “ya” is in the remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery press release.) She said this in front of one of the set’s recurring images, an inspiring earth-toned collage that included the government-built Gateway Arch.
Yes, the entire theme was a lie, and that shouldn’t pass unremarked. More extraordinary, however, is this: if you’re not among the small percentage of Americans who own a business, or don’t aspire to become one, you were invisible to the people on that podium in Tampa. That applies if you are a first responder, a social worker, a carpenter, an airline pilot, an artist, a lawyer—even a soldier (Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech never mentioned the word “Afghanistan”). But especially if you are a worker.
The only time workers were mentioned, as best I could discern, was during the speech by Rand Paul. “When you say they didn’t build it,” said the Kentucky senator and scion of the libertarian superhero Ron Paul, “you insult each and every American who ever got up at the crack of dawn. You insult any American who ever put on overalls or a suit. You insult any American who ever studied late into the night to become a doctor or a lawyer. You insult the dishwasher, the cook, the waitress.” Which makes not a lick of sense, except in the context of what Paul said a few minutes later: “When you seek to punish Mr. ExxonMobil” (Corporations are people, my friend!), “you punish the secretary who owns ExxonMobil stock.” In other words, you hardly qualify as a citizen if you don’t own a business, unless you are an adjunct to, a supplicant beneath or an investor with someone who does.
The story was told over and over again: the speaker’s forebears started out with nothing. (The father of Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, for example, fled Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear—a veritable 1 percenter to Mia Love’s folks, who came with ten bucks.) Their family started a business, asking nothing, sacrificing everything—and then, as their reward, got security for their loved ones. And, as a bonus, got to make America great.
So when the child of Sher Valenzuela, the Republican candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor, was diagnosed with autism, she and her husband, a second-generation Mexican-American, “realized quickly” that their paychecks “wouldn’t pay for the professionals that Simon needed to overcome the odds.” So they chucked it all and started their own business. Which—happy ending—now has more than seventy employees. Because only entrepreneurial heroes deserve care for their disabled kids.
It’s crazy, and yet another part of the convention metanarrative was crazier still: that all was going along swimmingly for these entrepreneur-patriots until Commissar Obama conspired to take it away. Now, the convention is a TV show, and the pretty pictures make their impression on the national limbic system too fast for fact-checking to matter all that much. But doing so is one of the few fun things that liberals have left in politics these days, so let’s do it anyway. Valenzuela called the supposed “regulatory uncertainty” brought on by Obama—especially the “109 million new paperwork burden hours” his administration has allegedly imposed—“an all-out assault on free enterprise.” As BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski discovered, however, Valenzuela has given PowerPoint presentations to aspiring female entrepreneurs. One of her slides reads: “Myth #1: It will take too much time to complete all the paperwork necessary to work with the government. The Truth: Bidding on government contracts has never been easier, and it’s getting easier all the time.”
* * *
My second night, the night of Paul Ryan’s speech, began with a glimpse of the brave new world his 1 percent is bringing down upon the rest of us. I was relaxing in the open-air mall called Channelside, just down the street from the convention hall where MSNBC had set up its soundstage, when a little gray-haired lady walked beamingly through the crowd sporting an “Obama Momma” T-shirt. I thought it would be fun to ask her about the reactions she was getting from the assembled multitude, so I buttonholed her for a chat.
A security guard then approached us: “You can’t do no interview here.”
“Are you serious?”
“Who are you working for?”
His finger traced our surroundings: “Channelside. This is private property.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He was not.
Discouraged, I ducked into the adjacent multiplex to charge my cellphone and noodle on my computer, which is where a middle-aged man named Walt, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and works as an account manager for Verizon, saw the credential around my neck and approached to ask how he could get one himself. “I just wanted to know how an average Joe could get in,” he said. After explaining to him that an average Joe could not get in, I asked him about his interest in the convention. It turned out that Walt just loves Mitt Romney. He’d never voted before in his life, he said, but he will this year: “Finally, I get to vote for someone who has the same principles and morals that I do.”
“Family values. Marriage between a man and a woman. Going back to: we believe in God, Jesus Christ as our savior, and that this country is the land of opportunity.”
I pointed out gingerly that he looked old enough to have voted in more than a few elections, and also that the Republican candidates have been claiming much the same thing for decades—that it was, in fact, the soul of the party’s appeal.
“Not really. Not quite,” he responded forcefully. “I hate to say this, but Bush had an agenda. His agenda was pleasing his dad. And that’s why we went to war.”
We continued talking for half an hour, and I heard a lot of Fox News bullshit: that Obama was elected because he reads well from a teleprompter; that he removed the work requirement from welfare. This last one was a particular passion of Walt’s, who volunteered proudly that he’s a Mormon: “Now, we have a welfare system…” Next, he patiently explained how it works: bishops (Mitt Romney was one) enter the homes of those seeking help, open the family books, go over which expenses are necessary and which are luxuries. “It comes with a game plan…. So it’s not just ‘We give and you do jack.’ That’s Obama’s thing: entitlement…and people say, ‘You know what? I don’t have to do anything—I still get a check!’” I, of course, patiently explained to him that these charges were all made up, and Walt, an open-hearted guy, politely asked, “Where do you find this?”—like I was explicating the runes of some esoteric sect.
At an epistemological impasse, we changed the subject, to taxes. Walt explained, “Anyone who doesn’t have a home-based business is ignorant. Home-based businesses are a tax write-off.” I asked him what his business was, and he admitted a bit sheepishly that it’s a “network marketing thing”—like Amway. Whether you judge such operations as half-corrupt pyramid schemes or not, they serve a crucial psychological function on the grassroots right: they let nine-to-fivers like Walt style themselves as members of the morally exalted caste of entrepreneurs.
* * *
It’s time to head out to the forum, where tonight’s news will be all about Paul Ryan’s charisma (or, in the alternative media, Paul Ryan’s lies). An equally important story wasn’t much noticed. It was telegraphed by my friend Walt when he explained why he hadn’t liked George W. Bush: grassroots Republicans are just about done with this whole “world’s policeman” thing.
Rand Paul got some of the biggest applause of his speech for saying something this party isn’t supposed to support at all: “Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well spent.” The next night, during his Depend-worthy ramble, Clint Eastwood seemed to suggest that the best thing to do in Afghanistan would be to bring the troops home “tomorrow morning”—and got the biggest applause of his remarks.
In between, John McCain and Condoleezza Rice sounded like schoolmarms lecturing indifferent students when they tried to make the case that what neoconservatives used to call the “freedom agenda” was being betrayed by Barack Obama, but would be renewed by Mitt Romney if he won. McCain, speaking on his 76th birthday, all but apologized for bringing up the subject in the first place: “It is said that this election will turn on domestic and economic issues. But what Mitt Romney knows, and what we know, is, is”—he stumbled over the words, nervous, like he knew he was entering the lion’s den—“that our success at home also depends on our leadership in the world.” The crowd’s tepid response suggested they did not know that at all.
Soaring rhetoric about “our willingness to shape world events,” leading “shoulder to shoulder with steadfast friends and allies,” “giving voice to the voiceless, insisting that every human life has dignity,” got little reaction; McCain only coaxed real noise out of the crowd through references to the sacrifices of the troops, gratuitous slams on Obama and mentions of the glories of supporting Israel. His call to “renew the foundations of our power and leadership in the world” sounded like an applause line—but it got no applause. Likewise, “By committing to withdraw from Afghanistan before peace can be achieved and sustained, our president has discouraged our friends and emboldened our enemies.” By the time he got to “In other times, when other courageous people fought for their freedom against sworn enemies of the United States, American presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have acted to help them prevail,” I felt like the crowd thought this old man would ramble on forever. McCain seemed to sense it, too. “An American president always, always, always stands up for the rights, and freedoms, and justice, of all people,” he said. You only repeat a word three times when you fear people aren’t going to hear it.
Condoleezza Rice, after being ushered onstage with the most tasteless introduction music (“Sweet Home Alabama,” a paean to Governor George Wallace) since David Letterman’s band played “(Push, Push) In the Bush” for a certain white-haired former first lady in 1994, repeated the performance, but at least she had the wit to change the subject halfway through to economics, education reform and a magic-pixie-dust portrayal of the racial history of Birmingham—one that implied all it took to overcome segregation was parents who pretended it didn’t exist. (And for that bit of moral absolution—just the kind Ronald Reagan used to offer—she received a colossal gust of applause.) But what was striking, in the foreign policy part of her speech, was the pleading she felt she had to do (“To be sure, the burdens of leadership have been heavy”; “I know too that there is a wariness”) when asking the audience to care about “the promise of the Arab Spring,” and about Russian and Chinese stumbling blocks to confronting “dictators in Iran and Syria [who] butcher their people and threaten regional security” while the rest of the world asks, “Where does America stand?” The Fox News transcript reads “(APPLAUSE)” after that question, but not really: I timed it at three seconds.
* * *
So what happened? The Republicans used to love their wars so lustily! Don’t call the change “moderation”: given that the crowd’s indifference was in response to calls to mitigate human suffering, it better resembled the morally indifferent isolationism of the late 1930s and early ’40s, when the right opposed rearming the nation to fight Hitler.
What they really love—shown by the way McCain and Condi were able to win back their audience by taking cheap shots at Obama—are enemies. And within their authoritarian mind-set (as George Orwell taught us with his talk about Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania), enemies are fungible. The invocation of enemies from the podium, of course, is usually gentle—wouldn’t want to frighten the folks watching the show on TV. The uglier, more genuine GOP reveals itself just outside the camera’s range. On the convention’s last day, I found it at the “American Action Network Pavilion” at Liberty Plaza, a parking lot near the convention hall repurposed as a colony for top-dollar fundraisers and for staging Two Minute Hates.
There were several gleaming white, air-conditioned tents like the kind you’d see in a forward operating base in Afghanistan, including a “VIP Tent,” a “Cigar Tent” and a “Theater Tent” devoted to screening the productions of Citizens United, the conservative “grassroots” organization made infamous by the 2010 Supreme Court decision that greenlighted its laundering of millions in secret contributions in order to produce lunatic propaganda like the film we were all there to see: Occupy Unmasked. Before we were allowed inside, we had to endure a security gantlet more intense than the one to get into the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It extended, I would discover, inside the theater itself. A towering man in a plaid shirt pointed to my digital recorder and said—this was getting old—I couldn’t record. He wouldn’t say who he was, but he did say he would have me arrested if I didn’t erase the sound file while he watched. When one of the half-dozen or so Hillsborough County sheriff’s officers milling about in khaki riot garb backed him up, I obliged, which was probably for the best: the distinguishing feature of Occupy Unmasked’s soundtrack was an unceasing, loud, dull, dissonant…well, you couldn’t call it music. It was more like a deep rumble, the aural equivalent of a laxative to loosen one’s critical faculties.
Thanks to the movie, I learned about the “e-mail archives that show how Occupy was really planned”—though I also learned that it was planned, a year before it began, at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union, which “gave $100 million to Barack Obama’s presidency”; and also in New Orleans in 2005, where all the principal conspirators just happened to gather to “occupy the Ninth Ward” under the guise of helping hurricane victims; as well as in Madison, Wisconsin, where protesters last year tried “to start a war on the grounds of the Capitol”; or maybe in the basement of Saul Alinsky, who was mentored by Chicago mobster Frank Nitti and who mentored Barack Obama in turn (this is illustrated with a clip of Obama talking about how everyone should pay their fair share of taxes). Bottom line: “This was not done spontaneously.” Just look, David Horowitz admonishes, at Stalin’s purges, and the Cuban Revolution, and the Black Panthers, and SDS: that’s just how they do it. Just look at the footage of these movements’ various riots: they all look exactly the same. They start the same way too, Horowitz says: “You pretend to be interested in the issues…. The goal is to destroy a society you’re alienated from…. They want chaos. Then they can seize power.”
The next step in the plan, a former leftist named Pam Key explains, is “to occupy properties and homes.” The reason “you aren’t seeing a lot of black people,” ACORN staffer turned conservative belle Anita MonCrief reveals, is that “they’re being prepared for part two: the race war.” Part one, apparently, was the rape campaign: did you know that the media have conspired to cover up the dozens of rapes at Occupy encampments? During the question-and-answer period, I asked how Saul Alinsky could have been the president’s mentor if Obama was 10 when Alinsky died. A woman looked at me like I was one of the rapists.
Magnolia Pictures, the marquee film company co-owned by billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, will be distributing the movie. I guess that’s why I was almost arrested: they didn’t want me threatening the intellectual property of a job creator.
Speaking of job creators, I met one down the street from Liberty Plaza: a young man in a T-shirt advertising his small business, YoungObamaHaters.com, which sells products featuring a map of America crisscrossed by rifles and the slogans “My Country My Future,” and “Deport Barack Hussein Obama.” He asked me “where the hippies are protesting at.” He looked about ready to beat one up. Since there aren’t any moderates left to disagree with, Republicans have to find someone to fight.