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Trump's Convention Is a Microcosm of A Vile Presidency

President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump followed by second lady Karen Pence and Vice President Mike Pence on the third day of the Republican National Convention at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump followed by second lady Karen Pence and Vice President Mike Pence on the third day of the Republican National Convention at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Liberals have experienced the RNC and mainstream media coverage of it as an assault on their sensibilities, but one that defies simple description. The outrage comprises a litany of complaints—about the disinformation, racism, and corruption that have defined the convention so far, but also about how reporters and commentators have whitewashed those affronts with a style of journalism that deems anything acceptable to President Trump’s most ardent supporters as unworthy of scrutiny.

Politico’s newsletter Playbook, which helps set conventional wisdom in Washington media, explained how this works, cautioning readers that while it’s “improper” of Trump to abuse his official powers during the convention to scare up votes, not “a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage.”

This is actually false, but the thinking has shaped coverage of every lie, smear, and internally contradictory appeal to voters we’ve seen the past two days. The effect has been to both normalize Trump’s conduct, and to atomize criticism, which tends to attach to this offense, or that reporting failure. But the problem is singular, and easy to identify if you view the RNC not as a standard party convention but as a microcosm of the worst aspects of the Trump era, including a press corps more obsessed with forecasting how his abuses will play in Trump country than with bearing witness to them faithfully.

What we can say about the RNC—that it is not a normal convention, and should not be covered as one—has been said about Trump’s entire presidency thousands of times. It is technically true that the second night of the GOP convention was racially inclusive, that Trump used the “Tools of Presidency in Aim to Broaden Appeal,” but this minute-by-minute literalism, which might be the appropriate way to depict a different convention under a different president, only amplifies Trump’s deceptions.

In an ideal world, Republicans would feel compelled to compete for the support of non-white voters, and the votes of white people who object to their bigotries, by making substantive changes to their agenda, and to how they communicate with the public at large. The world we inhabit is large enough that even someone like Trump, whose supporters are overwhelmingly white, can nevertheless find enough non-white loyalists in positions of prominence to convey a spirit of inclusiveness that doesn’t really exist.

Mainstream organizations across the country, including the Democratic party, are often at pains to diversify their workforces and their elite ranks, and to showcase their inclusiveness, but it’s at least to some extent because they’re under genuine pressure to live up to the pluralistic values they claim to embody. Enlisting people of color in the hope that the broader public will see genuine diversity where it doesn’t exist, in a party that doesn’t value diversity, is fundamentally an act of deception. Many print reporters and talking heads see an act of savvy instead.

They have applied this same basic analytical framework to the alarming and brazen ways Trump and his cabinet have merged what is supposed to be a party convention—a campaign event—with government affairs, manipulating levers of power meant to advance the public interest, for the sole purpose of helping Trump get re-elected. In many cases—as when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promoted Trump’s campaign while on a taxpayer-funded mission to Jerusalem—this erasing of the lines is illegal. Trump’s personal involvement may not be illegal, but it’s highly corrupt and an even greater threat to democracy.

On night two, Trump issued a pardon to a former federal convict named Joe Ponder, and hosted a naturalization ceremony for five unsuspecting immigrants at the White House—a building the public owns. Apart from rubbing his impunity in the face of his opposition, which has shown no interest in trying make him pay a political cost for his corruption, the purpose of both of these spectacles was also to deceive.

No one should begrudge the recipients of Trump’s exploitative largesse their new liberties, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t used as props. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he hates immigration, legal and illegal, except perhaps if the immigrants are white expatriates from northern or western Europe. Clemency is an awesome power that can and should be used for good. Trump grants clemency to two kinds of people: corrupt allies (including ones who have dirt on him) and arbitrarily selected people of color, whom he pardons on the basis of the vulgar calculation that black Americans will robotically reward him for the gesture with votes. Trump took an interest in Ponder’s case, and in the cases of the five immigrants, only because he imagined that making a big show of beneficence would confuse people about his character.

None of Trump’s thinking about how the justice system should treat black citizens, or about how the country should treat immigrants, has changed—the only thing new here is recognition that his views on these matters are politically toxic. His response as always is not to rethink his views, but to conceal them behind a veneer of propaganda. The pardon he granted and the citizenship he “bestowed” no more reflect belief in redemption or the equal dignity of all people than cutting a check to a sick person would reflect his position on rights for those with pre-existing medical conditions. Naturally, the convention has served to deceive people about that as well.

Anyone with intact faculties can see the layers of deception and corruption at work here, and that includes Trump’s most loyal and bigoted supporters, who don’t blanch at the one-off acts of charity to people of color, or care about the hypocrisy of falsely accusing Democrats of breaking laws at a convention that is a festival of lawbreaking, so long as it serves Trump’s interests. Having internalized the view that only one party in this country has the legitimate authority to rule, lying and cheating and breaking the law to win have become not just acceptable tactics but obligatory ones.

But this is the same “Flight 93” mentality that drove conservatives to Trump in 2016, and which has made his presidency an aberrant, sinister affair every day for three and a half years. In that time, the national press has become somewhat more clear-eyed about it, but never enough that Trump can’t regularly garner credulous coverage of his “new tone” by making one-off remarks that aren’t blazingly offensive; never enough to treat his corruption as important in its own right, whether his supporters are bothered by it or not. The convention has simply condensed the diffuse horrors of the Trump era into four nights of primetime television, and the result is a traumatic reminder of how far we’ve fallen.