Jokes about a Republican fact-free universe have circled the late-night and high-brow magazine circuits since the Bush-Cheney public relations program to build support for the invasion of Iraq. On the first day of the 2016 Republic National Convention, we got to see what a fact-free universe looks like.
Speaker after speaker bemoaned that the United States is under siege, rapidly being destroyed from within by the actions of a weak president and his sketchy former secretary of state. They painted a picture of an America cowering before both domestic and foreign threats. They advocated strong actions against our enemies with a harsh, merciless bellicosity. Many blamed immigrants, the Muslim religion and the supporters of “Black Lives Matter.”
But where were the facts? There were none, because studies show that over the past 40 years, cop killings are down, the rate of violent crime is half of what it was in 1990, and there are fewer acts of domestic terrorism than in the turbulent 1960s. Illegal immigration is currently almost nonexistent and legal immigration is already tightly controlled.
I’m not saying that we don’t have problems in these areas, but the fear-mongering speakers at the GOP National Convention exaggerated the current dangers to a degree that borders on explicit lying. The current publicity stemming from tragedies such as Ferguson (cops killed), Dallas (cops are killed) and Orlando (U.S.-born terrorist) may represent an upturn in crime and terrorism or may just be highly publicized anecdotes of tragic violence. We won’t know for a few years. But the Republicans use these incidents as proof that we face more dangers now than eight years ago. Then again, the Republicans have long argued from anecdote, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens and Bush Senior’s demonization of parolee Willie Horton. It’s Donald Trump’s preferred method.
The Republicans were able to get through the entire night fact-free, with the exception of the very angry Sheriff of Milwaukee County, who quoted a recent study that did not measure rates of crime or terrorism, but public perceptions. The survey found that the public is more fearful than a few years ago—of course, why wouldn’t they be when rightwing and mainstream news routinely feature this collection of roid-raged Chicken Littles? The Sheriff was talking about how people feel, not about the reality of falling crime, which he denied by hiding behind an attitudinal study.
Virtually every speech closed with the same words, “God bless the United States.” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, the traitor who went over the heads of U.S. negotiators to deal directly with Iran via a threatening letter, said, “God calls us to serve.” (FYI, CNN, which treated the first night of the convention as if it were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, was trying to sell Cotton to the public as a 2020 candidate for president if Trump doesn’t win.) Didn’t this procession of saintly authoritarians ever think that maybe their god was giving them a message through the U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan? Heaven to America: stop invading other countries. Of course, many in the audience believe that their god is punishing the United States for allowing LGBTQ rights, abortion, the teaching of evolution, birth control and other abominations.
Besides seeking the blessing of their deity, the other thing that virtually every speaker did was to condemn President Obama and Hillary Clinton for not using the term “Islamic terrorism.” This insistence by every speaker that not using those precise words—“Islamic terrorism”—bordered on the criminal has tremendous significance.
First, it symbolized how little they really can criticize Barack Obama. Many speakers advocated that the United States do what it is already doing. Many talked of war and violence, without recommending a single measure that would endanger American lives. With no specifics with which to indict Obama and Clinton, they reverted to becoming language police. Unless they use these exact words, the GOP states, nothing Obama or Clinton do will help keep us safe.
The words themselves, “Islamic terrorism” are particularly important to these Bible-touting Christians because it communicates that we are in a Holy War against those of another faith. While occasionally paying lip service to inclusiveness and diversity, the GOP wants us to connect terrorism with the religion of Islam. The GOP conveniently forgets that Christians still commit the majority of acts of terrorism and mass murders taking place in the United States. Obama, Clinton, Kerry and the State Department avoid the term “Islamic terrorism” because they understand that the terrorists represent a miniscule part of Islam and they don’t want other Muslims to think we are blaming them or lumping them in with people they themselves despise.
Keep in mind, too, that “Islamic terrorism” is one small piece of a large racially-tinged lexicon that Republicans have employed since the inception of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”
The insistence on shaming Obama and Clinton for not using two words also contrasts the styles of the parties and the candidates who will represent them in the fall. Obama and Clinton take studied, fact-based approaches to problems, attempt to understand all sides and try to reach consensus. Their careful phraseology reflects all these concerns. Donald Trump and all the other Republicans want to dominate, humiliate and crush. They see a world of good guys and bad guys, and if you’re a good guy, you can do anything, even bad guy stuff.
Beyond these political concerns of attacking the opposition and claiming the beneficence of a caring deity, the focus on the use of language fits right into the Trump ideology because it is concerned most with branding reality. The constant disparagement of Obama for failing to use two words was an example of branding the other side.
The Trump brand is based on the lie that everything the Donald touches turns to gold. In reality, he failed as a real estate developer and casino owner, then succeeded as an entertainer and a brand marketer, although it should be pointed out that most of the businesses selling merchandise with the Trump brand have failed. Trump wants us to believe that his genius will fix everything, perhaps merely by his getting involved with addressing the problem. Trump slapped his name on vodka and claimed it was better. He slapped his name on a hotel room and claimed it was better. He slapped his name on a steak and claimed it was better. His campaign consists of saying that he will slap his name on solutions to problems—some which don’t even exist—and they will be solved. Too bad that while Trump was always a genius in branding, he proved almost always to be a failure at actually doing things, such as running casinos or building curricula.
The first night of the Republican convention was about slapping a negative brand on Obama, Clinton and the Democrats. To do so, they slapped a negative brand on our current world.