Sadly, and quite alarmingly, the spirit at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio was full of fear, anger, and even hatred. Vitriol often replaced serious public discourse about the most important issues at stake in our public life. I watched every night on television but have also received messages from people on the inside — including friends who are Christian, conservative, and Republican — feeling almost distraught about all three of those core commitments. One friend wrote me to say, “I am close to losing it. The spirit is so angry and hateful here.”
The atmosphere at political conventions is always highly partisan and often very tough on the other side — but that is part of rigorous political debate in a democracy. There are legitimate and fundamental differences between competing parties and politicians. But the continual outright lies and vicious personal attacks this week have been extraordinary. When the biggest applause lines include a chant aimed at the Democratic candidate to “lock her up,” things have gone beyond rigorous partisan debate.
The nature of our public discourse is a very important test for the moral health of a nation. The civility of that public discussion and debate should be a central concern; the kinds of people who are denigrated or lifted up is critical. Even how opponents are treated is indicative of both the public and personal character of political leaders.
At the RNC convention, veteran reporters, presidential historians, and even political commentators from both sides have been saying all week that this presidential election and convention are unlike any they have ever seen, reasoning that Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party and the convention and is now offering a campaign that nobody has seen before.
But the polarized and divisive political culture we are seeing is also about something else. The anger, fear, and visceral reactions of many Americans — overwhelmingly white Americans — come from deep feelings about how “their” country is changing. Anger and fear leads to blame and even hatred for those they hold responsible: the first black president, immigrants, refugees, criminals, terrorists, African-American young people and their parents who claim they have been mistreated by police, a whole world religion of Islam, and all “the others” they think have caused them to feel marginalized and alienated.
Blaming others is less complicated than blaming the global systems and decisions responsible for what are some legitimate economic grievances for white working class people and their families. The strategy of divisive vitriol to fuel racial and religious bigotry and the misogynous treatment of women has worked with a constituency who has become angrier and angrier. It has now taken over the Republican Party and dominated their convention. That white alienation and anger is given permission and promised power by Donald J. Trump, one of the nation’s most successful marketers for his brand — a brand he has now politicized.
Trump promises to be the strong man who will bring America back to a time his angry white constituency believes was better for them — and not good for the others who they don’t really accept as real Americans. The authoritarian language in his speech was very clear: “I am your voice,” he told Americans. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he claimed, as he laid out all the nation’s problems with great fear and loathing.
Donald Trump repeated the phrase “law and order” over and over, as he described a dark and divided world full of violence and conflict that only he can control. “Be afraid” was the message of his speech, which was not a pivot to the middle as many have been counseling him to do. Rather, the final night’s speech intentionally appealed to deeply felt grievances and turned them into fear and anger at “the others.” In a relentlessly negative speech, replacing facts with fear, Trump told Americans “I can save you.” The speech distorted crime statistics, painted ugly caricatures of the strangers among us, and promised unwavering support for law enforcement with no sympathy for those minorities who would ask if police also have to obey the law under this new “law and order.”
Trump’s speech was a divisive proclamation of white American identity politics that turned his promise to build a wall into a convention chant. He wants to replace globalism with Americanism, and we all knew which Americans he wants to “put first.” In the moments right after the speech it was painful to watch black and Hispanic commentators — from both parties — feel the attacks.
Donald J. Trump has now been nominated for the presidency by one of the nation’s two major political parties. I am already hearing it said that children will one day ask their parents what they said and did during this cycle. I am also hearing stories of Hispanic and African-American children who are already being bullied on playgrounds and schoolyards in the name of this divisive language, threats, and promises.
There are fundamental ethical, moral, and even religious choices that will have to be made by all of us now — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; conservatives, liberals, and those who feel politically homeless (like many of us); Christians, Jews, Muslims, those of other faiths and none at all. And those choices are much deeper than partisan politics.
Next week we will see the Democratic National Convention, and it should also be judged by its spirit. Will it be just motivated by fear and hatred of Trump, or by a deeper and fairer discussion of public policy and a vision for a changing America? Will the Democrats pledge themselves to a future of inclusive opportunity for of all of God’s diverse children? For many people, including many from religious communities, there are also great moral issues and failures on the Democratic side of politics. Will those be heard, or will utterly partisan politics ultimately prevail on all sides?
For those of us who are people of faith and moral conscience, how do we lift up love over hate in this angry election season? How do we point to justice instead of revenge? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves — which all our religious traditions tell us to do — and vote that way? And if our faith traditions also tell us that a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, how do we best vote for the concerns of the most vulnerable in this coming election?
These will be matters for prayerful discernment and courageous action in this critical election year.