Before an intrepid internet sleuth noticed that Melania Trump, or whoever wrote her speech, had lifted multiple paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech—paragraphs extolling the value of hard work and importance of words, ironically—the storyline coming out of the Republican National Convention was much darker and more ominous.
Night one pulsed with a ghastly undercurrent. The theme was nominally “Make America Safe Again,” as if the country has recently been beset by new, existential dangers. But to anyone watching, the subtext was clear: Elect Donald Trump or minorities will come to kill you.
The hum of death and crime harmonized at times with a cathartic certainty that Hillary Clinton should be in prison. The crowd repeatedly broke into chants of “lock her up,” and on a few occasions attendees were egged on by speakers on stage—including former Army General Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s VP finalists—which made the view all but indistinguishable from official party doctrine. For all the appeals to fear, the only thing under any real threat was the party norm against inciting vigilantism against political opponents.
Trump himself has called for Clinton to be jailed, which surely influences his supporters, but there’s no reason to assume a connection between his rhetoric about, say, her email server and the broad phenomenon of Trumpism. It’s tempting, then, to view both the racial fear-mongering and “she deserves to be in stripes” as separate, incidental outgrowths of the night’s official theme. That would be an error, though. These are all of one piece, different expressions of a white national revanchism, just as coughing and sneezing are often symptoms of the same illness.
On Tuesday night, the RNC will transition from “Make America Safe Again” to “Make America Work Again,” which likely will degenerate to similarly paranoid incitement: Most minorities are lazy, but the ones who aren’t will take your jobs. Unless you elect Donald Trump.
The strategy, on both nights, is to gin up voters with racial panic. But it is also to suggest there was a time when America was “safer,” or when America was “working”—a recent time, perhaps when Ronald Reagan was president, that in any case predates the election of the first black president.
This is the rhetorical innovation that transforms the entire convention, indeed the entire campaign, from a familiar string of racial dog whistles into a sermon of racial entitlement. As it happens, America hasn’t been this safe in decades and unemployment is near its pre–Great Recession low. But it is still possible to call to mind lost times, real and imagined, when whites were more culturally dominant than they are today, when the economy worked better for more people (or at least for white people) than it does right now, and crucially, when political leaders were primarily concerned with helping the winners in past racial and social hierarchies preserve their incumbency. This has been Trump’s m.o. from the outset: to say this stolen idyll should be reclaimed forthwith.
In a way, plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech, and then denying it happened, offering no apology, fits into this same paradigm. The Trumps can take what they want from those they consider beneath them in the hierarchy, and feel no obligation to answer for their actions.
It’s ironic that a 68-year-old white woman stands in the way of a return to white racial entitlement, but to the extent that Clinton is the key obstacle, she must be taken out of contention. Clinton’s unique status as the right’s object of abuse and imagined scandal for nearly 30 years, and her apparent determination more recently to affirm her enemies’ suspicions of her, have fed the idea that imprisonment is the appropriate means of removing her. If Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, he’d be delegitimized as a socialist and a committer of treason. If President Barack Obama weren’t term-limited from running again, Trump would be whipping up the same mob with different words. No matter whom Democrats nominated, Trump and his supporters would find a pretense for claiming that the candidate wasn’t entitled to hold office.
What makes “lock her up” more unsettling than some analogous birther chant, though, is that calling Clinton a crook isn’t as inherently toxic or self-marginalizing as calling Obama a Muslim foreigner, and it puts Clinton in the practically impossible position of proving a negative. For the lack of cooler heads prevailing in the GOP, millions of people now see jailing Clinton as the only way to get what they feel has been taken from them. This is not normal in America. It is banana republic politics. It is elemental to Trump’s candidacy. And it isn’t going away.
This piece has been updated.