Republicans Are Gaslighting America. Will It Work?

Night three of the RNC was more revisionist history.

Donald Trump pointing at Mike Pence, seen against a red background and surrounded by white stars
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Jeremy Stahl: Good evening, Julia! I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit relieved that Vice President Mike Pence’s speech finally ended in what I assume was its fourth hour. Neither of us, I expect, is the audience for this show, but we’re here together to make Slate’s Republican National Convention coverage great again, again. To start off, what did you think about Pence’s keynote, and what stood out to you as the biggest takeaway from the evening?

Julia Craven: I definitely don’t think we were the target audience here. But what stood out to me the most were Pence’s comments on “law and order” and the context—the uprising occurring in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer seven times in front of his children and fiancée. Kyle Rittenhouse, a pro-cop, pro-gun teenager, allegedly shot and killed two people at these protests in Wisconsin and in response … Pence reiterated the administration’s pro-police messaging? It reminded me of the narratives around Blue Lives Matter bills about how cops are the “real victims.” That really got me going.

Jeremy: The key Pence line there was “Let me be clear: The violence must stop—whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha,” but he was not referring to the violence by the police. In Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered by police. In Portland, federalized secret police faced off against protesting moms. In Kenosha, Jacob Blake was crippled by a police officer and is fighting for his life, and two protesters were killed just Tuesday night, allegedly by that vigilante teenager you mentioned, who by the way was in the front row of a Trump rally earlier this year. The notion that somehow the violence on the streets is being perpetrated by the protesters felt, particularly now, like one of the most direct efforts to flip the current world on its head.

You said something in our group chat about feeling gaslit, and that resonated very strongly with me. The entire third night (and much of the first and second) felt like one lengthy gaslighting. It reminds me of the 2016 vice presidential debate, when Pence was also the featured Republican and he spent the entire evening pretending everything Donald Trump had said and done hadn’t happened. The RNC is very much the 2020 version of that. The pitch is: Don’t believe what your own eyes are seeing. Given that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic that’s killing hundreds of people every day, the greatest recession in nearly a century, and the near-constant brutalization of Black people by the state, it seems like pretending as though none of that is happening might be a harder sell this time. What other parts of the gaslighting struck you the most?

Julia: Retweet all of this! And what got me the most about the gaslighting wasn’t the “law and order” stuff but rather Pence claiming that no American was denied a ventilator. But you’re right: The whole event was revisionist history. When one of the videos pointed out that the Republican Party of the 1860s freed enslaved Africans and then praised Susan B. Anthony, who courted white women at the expense of Black ones during suffrage, for voting R? That felt like I was being bamboozled.

Jeremy: These are deep cut deceptions. I was probably more taken aback by the ones that required less historical knowledge and more just living every day in Trump’s America for the past nearly four years. For instance: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem saying Trump has accomplished more for the economy than any president in the past 50 years, when we’re stuck at double-digit unemployment with no economic rescue in sight. Or Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn saying “Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their radical allies try to destroy” law enforcement and military “heroes,” when half of the time the Trump campaign has argued that those two are mass-incarcerating supercops. Or White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany talking about how Trump is going to protect everyone with preexisting conditions when he literally spent his first year in office trying to pass a law abolishing protections for preexisting conditions and is in court right now still attempting to do the same. Or (sorry, give me a minute to keep going) former NFL player Jack Brewer claiming that it’s a “media lie” to point out that Trump called the white supremacists at the Charlottesville torch rally “very fine people” and then compared him to Abraham Lincoln (and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott to Frederick Douglass). Or even the ordinary logger wearing the “Make Loggers Great Again” hat, Scott Dane, who claimed that the Trump administration has brought “a new recognition of the value of forest management in reducing wildfires,” when California has experienced its worst wildfire crisis ever and Trump has threatened to cut off federal funds. Anyway, I clearly could go on, but I won’t. We’re three days into this convention with one day to go, and I’m wondering: Ultimately, do you think any of this stuff is actually going to matter on Nov. 3?

Julia: My instincts tell me that the RNC won’t matter come Nov. 3 because Trump has mangled the pandemic response so completely that he can’t possibly bounce back from it. My 2016 PTSD, however, reminds me that racism is pervasive and white suburban voters eat that “chaos on the streets” shit up. Still, I don’t think it’s anyone’s game. Based on polling data overall, I don’t think Trump will be reelected. But I also know that parading Black Republicans around your convention—along with blatant lies about your record—can perhaps move the stance of a voter who already feels a li’l conflicted about just how far this civil rights stuff should go.

Read more of Slate’s RNC chats:

Night one: Monday Was Opposite Night at the Republican National Convention

Night two: The RNC Has Already Run Out of Things to Say

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