WASHINGTON — What 176,000-plus deaths from COVID-19? What devastating shutdown and recession? What double-digit unemployment? What mass uncertainty over whether and how to open the schools? What shocking police killings of African Americans? What long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism?
Let me put it another way: What country does Vice President Mike Pence live in?
During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, Pence sounded as though he lived in some kind of fantasyland that perhaps had encountered a few tiny little bumps in the road. His party has spent the week claiming to represent “the common man,” but Pence spoke as though he knew next to nothing about the daunting challenges that Americans are having to deal with every day. The most he could muster was an acknowledgment that “we’re passing through a time of testing,” as though he were consoling a motorist after a fender bender.
He did offer “our prayers” for victims of Hurricane Laura, and he acknowledged there had been deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, though not how many. But his only pointed and specific words were his attacks against the Democratic nominee — “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” — and his full-throated endorsement of President Donald Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric.
The vice president rejected the idea of systemic racism, instead focusing on the protest and demanding its end. He blasted “violence and chaos ... rioting and looting ... tearing down statues” — with no mention of why those things might be happening.
Pence spoke from an iconic American setting, the site of the War of 1812 battle whose “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Fort McHenry is meant to symbolize national unity. It was an act of defilement to use such a place for partisan political rhetoric intended to provoke division and fear.
But as far as this Republican convention is concerned, what else is new?
So far, the GOP has misused the White House — the people’s house — to have Trump and his acting secretary of homeland security stage a naturalization ceremony, crassly reducing five newly minted U.S. citizens to photogenic props; have Trump pardon an African American ex-convict, as part of an all-out attempt to whitewash the administration’s shocking racism; and have first lady Melania Trump deliver her convention address, standing before Republican partisans in the Rose Garden she recently renovated.
The party also had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to the convention from Jerusalem, playing an active partisan role in a way no sitting secretary of state has done in living memory — in the middle of an overseas diplomatic trip, no less. He is supposed to represent the entire nation, but apparently he represents only the loyal Trump base.
Trump and his campaign aides see this ostentatious disregard for hallowed norms as an element of the Trump brand. Despite having been in office for 3 ½ years, Trump still wants to cast himself as some kind of rough-hewn outsider willing to smash all the china, if necessary, to “get things done.” It’s pure razzle-dazzle, designed to create the illusion of blunt effectiveness — and distract from the administration’s dismal, tragic failures.
Pence is supposedly leading the nation’s response to the coronavirus emergency. One might have expected that he, of all speakers, would at least try to deal with that crisis substantively. But one would have been wrong.
As Pence spoke, a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm was grinding toward landfall along the Gulf Coast. Many thousands of people were trying to evacuate their homes near the Texas-Louisiana border — and, because the Trump administration so bungled its response to COVID-19, had to scramble for shelter and safety in the middle of a raging pandemic.
Meanwhile, Kenosha, Wisconsin, was under a tense dusk-to-dawn curfew following angry protests that were sparked by the shocking police shooting Sunday of yet another black man, Jacob Blake. Pence apparently hadn’t noticed the reason for the Kenosha protests. And he apparently really didn’t notice the killing Tuesday of two protesters, allegedly by a young white vigilante and Trump supporter.
I wasn’t surprised. Earlier in the evening, the convention brought out Michael McHale, president of the National Association of Police Organizations, to describe Biden (who wrote the 1994 crime bill) and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris (a former prosecutor) as somehow anti-police — and call Trump “the most pro-law-enforcement president we’ve ever had.” Be afraid, America, be very afraid.
But what all of this actually reveals is Trump’s own naked fear.
He and the Republicans are pulling these stunts because they know that right now, according to polls, they are losing this election. Badly. And deep down, I hope, at least some of them realize that defeat is what they richly deserve.