The DNC and the Importance of Seeming Earnest

“Interior view of Tammany Hall decorated for the National Convention July 4th, 1868.” W. C. Rogers & Co. — NYPL Digital Gallery (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When the Democratic National Convention began with a (delayed) gavel-bang several long, long days ago, in what now seems like another age entirely (political time it seems moves slower than real time, proving that Einstein was right), the opening images — of a choir singing a completely unironic rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” followed by a intro video for Philadelphia in which images of the historic city, where 240 years ago our country was first birthed into an uncertain existence by 56 men in frock coats and powdered wigs, were accompanied by a soundtrack reminiscent of a television ad for a couples’ resort — made it clear that the next four days would be an excruciating assembly line of manufactured sincerity as only a major political party conceiving of itself as the moral majority could put together. And, as expected, what followed was a performance of such dizzyingly false earnestness that if Oscar Wilde were somehow immortal (like Showtime’s fictionalized version of his fictional character, Dorian Gray), he would have no doubt have preferred the eternal sleep of the grave to the unending nightmare of 28 hours of Democrats speaking. To him, it would have been like watching a production of his most famous play that dispensed with the irony and tried to make us believe that Ernest (a false identity adopted by the play’s protagonists, Jack and Algernon) was in fact a real person.

In the wake of the Wiki-leaked emails and the scapegoating and resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz (who was promptly rewarded for falling on her sword with a face-saving sinecure), Monday’s theme of “Unity” would have been particularly ripe for irony. But the day actually turned out to be the most sincere of the convention, largely due to the continual chanting of the Bernie Sanders delegates, whose presence reminded viewers of the deep divisions in the party, something none of the other speakers, including the universally praised Michelle Obama, bothered to acknowledge. Bernie meanwhile, though he did give a “full throated” (the media’s favorite descriptor of Bernie’s speech) endorsement of Hillary Clinton, was the only one to note that the party was deeply divided, that 43% of the delegates at the convention were “disappointed” by the results, and that the two candidates “disagree on a number of issues.” The night then ended with shots of various crying Bernie Bros (both male and female), ultimately the convention’s most genuine images (Hillary supporters were quick to make fun of them and turn them into memes — but we all know that this snideness is really just bitterness that none of them felt that level of passion for their own candidate). Even Oscar Wilde (who was, surprisingly, a socialist, and thus would have definitely voted Bernie) would have been moved.

After Monday, however, the convention grew increasingly false. While protesters outside the convention hall (Christened the Wells Fargo Center, in a nod to the Democrats’ true constituency) were being arrested and while Bernie delegates inside the convention were symbolically taping their mouths closed, the Democrats talked of unity, fairness, and coming together. In a gaffe, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was accidentally honest about Clinton’s real position on the TPP, but this got drowned out in all the posturing and performed earnestness on stage. Even the moments that should have been genuinely authentic — Joe Biden talking about his son, Anastasia Somoza discussing about disability rights, Sarah McBride becoming the first transgender person to speak at a convention — ended up lost behind all the empty platitudes and the failed attempts to get the audience excited about Tim Kaine (who, though clearly a swell guy, is too pro Wall Street, pro fracking, and anti union to excite any more than a tepid handful of the 1800+ Sanders delegates). Bill Clinton’s largely humanizing speech, meanwhile, which covered a good chunk of his and Hillary’s shared life, had a hard to ignore gap in 1998. And President Obama, though rhetorically flawless, failed to truly acknowledge the fundamental divide the primary exposed within the party (a paltry reference to “feeling the Bern” was about as sufficient as a condescending pat on the head). And even the show-stealing Khizr Khan, who’s eulogy for his son and indictment of Trump stirred even my own bitter and jaded heart, was overshadowed by the tone-deaf crowd chanting “USA.” On the one hand, as a Muslim, I was moved by Khan’s sacrifice, proof that Muslims are as thoroughly American as anyone. But on the other hand, I felt that jingoistic roaring often associated with xenophobia was a strange way to honor him.

Finally, after the Democrats had finished pandering to everyone they needed to pander to, it was Thursday and Hillary Clinton was giving her speech. By the standards of the convention, it was probably the best of the speeches: well written, well delivered, and filled with enough general promises that managed to avoid binding the nominee to anything specific. It was the speech equivalent of a Target gift card — maybe not exactly what you wanted, but hey, Target sells a few things you sometimes need.

But as the Democrats pretended their party was unified, Trump continued to gain ground, to the point where he may even win if the election were held today. And it’s important here to compare the two conventions: the DNC may have had the false earnestness of a community theatre production, but the RNC was effectively a hellscape out of The Purge, complete with sinister red lighting, a kangaroo court, and a nominee who spoke with frightening, eerie conviction, sweat pouring down his red face, his floppy hair shining, his voice echoing with ominous, tyrannical resonance. And whatever I and the protesting Bernie delegates feel, we certainly don’t want this other guy to win. If the choice is a Target gift card or Fascism, we’ll take a Target gift card.

But here we come to the deepest irony, the one that would make even immortal Oscar Wilde return to his grave. Beneath all the posturing and the platitudes, the Democratic convention had a strange subtext: lots of American exceptionalism and city-upon-a-hill rhetoric, invocations of Ronald Reagan, videos of Mitt Romney, and — most unsettling of all — John Allen’s frighteningly militaristic speech (accompanied, once again by the “USA” chants) which promised a strong national defense in a tone of voice that made him sound like the evil guy from Avatar. Thus the Democrats of 2016, happily embracing neoliberalism and neoimperialism, looked suddenly like the Republicans of 2000. It was as if Algernon and Jack had switched places and no one seemed to notice.

Meanwhile, as balloons rained down upon our smiling royal family, another 28 civilians were killed in U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.