The Message of the RNC Is Clear and Terrifying

Repressive white nationalism has supplanted small government as the creed of the GOP.

Donald Trump walks on stage to introduce his wife Melania on the first day of the Republican National Convention.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

CLEVELAND—Let’s recap.

On Monday, the Republican Party inaugurated its convention with a single message: fear. Fear of Hispanic immigrants, slammed as vectors for crime and disorder. Fear of “radical Muslims,” portrayed as a faceless, bloodthirsty horde. Fear of black activists, condemned as anarchists and lawless agitators. The argument was clear: You are in danger, threatened by a brown invaders and black saboteurs. Donald Trump will keep you safe. It was a remarkable display of demagoguery, a clear sign that the Republican Party—whatever it was before Trump—is now a party of overt white nationalism. And it was just the beginning.

On Tuesday, a day nominally devoted to “making America work again,” Republicans took this demagoguery to the next level, broadcasting a virtual show trial in a clear effort to delegitimize the Democratic presidential candidate as a political actor. “Since the Justice Department refuses to allow you to render a verdict, let’s present the case now, on the facts, against Hillary Clinton,” said Chris Christie, in his primetime speech, less a brief for Donald Trump and more a jeremiad against the sins—real and imagined—of the Democratic presidential nominee. With each charge against Clinton, the delegates screamed in hatred, breaking into chants of “Guilty!” and “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Indeed, if anything permeates the mood at this year’s RNC, it’s deep disdain and contempt for the former First Lady, verging on a kind of hysteria. Walk around the Quicken Loans Arena and you’ll see vendors hawking a variety of anti-Clinton gear, from buttons and knick knacks, to shirts with slogans like “Trump That Bitch” and “Clinton Sucks But Not Like Monica.” I have yet to hear an attendee use this rhetoric, but I’ve seen plenty purchase a T-shirt, or at least smile at the men selling the shirts. Beyond convention speakers or hard-working peddlers, there are members of the Trump campaign team, like New Hampshire state representative Al Baldasaro, who has advised Trump on veterans issues. “This whole thing disgusts me,” he said of the events at Benghazi, which took center stage on Monday. “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

When watching a national convention, it’s tempting to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as simple showmanship, the heat and hyperbole that come naturally to any partisan political gathering. But this is different. Look back to the 2004 Democratic convention. For all of their hatred of George W. Bush, mainstream Democrats didn’t demand a tribunal, or call for law enforcement to put him in prison. (As opposed to a Monday night speaker who said, plainly, that “Hillary deserved to be in stripes.”) John Edwards didn’t hold a mock trial of Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama—one of the keynote speakers—didn’t accuse Bush of cavorting with Satan.

If Monday’s program represents the triumph of nativism in the Republican Party, as the GOP succumbs to Trump’s virulent strain of Know-Nothingism, then Tuesday’s events show the extent to which Trump’s authoritarianism has supplanted small government as the creed of the national Republican Party. And it’s not just Christie’s call to imprison Clinton for her alleged crimes, a move with no place in a democracy. Before he spoke to the assembled convention, Christie told a group of donors that a President Trump would purge his government of officials hired or appointed by Obama. As my colleague Elliot Hannon notes, “[W]hat Christie is proposing resembles more of a witch hunt where federal staffers will be judged by their loyalty to the regime,” as opposed to the usual churn that comes with a new administration.

When coupled with Trump’s plans for mass deportation of unauthorized immigrants and a ban on Muslim entry into the United States, you have a clear outline for repressive, authoritarian government, where disfavored minorities are hounded and political opponents condemned as criminals. And Republicans, blind with anti-Clinton animus, can’t see it. Press delegates on Donald Trump’s rhetoric—on his behavior and his temperament—and they deflect. Hillary Clinton can’t be president. Hear it enough, and it begins to sound like a mantra, a way to rationalize the decision to put Donald Trump a stone’s throw from the presidency.

On Tuesday, the assembled delegations announced their delegate counts and formally nominate Trump. Most delegates were thrilled, hopeful that Trump would indeed be the next president of the United States. Outside, in the recreation area of the convention called“Freedom Plaza,” delegates and attendees cheered as they ate, drank, and socialized. It felt like an ordinary event at an ordinary convention. That was the scariest part of all—the feeling that people here had already fit Donald Trump into the normal rhythms of American political life.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.