The Two Conventions: Convincing or Not Very Conventional?

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By Shivaji Sengupta

Congratulations to the DNC for a terrific opening night of the Convention. The prayer was heartfelt, the fact that it was bilingual was both humane and political. Those that say it was political, to garner Spanish votes, I always say that there is nothing wrong with politics which is inclusive. The MC, Eva Longoria, was bilingual.
The convention kicked off with the American national anthem. The singers, first a handful of them, appeared on the television screen. Then with each new line of the anthem, it doubled up again to show more participants, and more people joined in, each time the widows framing the faces, doubling and tripling as singers from all over the country sang our National Anthem. The national anthem was inspiring. Children, young adults and adults from all fifty states singing “Oh say can you see…!”
The roll call for nominating the candidate for the president of the United States was also unique, given its virtual presentation. In the past the National Conventions, held in massive convention halls, had thousands of participants, raucously supporting their candidates, bands and cacophonous announcements creating carnival like atmospheres. This year COVID put paid to all that.
Instead, the camera went to each state. Delegates, many dressed in clothes rich in the tradition of the state, were videotaped in the midst of the scenery the States are famous for. We, the audience, got to see them in their proud splendor as they declared their support for the candidate of their choice, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
As many as 29 Republicans supported the Democrat`s choice. Once again, the message was unity. The former governor of Ohio, John Kasich, expressed his willingness to work with a broad spectrum of political stripes. Sanders, the independent Democrat-Socialist, was more controlled than he has usually been; Kasich, as always, was sober and rational. The others, including Susan Molinari, Democrat from New York, were extremely effective in the way they supported the Democrats ‘appeal for national unity.
All the speakers were good, but Michelle Obama, brilliant. Always, authentic and speaking from the heart, she crafted her speech carefully and delivered it naturally. Consistent with the convention’s theme of national unity and inclusiveness, the craftsmanship was evident in its organization: she first appealed to all Americans about how dangerous a condition we are in, in the grip of a pandemic and racial unrest, enveloped by the worst economic condition since the 1930s, nearly a hundred years ago. As a woman, she appealed to women, mothers, grandmothers because Michelle knows what it is to care for people as a woman. Then she briefly recalled 2016, without mentioning the year or Hillary’s defeat. She said she had hoped that Trump, for all his electioneering shenanigans, would govern like a president. Then came her attack on the jugular: the awful realization that My God, this man has no idea how to govern! “He is not up to the job…He is in over his head!” This speech was crafted to hurt Trump where he hurts the most, his ego. But it was delivered, not as bombastic political rhetoric, but as a concerned, worried, even hurting and scared citizen. She was mourning for America, but the mourning was electric, calculated to shock those of us who are in a stupor of apathy. It was meant for those Democrats who are planning to sit this one out. Remember what her speech made absolutely clear: we are dying – literally – we are destitute without jobs, and it is hitting those of us hardest, who are poor, marginalized and, with the postal crises, further disenfranchised. So go out and vote Trump out, Michelle said. She was persuasive.
Another stand out performance was given by the vice presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris. Beginning with the fact that her parents came to America “from the opposite corners of the world, India and Jamaica,” she said that they were drawn toward each other through their commitment to human rights. From there on she too proceeded to describe America in the grips of a pandemic, the loss of sixteen million jobs, 160,000 dead, and, echoing Michelle Obama, she said the president has no clue as to what to do. But there was an important difference between her speech and Michelle’s. The former’s was of a concerned citizen, her role four years ago as First Lady serving to lend weight to what she said. But Senator Harris, while in sum, her speech was the same in content, was regal, coming from someone steeped in public service, and who is a seasoned administrator. She too showed a woman’s concern for America, but she was caustic and critical, biting. She stood up tall, she was regal, a female Barak Obama.
Barak Obama himself was powerful. He did not expect Donald Trump to continue his policies, he said. No president from the opposite party does. But the way this president showed absolutely no ability to handle a nation in trouble, Obama said, was absolutely astounding. Like his wife and Kamala Harris, he too lamented the president’s marked incompetence. At a time when over five million Americans are ill from COVID, with hundreds of thousands dead, what does Trump do? The former president asks rhetorically. He tries to dismantle Affordable Healthcare, over and over again, without even the semblance of a plan of his own. Referring to the current president by name (something rarely done by a former president), Obama bemoans America, that we would be in the hands of such an incompetent and confused leader. Time to get him out, said President Obama. Immediately!
Finally, the candidate himself: Joe Biden.
One might say this is the moment the former Vice President was waiting for, since 2008. With over forty years of administrative and governing experience, well known for his ability to work with Republicans, Biden believes he will make just the kind of president America needs. He is everything, Trump is not. And he attempted make Americans get it: Trump is inexperienced in governance even after four years of being president; Biden has forty-seven years of it. Trump is unable to work constructively with others, especially the opposition. Biden has a history of working in a bipartisan manner. Trump is callow, callous, petty, unable to empathize; Biden is deeply empathic, wants to work inclusively, share responsibility and, most critically, has just the sort of experience to battle COVID. His experience with scorching the Ebola virus speaks for itself. Biden said all this, all the while maintaining a high profile, taking a statesman like approach.
The Democratic National Convention took the maximum advantage of Zoom by “opening it up” to the whole country. Anderson Cooper seemed to be unsure of the effectiveness of presenting the conference virtually. All the pomp and show nonexistent. According to him, it lacked spontaneity.
I disagree. To me, given the obvious disadvantage of COVID, I thought the producers of the DNC, pulled off a great success. They understood the medium well. Television gives us a limited view of an event, the limitedness controlled by the director of the production, like a film director. The more an audience sees, the less the producers are in control. In a live event, like the previous conventions, the audience sees everything, and, importantly, what the producers don’t want them to see.
Here, by contrast, the producers of the DNC were in full control. We saw what they wanted us to see, scenes that would have been impossible were they televised live, like seeing the roll call situated in each state with all its cultural and natural novelty. We were able to see famous politicians like Michelle Obama at home, creating an intimacy that would otherwise not have been possible. Or to see John Kasich at crossroads in Ohio; or President Obama in the Constitutional Library in Philadelphia talking about a constitutional crisis Trump is threatening to precipitate by crippling the post office so that it cannot deliver the votes the American people cast. None of this would have been possible if the convention was held in its original location in Wisconsin. The medium is the message.
The Republican National Convention was held partly in Charlottesville and partly at the White House where Trump gave a 70-minute-long speech to accept the renomination. Part of it was broadcast virtually. Straight away, there seemed to be a confusion in the minds of the producers about what sort of a convention they wanted to present – a hybrid of reality or hyper reality.
The Democrats were clear about their approach. In a COVID infested America, they would protect the people. The Republicans, led by Trump, had been rejecting the notion of how deadly the disease can be. Their convention reflected their ambivalence.
There were other stark differences. The RNC produced nowhere near the unity, cultural diversity and political inclusiveness. Whereas, the DNC repeatedly refrained Black Lives Matter, the RNC took a diametrically opposite stance. They emphasized the lawlessness and looting that were the consequences of many a protest march. They did mention COVID, but took the optimist’s road rather than harp upon the sick and the dead. Instead, they emphasized recovery, both in health and in the economy. Never mind that so many have died, so many are ill and ever so many have lost their jobs. In this the RNC obviously decided to go Trump’s way.
Donald Trump is essentially a businessman. Like one, he always first mentions the positive, always points out profit. While the leader of a nation has the responsibility to cheer people in his charge, especially in the kind of atmosphere we are in now, the American president overdoes the positive to the point of gross exaggeration and lies – again, like a businessman.
His speech was an example of trying desperately to convince the American people that all is well, give or take a few. He exaggerated whatever positive he could glean out, and told us that we shouldn’t worry, that he knew exactly what he was doing. His fellow speakers did the same, but also launched scathing, sometimes vicious, attacks on Biden. No one showed any concern for COVID, or for the 170,000 dead.
Except for two women: Melania Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ivanka, the president’s daughter. Once again, we have to turn to women to give us some kindness, tenderness which the men seemed incapable of in the Republican Party.
So what now? How will these two conventions affect the elections in November?
I think they both succeeded in their objectives. The Democrats wanted people to have a realistic view of the precarious situation they are in, and wanted to convince them that in Biden and his team, they would have a ready, willing, and immensely capable government. The Republicans, on the other hand, would have us believe that everything is as well as it can be, given the pandemic, that things are on the mend, and that in a very short time, we will once again be riding high. They warn us not to change governments, that this very team that has given us a strong economy before COVID will deliver again, and soon. Don’t change the driver of this four-year-old car.
It is now up to us to go out and vote.

(Shivaji Sengupta is Professor of English and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Boricua College, N.Y.C. He is a journalist, and writes for several Indian newspapers in the United States. He has lived in this country as student, as a professional and as a hippie for the past fifty years. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in New York.)

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