I watched parts of the RNC so you don’t have to. But I’d like to convince you to Phonebank for Democrats.
August 26th, 2020
I bike up into the Oakland hills, streaming the RNC convention on my phone and listening on high volume through my pocket. I did this last week with the DNC. Then it felt like trumpeting truth. This week, it’s warning of another Trumpian term. It is cringe-worthy every peddle of the way. Biden last week said, “Democracy is on the ballot.” Pence shot back this week: “Law and order is on the ballot.” But really, it’s a little more complex than that.
On Monday, the first day of the RNC, as I peddle up past ancient redwoods, Vernon Jones, a Black Democratic State Senator from Georgia, has locked into an effective rhetorical device of “Donald Trump did that.” Among those things he credits Donald Trump with doing are “ending once and for all the policy of incarcerating black people,” “providing 10 years of secured record funding to HBCUs, something no President has ever done” and “providing record low unemployment, including for African-Americans.” This may make your eyeballs pop out your head, but I’ve talked to a couple young African-American men in poor neighborhoods who will be supporting Trump. They trot out the Trump is the devil I know, while Biden is a wolf in sheep’s clothing argument. It seems full-throated bigots are a bigger problem in our society than mild-mannered liberals who may not support every woke talking point, but I’ve heard this argument from Black progressives too. Twelve percent of Black men voted for Trump in 2016, and the Trump campaign is definitely making a play for them again. Or at least trying to suppress and discourage enough Black voters from voting at all or being able to vote.
Of course there are many good reasons to think African-American voters will turn out in record numbers as they did in South Carolina (to essentially decide the Democratic primary race). But Biden-Harris is tough sell for those broken-hearted Bernie supporters who are already suspicious. Biden’s push for the infamous 1994 crime bill has tarred him bad. Bringing on Kamala Harris, California’s former “top cop” has given fuel to contrarians who are quick to read the big-tent outreach of Biden interviewing Cardi B as pandering. Only lately has national media started reporting the context of that ’94 crime bill when it passed: that it was pushed hard by the Congressional Black Caucus, who were in turn responding to pressure from their constituents, especially influential black churches, in the wake of a real spike in crime and the tail end of the crack epidemic. What most young activists know of that time is that Hilary Clinton uttered the word “super predators,” and that the bill resulted in the needless and wildly destructive locking up of lots of young men of color for non-violent offenses. I know this well. I have several friends from the South Side of Chicago who spent most of their 20s behind bars, and their lives will never recover from this. But to lay the blame for that bill fully on Joe Biden is simply inaccurate. It was a product of its time, and the complete story of its creation needs to be accounted for.
Up next at the RNC is the father of a Stoneman-Douglas High School shooting victim, who’s got a New York white working-class accent that could cut through the Florida Everglades like a scythe. He recounts his daughter’s murder through gritted teeth, clipped consonants and New York vowels. “And den da scumbag turned and shot my dawter.” Whoa. Red meat is on the menu.
On Monday, I can feel a few ears burning as I ride past. Good. Get angry. Go phonebank. Trump only won 4.63% of Oakland’s vote in 2016, so chances are always pretty slim of offending anyone in The Town. But complacency is the enemy now, as we glide towards an election two months from now, still in a bleary-eyed dream state of too much time indoors, on screens, and away from our routines and human interactions that constitute our normal reality.
Later I’ll hear Senator Blackburn of Tennessee kick off her speech by talking about “Socialist China unleashing the vicious virus.” Is she actually saying Covid-19 was germ warfare? No, she’s doing a classic Trump plausible deniability insinuation. Tarring by suggestion. She’s not actually saying that, but she’s not actively not saying that either.
And then you get Mike Pence. In high school, we used to call someone “a tool” when they were lame, fundamentally un-original, someone played by the system. Mike Pence fits the literal and metaphorical definition. The silver-haired, trusty rusty screw-driver of Trump’s political machine. He’s at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner lyrics after a rough night of bombardment in 1814 towards the end of the war of 1812 . It’s a calculated backdrop, as Scott Key was one of the many statue casualties this summer, getting toppled in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Many RNC speakers intoned against cancel culture, and I grimace here. For one, it seems Republicans don’t actually understand what it is, talking about “we won’t let Democrats cancel our heroes, our police and firefighters.” But it doesn’t totally matter, as I’ve talked to many Democrats who don’t like the cancel first and ask questions later ethos that has come to define the young activist left. It’s hard to know how much the more confrontational, purity politics we see online is a backlash against having a racist, reckless President, a product of social media’s context-less storytelling, or an expression of a new generation. Probably a combo platter. It’s clear that nuance has gone missing the last few years, and though The Right has staked its fortunes on low-nuance arguments for years, it’s not ultimately to the Left’s benefit when it follows the pattern.
Because Trump and the Right are also using increased vigilance over vocabulary as a wedge issue. And his embrace of that reactionary take makes it even harder for those on the left to have a nuanced conversation about speech because one can be quickly lumped in the Alt-Right Trump camp. But I’ve heard from multiple Bay Area progressives that are weary of the self-flagellating posts of white guilt on social media, the hot takes that omit class from any discussion of our racial politics, that feel pushed into embracing a White Fragility framework that can paralyze with fear of saying the wrong thing rather than embrace more messy conversations that provoke curiosity, empathy, and action.
Trump’s fear playbook seems played out, so he’s doubling down. He said several times that Democrats are going to take away your guns, ruin the suburbs, and kill your unborn children. Literally, he said that. Having tuned our ears to years of dog whistles, it’s jolting to hear the President basically yell “sick ‘em!” Much has been made of his hunt for moderate suburban women — those he won in 2016, and those Republicans lost in the 2018 midterms. Certainly if Biden is seeking to save the soul of the nation, here’s hoping there’s enough soul in the salons of white wine-sipping, Big Little Lies watching, upper-middle class suburban Facebook Moms. If it feels like long odds, get phone banking.
To be clear, I’ve been all-in on Biden since he licked the platter clean on Super Tuesday. His call for a life of purpose, that a job is about dignity not just a paycheck, his push to support unions and teachers, asylum seekers and refugees, expansion of Obamacare, green new jobs, and a return to a sensible foreign policy are desperately needed. His platform is way more progressive than Hilary in 2016, or Obama in 2012, or 2008. Bernie may have lost the primary but he won many parts of the debate, and Biden’s agenda reflects that. And simply having a rational adult who cares about something bigger than himself will bring much needed healing in all types of areas. Not least: reparations, which seems the perfect and long overdue cause for my generation.
Biden has not gotten behind the Defund the Police movement, not just because it seems to be a losing issue nationally. It also has unintended consequences that might not serve progressive goals. As Chicago Major Lori Lightfoot has pointed out, defunding means cutting police officer jobs, as that’s the largest line item in the budget, and doing so, according to union protocol, by cutting most recent hires first. New officers are the most diverse, so the practical effect will be making police departments whiter, and taking away middle class jobs from black and brown families.
Trump’s fear-mongering is almost as bonkers as his post-speech fireworks show, which looked like he directed folks to plan not just the biggest, most garish fireworks display you’ve ever seen, but to plan five of them and set them all off at once. Next to the jutting Washington Monument, Trump’s use of metaphor is so on the nose it becomes almost literal. Thinking people have been aghast for four years because his playbook is so transparent and obvious that it seems to only point to his gaping insecurity. His compulsion to project dominance and power is so tireless it looks pathetic to half the nation. Who else makes a point of walking down a long staircase for every entrance and before every big speech as though he were getting married? It’s all so awkward, including green-sheathed Melania, who bears the unsettled look of someone who’s finally realized her essential life purpose is to be a prop for her husband’s naked ambition.
My son asks why is Trump a bad president. “Because he only cares about himself,” we tell him. Because he doesn’t care about and can’t imagine what it’s like to be people who aren’t him.” My son then asks: “So why did other people want him?” My friends and family can’t imagine how he’s been good for anyone but his wealthy supporters. But watching the convention, I’m reminded of how much Trump did do beyond his signature and galling tax giveway of 2017. Pushed through dozens of environmental rollbacks. Renegotiated NAFTA. Moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Built 300 miles of The Wall. Ended TPP, the Paris Climate Agreement, and The Iran Nuclear Deal. Reduced the number of refugees and asylum seekers who were able to come to the U.S. by 80% to historically low numbers. Tightened SNAP requirements so millions of families are finding it harder or impossible to get food stamps. The list goes on and on.
If you have read this far, you are probably opposed to every one of these things, save for getting NATO to pay more. But I sometimes fear progressives focus too much on his appalling rhetoric and blithely offensive style. It is true, he is a horrible human being. Quite possibly one of the most self-involved, dishonest, empty, idiotic, self-aggrandizing specimens of white male entitlement. But there are lots of people who don’t care about him as a person and they look to his policies and think, yeah, I’m essentially in line with that.
Yes, there is a lot of work to do on persuading everyday Americans to think more critically and openly. So let’s get to work. Start phonebanking and texting. Write postcards. Donate. Call every and any person you know in a swing state and make your case for why they should vote for Biden/Harris. Let’s put critical thinking on this ballot.
I’m a humanitarian and a humanist, a relentlessly pragmatic idealist. I believe in pushing the art of the possible to it’s limit, but not past it and losing the deal. There are no Pyrrhic victories when it comes to policy and winner-take-all elections, just policies that don’t get passed, and candidates that lose. If you’ve attended protests this summer, as I have, it’s clear that we need now to turn that into action at the polls. We have one of the biggest tools in democracy, we have to use it now.