I am finally back home in Cleveland after being away for about ten days to deal with some personal matters and am now catching up with a lot of the political news that I could only superficially skim while away.
Following the two conventions much commentary has been devoted to contrasting ‘the sky is falling rhetoric’ of the Republican convention with the more sunny vision of the Democratic one, which challenged Donald Trump’s claim that he will make America great again by saying that America is already great.
By itself this type of contrast is not uncommon. The challengers have to make the case that change is necessary and that means emphasizing that the current situation is bad and likely to get worse and that we cannot expect the same people who are in charge now to change course, while the party in power makes the opposite case, that they have been good stewards of the country, things are getting better, and they deserve to be allowed to continue the improvement.
The difference in this election is that Trump has no sense of proportion. He has a compulsion to talk only in superlatives. It is not enough for him to say that there are certain things that are seriously bad and need to change. He feels compelled to say that things are absolutely terrible in every respect and that the country is on the verge of disaster. While Trump did promise that he, single-handedly, would make America flow with milk and honey, that was not the predominant image. The impression created was one of fear, anger, and yelling.
Contrast this with Ronald Reagan seeking to replace Jimmy Carter. While he criticized Carter, he gave out a sunny optimism that people like to hear. The same with Barack Obama. His message of ‘hope and change’ may have been vacuous but it did give people a sense of optimism.
Trump’s lack of proportion, coupled with his extremely thin skin, was also in evidence in his reaction to Khizr Khan’s speech. Khan delivered some harsh attacks on Trump, suggesting that he has not read the constitution and that he had not made any sacrifices. The former is probably true, since I suspect that most Americans, including political leaders who treat the constitution like a talisman, have not read it either, except perhaps for the first and second amendments. It is similar to the Bible thumping politicians who rail about how the Ten Commandments should be posted everywhere in order to combat moral decay and yet cannot name even half of them.
Any sensible politician would have let Khan’s attack slide or said something banal along the lines of how he can understand and sympathize with the great grief of bereaved parents, thus suggesting (but not saying) that the grief may have warped the parents’ judgment. That would have made the story into a one-day affair, the way it happened with the RNC speech by the mother of a US official who died in the Benghazi attack, where she actually accused Hillary Clinton of being directly responsible for the death of her son and said that she belongs in prison. Clinton and her team wisely refrained from lashing back at her.
But no, Trump has to lash out, saying that Khan’s attack was unfair and suggesting that he was a puppet of the Clinton campaign and that his speech was a product of the Clinton speechwriters. He further insinuated that the mother Ghazala Khan had been silenced because she was a Muslim woman (which was immediately refuted) and said that he too had sacrificed a lot, a laughable claim. Other Republicans have been forced to repudiate Trump’s attacks because the veneration of the military is one of their basic stances.
Trump defended his response by saying “I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond?” Of course you are allowed to respond. The question is whether it is wise to do so. There is a huge difference between defending yourself from attacks by fellow politicians and from those of ordinary people thrust temporarily into the spotlight. A politician should never risk a high-profile fight with an ordinary citizen because you cannot win. If you win on the merits of the argument, you still look petty and like a bully. If you lose, you look foolish.
Trump simply cannot understand that those two situations have to be responded to differently. He comes out with both guns blazing whatever the situation. Do his supporters care that he is so intemperate or do they relish it? Some clearly like this kind of aggressiveness and it is only a matter of time before Khan’s family is hounded by Trump’s supporters, and get death threats for their effrontery in attacking their hero.
John Oliver reviewed the Democratic convention and Trump’s ridiculous response to Khan.