17 September 2016

The strange fruit of a strident generation

[I]f the landscape revealed in Cleveland [at the Republican National Convention] felt unsettlingly new to many of those there, it did not appear overnight. The first Republican convention I attended was in Houston in 1992, where one of the featured speakers was the defeated primary challenger Pat Buchanan. He too was a TV star. He too talked darkly of culture wars, of taking our country back, of America First. He too played on fear. But he was not the nominee.

I had a similar thought watching the self-styled America First rally in Cleveland, convened by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the former Nixon operative Roger Stone. The talk there was wild. Jones called Clinton a foreign agent working for the Chinese and Saudis. He hailed the audience, gathered on a hot day on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, as “the resistance” to “a globalist program of enslavement and the new world order.” Stone called Clinton “a short-tempered, foul-mouthed, bipolar, mentally unbalanced criminal.”

This brought back a sharp memory from the 1990s, of reporting on what was then known as the militia movement: antigovernment obsessives convinced that black helicopters were circling overhead, that the US was poised to succumb to the UN, and that the federal government was plotting to inject biochips into every American, the better to herd and control them. Back then, these self-proclaimed warriors for liberty were forever on the outside. But this time, their slogans—Lock Her Up! Hillary for Prison!—were being chanted inside the convention hall, egged on from the podium by Christie and others. One Trump adviser suggested that Clinton be shot for treason. As for Roger Stone, he is no longer the maverick outsider. He is a close friend, even a mentor, of the GOP choice for president. And all this was before the high priest of the hard right, Steve Bannon, was anointed as the chief executive of the Republicans’ 2016 presidential campaign. What was once confined to the margins was confirmed at Cleveland to be the new heart of the Republican Party.

This shift should not have come as a surprise. For nearly twenty-five years, the GOP had indulged rather than confronted the ever more strident attitudes advanced by, at different points, talk radio, Fox News, and the Tea Party. The flirtation with conspiracy theory; the contempt for empirical evidence; the defining of Democratic opponents as dangerous enemies, as people who were not just wrong but illegitimate and criminal; the depiction of Washington, D.C., as a fetid swamp incapable of action and a view of the business of democratic politics itself, with its inevitable compromises, as a betrayal—none of these themes was new. They were seeds that had been planted, watered, and nurtured by Republicans for a generation. Yet when their strange fruit appeared—in the form of an orange-hued would-be strongman, boasting that “I alone can fix it”—a good many had the temerity to look startled.

- Jonathan Freedland, 'US Politics: As Low as It Gets', New York Review of Books, 29 September 2016 issue

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