There was no cheering. There were no costumes. There was no Macarena. The first night of the virtual Democratic National Convention was less of a pep rally and more of a cancer diagnosis. America is sick, and the Democrats asked us to stare that truth right in the face.
For me, a person who is well aware that the country is being compromised by a malignant tumor in the White House, I found the non–Michelle Obama portions of the proceedings a little dispiriting. I know we’re dying; I want to hear about the treatment. Are we attacking the sickness or just the symptoms? Are we going with aggressive chemotherapy, or are the Democrats merely offering chicken soup, Dayquil, and Sprite?
Still, even as I sagged in my chair, I tried to remind myself that the Democrats are playing for a larger audience than people like me. I tried to remember that some people do not already know that we are dangerously ill. Some patients have to be convinced that they are sick before they will take any medicine at all. Some voters have not been touched by the death and destruction wrought by the Trump administration and Republican apathy.
That’s why, I think, the Democrats spent the first night of their convention doing the uncomfortable work of bringing those deaths to life. The dead are not statistics, and the Democrats brought forth surviving loved ones to put a human face on the suffering caused by the current government. George Floyd’s brother spoke. Before calling for a moment of silence, he listed names of others who have died at the hands of brutal police or systemic racism. He said, “George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, they should all be alive today.” I know these names (and many others) like other people know the names of their saints. I can see their faces and, too often, their final moments. Naming them reminds people that behind every viral video is a life that was snuffed out.
The Democrats didn’t stop there, because the deaths haven’t stopped there. The first night featured videos from “regular” Americans who have suffered during these past four years. The most poignant was from Kristin Urquiza, a woman who lost her father to Covid-19. She said, “His only preexisting condition was that he trusted Donald Trump. And for that, he paid with his life.”
At one point, the Democrats even ran an “In Memoriam” scroll, like you’d see at the Oscars, only instead of dead actors, the names and pictures were those of Americans who have died from Covid-19.
It was heavy stuff. Even Billy Porter, who can usually make me smile with a mere flick of his train, played the convention out with his rendition of “For What It’s Worth.” This is not the Hamilton convention. This is the Les Misérables convention.
Of course, the first night of the convention wasn’t billed as the “let’s have a good cry” night it felt like. Instead, the theme was “unity.” I’ve written before about how misguided I think it is to include Republicans in the Democratic National Convention and, frankly, I thought former Ohio governor John Kasich standing at a literal crossroads like he was the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz proved my point for me. I do not live at a crossroads where deciding between a bigoted, misogynist mediocrity who is partially responsible for 170,000 American deaths versus anybody else is all that difficult a choice. And I’ve never seen any evidence that a Republican who no longer holds elected office changes the mind of a single Republican voter. I don’t think the endorsement of Christine Todd-Whitman, or Meg Whitman, or even Dick Whitman means anything to anybody.
But since the DNC bothered to drag these Republicans out here, since we are doing this whole big policy-agnostic tent thing, I was surprised that none of them could fix their mouths to say the words “I’m sorry.” All of the politicians who spoke suggested in some way that this upcoming election is “the most important election of our lifetime,” and that is just not true: 2016 was the most important election of our lifetime. All of the Republicans and some of the Democrats who spoke last night failed to recognize that four years ago, and hundreds of thousands of people are dead because of it. “I’m sorry” is an entirely appropriate threshold statement that acknowledges our collective failure to meet yesterday’s challenges. I can’t bury the hatchet with people who are unwilling to admit they’ve been walking around with an ax.
But whatever. I cannot judge the effectiveness of this messaging, because, again, I’m not the intended audience for this show. My vote is not up for grabs, and my moral judgement of people whose votes are is not particularly helpful, I suppose. All I can do is worry. I worry about a convention that is focused more on the problems than on the solutions. I worry about a party that has a clearer idea about what it’s against than about what it’s for.
I worry, most of all, that next week Trump is going to show up driving a race car, publicly execute a man he kidnapped from Wuhan, China, burn a cross on the South Lawn, and call it a day. And The New York Times headline will be: “Happy Warrior Lights Up First Night of Convention.”
Democrats are offering America science, while Trump will offer spectacle. Unfortunately, America doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to recognizing the difference.
Only Michelle Obama saved me from this overpowering dread, because she was the only one who stitched together the deadly seriousness of the moment with a rousing call to action. Her speech did not give in to despair, and instead called upon Americans to pack dinner, and even breakfast, put on comfortable shoes, and be prepared to stand in line all night to vote.
If you have always known how dangerous Trump is, good, go vote. If you needed a whole convention night to remind you of how dangerous Trump is, good, go vote. If you are a Republican who thinks Trump is dangerous but cannot recognize your complicity in creating him, I despise you, but go vote anyway.
I’m not sure who this convention is for, but if it is for you, please go vote.