Anger and Ecstasy in Tampa

I suppose I'm weak for only being able to last a day of this convention trying to be neutral about the whole thundering affair. Try as I might to be non-partisan, to view these things as spectacle rather than affirmation of policy, last night it became impossible to do that. No, what I saw last night frankly chilled me to the bone.

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Last night's Republican National Convention speeches were the serious business, the real meat and rhetorical potatoes of the summit. Sure candidate Mitt will bless us all with his highest-authority words tonight, but last night, which culminated in a stirring speech by VP candidate Paul Ryan, was the true heart of the matter. The king's words seem somehow not as potent as those of the ones who spend their lives paying him slavish devotion, right? Those are the people we want to hear from, the "Why" people, and last night they spoke to us. And, look, try as I might to be non-partisan, to view these things as spectacle rather than affirmation of policy, last night it became impossible to do that. No, what I saw last night frankly chilled me to the bone.

I suppose I'm weak for only being able to last a day of this convention trying to be neutral about the whole thundering affair. Someone of thicker skin or perhaps a more generous spirit could probably cover these proceedings with a consistent personal detachment. This is a story here, these are people who believe a thing, or lots of things, and that's an interesting thing to look at and discuss. Not with condescending anthropology, but with the same human interest you would give to someone across the room at a party. These aren't just our fellow people, they are closer, more intimate to us than that. We share space, the same country. They're the car in front of us at the drive-thru, at the checkout line, waiting with equal impatience for the movie to start. So that is, then, a noble endeavor. To examine them with impartiality, measured reason, open mind, all that. And me not being "a politics guy," I tried to do that, thought I could. Well, two nights in and I've failed.

There were obvious lies in Paul Ryan's speech. Condoleezza Rice, with all her trembling emoting and grandeur, can probably never speak louder than the fact that she had a hand in one of the greatest foreign policy injustices in American history. Mike Huckabee is a good-natured charlatan. These are the obvious gripes about who spoke at the RNC last night. But what really got me was what was behind the easy identifiers and grinning, hopeful veneers. Even the most hard-hearted lefty among us would have trouble not getting, at one point or another, swept up in the podium-rattling talk of a brighter future, a stronger America. But then there is the sudden sharp reminder of what these people stand for, what their control would really bring — what it would mean for women and their bodies, for non-straight people, for the poor who cannot dig themselves out with a stirring Horatio Alger story. And that's what left me so shaken last night. They are spending unending amounts of time talking about the economy, about the Obama administration's failures, about their own blinkered versions of the past, and about the vague things they would do to right this leaning ship, because of course those are important matters. But as the 2010 election of the supposedly economics-only Tea Partiers showed us, the social issues are way too juicy a fruit for them to simply ignore in favor of pragmatic fiscal concerns.

There have been allusions to marriage and abortion and various other social matters throughout this convention, but they have not been talked about head-on, it's all been on the side, little dog-whistle references for those paying attention. Paul Ryan sneaked it in last night during his mostly economy-concerned speech, saying "The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best." Just like that. "Defender of marriage" communicating a whole anti-gay platform. Mike Huckabee was a bit more direct, but even he, the Evangelical, didn't go full tilt. He devoted about a minute to the social policies that are at the foundation of his politics, saying Obama "tells people of faith that they have to bow their knees to the God of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls, health care." And of course we have to consider Ann Romney's blaring invocation of her "real marriage" on Tuesday night, that "real" landing hard and sticky, the crowd losing it at the righteousness of it all. The audience seems to enjoy the secret language, they have fun with the "non-PC" whispering that insists they are simply better, morally pure, the socially anointed. These are built-in rallying cries that you can try to dismiss as cynical appeals to a hardcore base, but are still received loud and clear by those who genuinely believe in the message. They telegraph a monolithic sameness of moral convicion that this crowd relishes in as if in religious ecstasy.

The economy is something that affects us all, and so it's most of what's directly spoken about in Tampa, to lure the supposed undecided in, to give the Republican platform something concrete and relatively uncontroversial to rest on. But there's a cruel trick in this strategy, the same one the Tea Party pulled in 2010. There is a huge, roiling social animus fueling these candidates that only gets talked about in certain hushed tones, in certain places. But electing them would very much give them the opportunity to pull down the curtain and go full-bore into the kind of social engineering they are, it seems sometimes, chiefly concerned with. The Tea Party said it would focus on economics, but in the last two years, when not maneuvering around an imminent government shutdown, pushed the debate straight at Planned Parenthood, straight towards personhood, straight towards legislation like the kind in North Carolina that doesn't just ban gay marriage, it essentially bans gay couplehood outright. These are economic issues how? Why should we expect any dissimilar behavior from those speaking at the RNC? Sure Paul Ryan will have the tempering Saltine presence of Mitt Romney to slow his roll a bit, but even so. Even so, the cheering and whooping for these men and women, the huge auditorium filled to the brim with people who love them despite their insidious views on people who don't fit into their worldview, is horrifically dispiriting. You realize, watching this seething mass of people, that the secret, the economics stage show, is for us, on the outside. All the fiscal talk is for our benefit. Everyone in that room really knows what's being spoken about: Getting lazy poor people off their teat, sticking it to those gays, making sure we don't have to pay for some slut's sinful abortion. For all the cheer and cowboy hats and smiles and Christian blessings, this is an angry, aggressive group. And they are, or at least have been chosen to represent, nominally half of us. Half of us here in this country.

So, neutrality be damned, that's what I saw last night. A churning sea of something truly scary. The shapeless leader at the top of the pyramid may be a wishy-washy cipher, but those that make up the rest of the structure are yawing rightward to a truly frightening degree. And what's most terrifying about them is the way they mute their own indecency, wrapping it up and tucking it into the middle of platitudes and generalities, for the purposes of these televised events. Sure all the coded stuff is pretty easy to decipher, but it's still coded, it's still deliberately obscured. As if even they are, at root, scared of their own darkness.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.