Both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions were death-haunted events, but in very different ways. The deaths that came up in the DNC were from Covid-19 and cancer, medical problems that are commonly shared worries. The convention underscored the fact that Joe Biden has been the man of constant sorrow, who lost his wife and daughter in a tragic car accident in 1972 and one of his sons to cancer in 2015. The story told of Biden is that these experiences deepened his humanity and made him empathetic. Viewers of the DNC were repeatedly told of Biden’s ability to comfort the stricken, to give that special hug or kind word that hurting people need in their darkest moment.
Biden is, in effect, running to be the commander in grief, a man who eases the pain of an afflicted nation. His empathy will be the quality needed, it is implied, to grapple with the suffering wrecked by Covid-19. Biden also specifically promised to fund cancer research.
The RNC focused on a different type of death: that caused by violent crime. Again and again, we were offered stories of people killed by rioters, undocumented immigrants, and terrorists. During his acceptance speech, Trump singled out one such story:
Here tonight is the grieving family of retired police captain David Dorn, a 38-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department, a great man and a highly respected man by all. In June, Captain Dorn was shot and killed as he tried to protect a store from rioters and looters, or as the Democrats would call them, peaceful protesters. They call them peaceful protesters.
We’re honored to be joined tonight by his wonderful wife Ann and beloved family members Brian and Kielen.To each of you, we will never forget the heroic legacy of Captain David Dorn. Thank you very much for being here. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Great man. Great man. As long as I am president, we will defend the absolute right of every American citizen to live in security, dignity and peace.
If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag burners, that is up to them. But I, as your president, will not be a part of it. The Republican Party will remain the voice of the patriotic heroes who keep America safe and salute the American flag.
This is the story of death that the RNC offered again and again: of good, decent people being killed by evil criminals who enjoy the protection of Democrats. These were the most emotionally potent moments of the RNC, far more likely to touch the heart than the more conventional Republican talking points of tax cuts and school choice.
As against the DNC, the RNC generally avoided talking about the ongoing pandemic, except to praise Trump’s response and to gesture toward a vaccine that will solve everything.
If Biden wants to be the commander in grief, Trump is running to be the presidential punisher, a vengeful leader who will strike back against those who hurt his people
Both Biden and Trump are responding to the fact that America is being shadowed by death in a way it hasn’t been since the great wars of the last century.
The two death-haunted conventions speak to the fact that America is in a dark place in 2020, with little hope of an easy recovery.