PHILADELPHIA—The Democratic National Convention has been far better produced than the Republican one. There have been soaring, electrifying speeches. Michelle Obama was show-stopping. Joe Biden’s performance was charming, folksy, and combative, the distilled essence of everything Democrats love about him. Michael Bloomberg offered the perfect backhanded endorsement for wavering moderates: “Let’s elect a sane, competent person.” Barack Obama was elegant and inspiring, the starkest possible contrast to Donald Trump. The star power, including performances by Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz, vastly outshone the sad crew of C-list soap stars and sitcom has-beens who appeared at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Yet as I walked around Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center—usually teeming with people, unlike Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena—I was sick with dread. Each day brought news that Trump had overtaken Clinton in at least some polls; on Thursday morning, Nate Silver published a piece at FiveThirtyEight titled, “Election Update: Why Our Model Is Bullish on Trump, for Now.” Silver now gives him a 40 percent chance of winning the election. Yes, I know that Trump had a convention bounce and that Clinton will likely pull back ahead next week. All the same, here was the cream of the American meritocracy, as well as heroic progressive figures like Bernie Sanders and the Mothers of the Movement, uniting behind Clinton. It couldn’t be more different from the chaotic and apocalyptic scene in Cleveland. And still, the election is close.
One of the unofficial slogans of this election, at least among the green room flotsam and millennial ironists on Twitter, is “nothing matters.” It’s an expression of weary incredulity at each new Trumpian outrage that should be the end of him but isn’t. This election isn’t a contest of ideology. It’s certainly not about experience or competence. It’s being fought at the level of deep, unconscious, Freudian drives. Trump promises law and order, but he is the Thanatos candidate, appealing to the people so disgusted by the American status quo that they’re willing to blow it up. Clinton is the candidate of dull, workmanlike order and continuity. She once described herself as a “mind conservative and a heart liberal,” but her convention has almost been the opposite, with the most liberal platform in decades married to a show of sunny, orderly patriotism. “America is already great!” is as anti-radical slogan as can be imagined. The question in this election is whether the forces of stability are a match for those of cynical nihilism. This convention has been, for the most part, impeccably choreographed. Will it matter? Will anything?