Rick Perlstein: Diverse and Perverse: RNC 2016: The Coalition that Trump Built:
Welcome to the House of Trump: The convention began with a prayer for God to bless his chosen political party, from a black preacher who announced it was fitting and proper to do so “because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.” And because “our enemy is not other Republicans, but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.” Rev. Mark Burns is a devotee of the “prosperity gospel.” At a Trump rally in March, he had said: “There is no black person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green, people! Green is money!”
The game Trump and Burns are playing is an old one. A candidate, party, or movement can’t be racially divisive if black people are out front spouting its praises. Early in the 1960s, the John Birch Society toured a black former Communist Party member who affirmed that, yes, Moscow did really intend to turn America’s Southern states into a black-run colony of the Soviet Union—and that this whole civil rights thing was all a communist plot. In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan had a black loyalist on the Republican National Committee, Dr. Gloria Toote, to help him make his case that the “Negro has delivered himself to those who have no other intention than to create a Federal plantation.”
Even George Wallace kept a pet Negro for the same purpose: Clay Smothers, a state legislator from Texas who once introduced a bill to ban homosexuals from public university campuses. In 1977, when the federal government sponsored a historic national women’s convention in Houston, chock full of feminist and gay rights activists, Smothers spoke at the massive counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly organized across town:
I have enough civil rights to choke a hungry goat. I ask for public rights.... Let’s do something about these misfits and perverts over in the Sam Houston Coliseum. I want to segregate my family from them!
In Cleveland, Pastor Burns had competition. Sheriff David Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, a black version of Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, took the stage on the opening night. Dressed in full formal cop regalia, Clarke bellowed, “Ladies and Gentleman, I would like to make something very clear. Blue! Lives! Matter!”—predictably dragging in Rev. Martin Luther King’s “seamless garment of destiny” to make the case. Clarke calls Black Lives Matter a “hate group,” and is one of the rare law enforcement officials to ally with the National Rifle Association. He likes riding in parades on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat, and posing with rifles. In 2006 he forced his deputies to sit through mandatory evangelization sessions from something called the Fellowship of Christian Centurions. In a series of radio advertisements in 2013 he advised residents of Milwaukee that because the local constabulary could no longer protect them they should arm themselves. He hosts a “David Clarke: The People’s Sheriff” podcast on Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” platform.
Clarke was such a hero in the House of Trump that one of the biggest draughts of applause on the final evening of the convention came when his face merely appeared in the film clip introducing the candidate.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re still on Night One. Let me tell you what else happened, in case you couldn’t bring yourself to watch. Or, if you did, some madness you might have missed.
There was the pimping out of grieving parents: three of them, all identified on the telescreen above a chyron that read: “VICTIM OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.” Two of the three had lost children in car accidents for which undocumented immigrants were responsible—and as everyone knows, red-blooded, native-born Yankees never are. “I call them illegal aliens,” Sabine Burden said, to roars. The driver only got 35 days in jail for the accident. Because Obama.
In Berlin, 80 years ago, the sign would have read, “VICTIM OF JEWS.” It’s always someone.
On Tuesday I spent an emotional morning with my hosts, Henry Halem and Sandra Perlman Halem, who have lived for 48 years in Kent, Ohio, where Henry was an art professor at Kent State University and was on campus on May 4, 1970, when four students at a Vietnam War protest were shot to death by National Guardsmen. Henry and Sandra relive the day like it was yesterday.
Sandra is a playwright and the oral historian for the Kent State Memorial. I studied Kent State closely for my book Nixonland. On April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon went on TV to deliver an Orwellian argument about how he was shrinking the Vietnam War by expanding it, by invading neutral Cambodia. He had no choice, he explained:
My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years.... Great universities are being systematically destroyed.... If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.
A few days later, to a gathering of employees in the halls of the Pentagon, Nixon sharpened the contradictions between those Middle Americans and their sons fighting loyally in Vietnam—“I’ve seen them, they’re the greatest”—and “these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses.”
A politically opportunistic Republican governor named James Rhodes barked out a briefing to visiting journalists:
They’re worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. And I want to say this: they’re not going to take over a campus.
That rhetoric set the table for Middle America’s response to the wave of student protest that followed.
Some veterans of Kent State, desperate to wrench meaning out of the meaningless, cling to an interpretation of what happened next as some sort of elite conspiracy: the president passing down an order through his loyal janissary Rhodes, down through the ranks of the National Guard units he commanded, to stage a useful little massacre to show the homegrown dissidents who was boss.
Sandy Halem, who has interviewed hundreds of witnesses on all sides of the tragedy, knows better. These scared, poorly trained weekend warriors were not crack cadres of centurions, but ordinary people who read their newspapers and watched their Walter Cronkite and heard students preaching about revolution and anarchy. Saying things like, as Jerry Rubin had on the Kent State campus a month earlier, “Until you are prepared to kill your parents, you aren’t ready for revolution.”
The young protesters naively presumed the guardsmen’s guns could not possibly have been loaded (the black students, better schooled in the ways of the world, knew they were, and had already high-tailed it off campus). They threw rocks, tossed back tear gas canisters, and mocked the soldiers. The guardsmen who loosed the volleys of 67 shots almost certainly believed they were acting in defense of their lives. They had been conditioned by their president and their governor to believe they were facing down monsters.
Recalls Halem: “The next day, when I returned to school, in Akron, Ohio, a teacher came to me, and he swore that he knew somebody at Robinson Hospital who said, ‘Allison Krause had syphilis, and a knife on her leg.’ I was told that!” Allison Krause was one of the four students killed that day.
“I said, ‘What are you saying? That that’s a crime? Because, if she did have syphilis, that was a reason to shoot her?’”
Which is where Donald Trump comes in, Halem observed. This is how political violence works:
You begin to take all kinds of ways of changing people’s perception: who the Other is. And as soon as you can lower the Other—which, you know, Trump has done wonderfully. He’s used the word rapist. That’s a horrible word. Murderer.... One group has been lowered; a different group has been raised. And the difference is that the one group can tell the other group to leave. Put on buses and taken away. Those of us who understand what that kind of language did in World War II are thrilled that the Germans gave up war—because they were good at it. They understood that ability to lower the human threshold.
What she said next might make us wonder whether Trump isn’t, in a certain respect, worse:
My concern today is that he has no understanding of the power of his words. My fear is that he doesn’t understand he has a book of matches in his hand. And any time he dehumanizes a group—a group, not an individual—he allows people who are either in charge or are supposed to keep the peace, or the police, or whatever, he makes them afraid just enough that the hair trigger pulls.
I ventured to the convention hall, to hear who would be dehumanized next.
“You know, it used to be called ‘invasion.’ Now it’s called illegal immigration.” I’m interviewing a minister of Christ’s Gospel from Cleveland, Janet Porter, who in the 1990s had been a spokesperson for John Kasich’s House Budget Committee. Back when “he was a conservative,” she says. Chris Christie has wrapped up his already-infamous speech that had delegates braying for Hillary Rodham Clinton to be hanged from the neck until she is dead. For sins like once saying that Assad of Syria was a “reformer,” a common, bipartisan opinion at the time. Yet the Torquemada of Trenton piled at her feet the 400,000 corpses who died “at the hands of the man Hillary defended.”
“We must ask this question: Hillary Clinton, as an awful judge of the character of a dictator-butcher in the Middle East, guilty or not guilty?”
“GUILTY!” of course.
Guilty of not overthrowing Assad in Syria; though the mob had already also found her guilty of not not overthrowing Qaddafi, rendering her responsible for “Libya’s economy in ruins, death and violence in the streets, and ISIS now dominating the country.” Then she was charged with personally arranging the kidnaping of “hundreds of innocent young girls two years ago [who] are still missing today.”
For haven’t you heard? The crimes of Boko Haram that happened after Hillary Clinton was secretary of state are hers alone to answer for, because she had complied with the request of the Nigerian government and the pleas of academic experts on Nigeria to refrain from designating Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, in part because that would make it illegal for NGOs to even communicate with members of the group to urge them to renounce violence, or to conduct scholarly inquiry.
And, of course, she was the one who planted the bomb that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
I observe to my interviewee that, as a historian, I’ve never observed this intense lynch-mob mentality at a political convention:
Well, you know, what’s interesting is, if we look at the facts, Hillary Clinton is really getting away with murder.
What does Rev. Porter mean by “murder”?
Well, look at our ambassador in Libya. And by the way, he was an open homosexual. She should be prosecuted for a hate crime.... She turned her back on our American ambassador and let him die.”
I ask her how this all compares to 1983, when during Lebanon’s civil war the Reagan administration ordered sentries at the U.S. barracks in Beirut to keep their weapons unloaded and the gate wide open, and a truck bomb killed 241 U.S and 58 French servicemen and six civilians.
I ask her about Reagan’s response—“Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.”—after a second jihadist attack killed 24 at an embassy annex in Beirut the following year because security precautions requested by Congress had not been completed. (I can be mean that way.)
She mumbled, “Well, you know, everyone makes mistakes.” Then moved on to Clinton’s “pattern, of not mistakes, but actually things that are systematically costing American lives.”
I later do a little research. Rev. Porter’s rap sheet at People for the American Way’s “Right Wing Watch” reveals that she advocates for a law to outlaw abortion from the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Her “Don’t Target Our Daughters” campaign has focused on Target’s “invitation to predators”— by which she means the retail chain’s nondiscriminatory restroom policy. She has, “long warned that increasing acceptance of gay rights will turn Christians into criminals who will eventually be rounded up and tossed in jail.” And she produced a documentary arguing that LBGTQ activists should be criminally charged for “grooming” children for homosexuality.
And this was just someone I buttonholed at random for a reaction to Chris Christie’s speech. Throw a rock in this crowd, and you’re likely to hit someone who pines for the days when justice was served by throwing rocks.
I sought out a moderate Republican state legislator from Illinois I had interviewed the previous Friday and asked what he thought about Chris Christie’s auto-da-fé.
“The Democratic convention, the Republican convention,” he responds, “let me tell you, Rick, they come here and they drink the Kool-Aid.” That’s just the way it is.
I ask if he was comfortable with the chants.
He pauses uncomfortably.
“It’s a political convention.”
I tell him about the chilling interview I just did with the minister.
You’re gonna hear some crazy stuff at both conventions. That’s just somewhat part of the game.”
I think of a quote from a wise old conservative that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
A few other acts were on the undercard on Wednesday:
Laura Ingraham, always leading the party’s anti-immigrant crusade: “I asked, ‘Mom, why are people burning the American flag?’ And she looked at me, and she answered, ‘Honey, because their parents didn’t teach them about respect.’” The radio hate-talker belies her panegyric on respect by describing Hillary Clinton as “the woman who orchestrated America’s decline.”
Phil Ruffin, a magnate in casinos, dog tracks, petroleum, convenience stores—and real estate deals like the Trump International Tower in Las Vegas: “If Donald tells you something, put it in the bank.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Biondi: “Lock her up—I love that!” A phrase she would be wise to avoid after accepting a $25,000 donation from the Trump family foundation four days before announcing she would not be joining a probe of Trump University.
A Hispanic state senator from Kentucky: “Hispanics believe what Republicans believe.” (Did I hear a boo?)
Another black preacher, naturally.
A fracking magnate, lying about “American energy independence.”
A pyramid scheme huckster. (I’m saving a whole article for her.)
On Thursday, when Ivanka Trump introduced her father, I returned to the most haunting thought that Sandra Halem left me with.
“You have to be able to be willing to walk through sewage to go where these people are going,” she observed. “It scares me. It really gets scary.”
She had disappeared into a dark place then gathered herself to say, “I come from a family where there was sexual abuse.” She recalls Donald Trump saying were Ivanka not his daughter, he would want to date her because she’s so hot. “You don’t ever talk about your daughter sexually. Ever.... He is sexualizing her. He is giving her away sexually. He is putting her in a box. Why does he do it? It makes you more powerful.”
You shudder when you hear something like that, when you write something like that down.
Donald Trump spoke.
Then the Most Reverend Roger W. Gries, auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, prayed.
He began with a cackle: “You brought another championship to Cleveland tonight,” he said, in direct address to God and the Republican Party, which then received his benediction as God’s one true holy political vessel.
He prayed for “those about to be born, and those about to see You at the end of life.” He prayed for those present to be imbued with “the courage to bring the pro-life platform of this 2016 platform of the Republican National Convention to fulfillment”—the kind of right-wing homily Catholics hear at Mass every Sunday. He prayed for “all our beloved safety forces.” He prayed for “all our men and women in uniform.”
He sought God’s blessing for “all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, and especially Donald J. Trump and Michael Pence.” Then he prayed that “we will bring America back to life, bring America back to work, and bring America together, one nation under God.” I wondered if he meant that this Trumpian God he worships believes that America under Barack Obama is dead.
I told myself I was being ungenerous, and kept listening. And recalled something I thought I heard earlier in his benediction.
I reviewed the tape. And there it was: a Catholic bishop had indeed beseeched the Almighty to make Donald Trump and Mike Pence “worthy to serve you, by serving your country.”
God is a Republican.
America is his chosen land.
Donald J. Trump is his prophet.
These thugs actually believe it. God help us that they might be stopped.