Letters From an American

The RNC’s Showstopper

The RNC's Showstopper

A screen displays the campaign banner for U.S. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence following Trump's acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump gave the speech in front of 1500 invited guests. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

August 27, 2020

Tonight was the final night of the Republican National Convention.

Having moved the RNC from Charlotte, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, and then having been forced to cancel his plans for a huge rally due to coronavirus, Trump decided to hold tonight’s major speeches on the South Lawn of the White House. It was a flagrantly illegal move, designed to do two things: to turn the majesty of the White House into the trappings of a dictator, and to spark fury from opponents. With luck, the dramatic setting behind Trump would woo his base, while the fury of his opponents would grab attention from the ongoing crisis of the coronavirus and the economic disaster of the past few months.

It was a thoroughly Trumpian move, and to some degree, it worked. The entire convention drew on imagery from dictatorships. A parade of family members assured us Trump is wonderful, subordinates offered generic over-the-top praise, and every speaker demonized anyone who doesn’t support Trump’s continued rule. The convention had demonstrations of mercy from the president as he both pardoned a criminal and granted citizenship to five immigrants (who were apparently not told they would be part of the convention), a standard trope in the authoritarian’s handbook. And it had the trappings of dictators, from First Lady Melania Trump’s dress that evoked a Nazi uniform— almost certainly to provoke a response while appealing to the alt-right—to the cathedral ceilings of our hallowed civic temple, to the wall of flags, all evoking tradition, majesty, and might.

It was desperately sad to see the White House, the people’s house, turned into the background for a political rally, emblazoned with flags and sporting jumbotrons that spelled out “Trump/Pence.” It looked like a Biff Tannen fantasy.

The men who founded our government based it not on hereditary leadership, or on religion, or on race, because they recognized that such governments would inevitably lead to bloodshed. They knew well the history of European countries torn asunder by warring families or religious sects. Instead, they took the radical step of founding a nation on the idea that all men are created equal, that no man is any better or any worse than another, and that all must be equal before the law. They were blind to things they should have seen, of course—their “all men” excluded men of color and women—but the principle of equality before the law was a radical new idea in western history.

A government of laws, not of men, meant that no one should be able to leverage his political office to retain power, and when officials began to violate that principle, Congress in 1939 passed the Hatch Act, forbidding all federal employees except the president and vice president “from using federal property for political activities or for engaging in anything that is a partisan political act,” as political scientist Norm Ornstein, from the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, put it.

“People have been fired for sending flyers around for a municipal election that was partisan,” Ornstein says. “Every time Kellyanne Conway in her official capacity made a statement that was partisan, it was a violation of the Hatch Act. Every cabinet member, every border patrol member, every federal employee participating in the activities at the White House tonight violated the Hatch Act. This was the most blatant abuse of power and legal authority for partisan purposes by far than anything we have ever seen by a president or an executive branch.” Violations of the Hatch Act are supposed to result in removal from office, but punishment for the numerous violations in this administration has been minimal.

Indeed, disregarding the Hatch Act this week has been a demonstration of Trump’s move toward a dictatorship. In 1997, then-Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, had to defend making fund-raising phone calls from the White House despite the vice president’s exemption from the Hatch Act, but Trump is running roughshod over the law with impunity. This morning White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said that “nobody outside the Beltway really cares” about the Hatch Act, and this evening, Fox News Channel personality Dana Perino said that “it doesn’t matter” that Trump is breaking the law because “by the time they have an investigation, this election is going to be over.”

During Trump’s speech he seemed to revel in his use of the White house for partisan ends, asking rhetorically “What’s the name of that building?” referring to the White House, and going on: “We’re here and they’re not.”

But will his version of America win? Will we really replace the idea of equality before the law with a world in which a leader can declare that he and his family and friends have the right to rule over the rest of us?

I looked at the hundreds of people at Trump’s rally tonight, unmasked and older, and almost all so very white, and saw a group of people so afraid of the future they are willing to say yes, willing to throw in their lot with a malignant narcissist because he tells them they can recover a world in which they felt more relevant, a world they control.

We have been here before. In the 1850s, when the nation had to grapple with the idea of westward expansion across a continent, many reactionary Americans thought the solution to keeping an expanding nation stable was to spread human enslavement along with the American flag so that a small group of wealthy slaveowners maintained control over the government.

But Americans who believed that society worked best if every man had a right to his own labor organized under Abraham Lincoln and, rejecting their neighbors’ hierarchical view of society, restored the idea of human equality and pushed America into the future.

In the 1890s, when the nation had to grapple with the idea of industrialization, many reactionary Americans thought the solution to the growing divide between labor and capital was to create a world in which a few wealthy industrialists directed the labor of the masses.

But Americans who believed in the founding principle of human equality before the law organized under Theodore Roosevelt and rejected the idea that workers belonged to a permanent underclass. They pushed America into the future.

In the 1930s, when the nation had to grapple with a worldwide depression, reactionary Americans thought the solution was fascism, in which a few strong men organized and directed the labor of their countrymen.

But most Americans rejected the idea that some men were better than others, and they organized under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to restore the idea of equality before the law and return the government to the hands of ordinary Americans. They pushed America into the future.

Tonight’s event at the White House demonstrated that we are in another great crisis in American history. A reactionary group of older white men look at a global future in which questions of clean energy, climate change, economic fairness, and human equality are uppermost, and their reaction is to cling to a world they control.

But that world is passing, whether they like it or not. Even if Trump wins in 2020, he cannot stop the future from coming. And while the United States will not meet that future with the power we had even four years ago, we will have to meet it nonetheless. It will be no less exciting and offer no fewer opportunities than the dramatic changes of the 1850s, 1890s, and 1930s, and at some point, Americans will want to meet those challenges.

If history is any guide, when that happens, we will restore the principle of equality before the law, and push America into the future.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.