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The Republican National Convention is in full swing and this week's theme appears to be fear. The Grand Old Party ('old' being the operative word here) seems to be channelling the past, harking back to a time when American was mostly white and much of that population was feeling the first real tremors of a changing America. They were scared, and fear, as my dad used to say, makes people stupid.
The face of the Republican party in those days was Richard Nixon, a politician whose savvy and sly abilities existed in equal measure to his corrupt and evil proclivities. Nixon knew that much of mainstream, white America was afraid, and he used it to propel himself to the office of president. The strategy of fear is hardly a new one for the rightwing, but there seems to be times of anxiety-ridden unrest that make it an better, more effective approach than others. With the Vietnam War heating up, the younger generation everywhere in cultural revolt, race-riots bringing violence to the streets of America, it is hardly any wonder that Nixon was able to capitalize on fear.
Cut to modern day Cleveland where the Republicans have once again made fear of chaos the cornerstone of their political raison d'être. Trevor Noah caught the mood beautifully in his Daily Show segment. (It seems that you need an American VPN to watch it but if you have one you can see it here.)
The BBC gives us a glimpse into the fear in a report from yesterday.
Maybe there is not more to be afraid of in 1968 than there is today, but for mainstream white America, whose hold on society has never been more tenuous, the new fears are perhaps more unsettling than the old ones. After all, white Americans are fast being outnumbered by non-whites, America's economic supremacy is quickly disappearing, wages have flatlined for years, and secure, well-paying employment is a thing of the past. For Republicans, someone must be to blame for this state of affairs, and the rightwing mind always looks to the "other" when things look rough.
Four years ago when the Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the more astute Republican commentators said that the Grand Old Party was doomed unless it could begin to appeal to people outside it normal purview, to blacks and hispanics, to more women and younger people. Four years later, the Republican Party seems to have decided on the opposite tack; instead they are everywhere intentionally alienating those that four years ago they realized they needed to appeal to. As I said, fear makes people stupid.
It seems that nothing will divert Republicans from their chosen path. To chose a new way forward requires a change of heart or a cool and collected mind. It seems that the Republican Party is not going to embrace either of these.
When people are afraid, it is often for the wrong reasons; they are afraid of the wrong things. There is much to fear in today's world. But Republicans are mostly afraid of people with darker skin and people who don't look or think exactly like them. But if we learn anything from history it is that we learn nothing from history. It is hard to say if the Republican campaign of fear will take Trump to power the way it did for Nixon. I suspect that if Trump were to win, fear in the rest of the world, fear of what he would do, would make white, American fear look like a walk in the park.
Is anyone surprised at Melania Trump's plagiarism of a Michelle Obama's speech?
It was a painful speech to watch. Besides Melania's strange, eerie, almost robotic manner, everything she said seemed forced and empty. Let's not forget that Michelle Obama is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University and, of course, Harvard Law School. She is also a life-long activist, starting notably with her involvement in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton. To hear Melania Trump steal Obama's speech is pure farce. Melania Trump, on the other hand, is a model who dropped out of her first year of college who represents little but ostentatious wealth, a wealth that she has because of her marriage to a mean-spirited, racist whose only activism is the effort to make himself richer and more powerful.
To be fair, I suspect that Melania Trump is not directly responsible for the plagiarism of Obama's speech. Mrs. Trump is probably not bright enough to even be aware of Obama's words, let alone steal them. It was probably one of the speech writers who, like some college freshman, thought by changing a word or two here and there he/she would technically not be guilty of plagiarism.
But putting the words of an accomplished woman like Michelle Obama into the mouth of a rich, awkward woman like Melania Trump, is indicative of the entire Trump phenomenon. The Trumps are an empty mockery of everything we should value. There is no content here, only a vacuous self-aggrandizement, a kind of ersatz politics which attempts to take rhetoric devoid of real meaning and turn it into an empty political victory without real goals. It is like something out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Trump is like Elmer Gantry without the style, craftiness, or charisma.
People without insights of their own are compelled to steal the thoughts of others. And if your only goal is to make yourself richer and/or more powerful then the only content and meaning of your words is the raw ambition which motivates them.
There is no question of plagiarism here; it is too blatant and obvious and is there for everyone to see. It makes sense though. If you are not that smart yourself, if you have no actual accomplishments to build upon, it makes sense to pattern yourself on someone who has the smarts and/or the dedication to actually do something.
President Recep Erdogan is arguably the greatest charlatan in European politics at the moment. He is a man who actively courts an image as a populist democrat while he simultaneously makes every attempt to shut down all opposition and carve out for himself a role as absolute dictator of Turkey. From afar Erdogan's attempts can seem almost comical, as when he lobbies foreign governments to indict their own citizens for criticizing him, but at home his strong-arm tactics are frighteningly real for those who chose to dissent from his vision of Turkey.
Of course, as one might expect with any politician who takes advantage of a populist style of public image making, what exactly Erdogan's national vision is is not entirely clear. On the one hand, Erdogan has built an image as an Islamist leader (as described by the New York Times), but on the other hand he has continued the effort among Turkey's recent leaders to bring Turkey into "modern" political mainstream and make the country eligible for membership in the European Union.
The value of EU membership has recently lost a great deal of its cache, which is probably good for Erdogan who seems to have no intention of backing off his rather desperate efforts to become Turkey's dictator. One of Erdogan's draconian responses to the weekend coup attempt in Turkey has been to publicly float the idea of reinstating the death penalty. This brought a swift response from at least one EU member-state as a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Turkey chance of gaining EU membership would be finished if it returned to using the death penalty. As the Mail Online said today, "Steffen Seibert told reporters that the EU is a 'community of values,' therefore the institution of the death penalty can only mean that such a country could not be a member."
However, it really appears that capital punishment is only one of many problems now faced by Turkey in its effort to be a modern, Western-approved, democracy. Erdogan has taken advantage of the attempted coup to enact a round-up of hundreds (if not thousands) of people in what he claims is a crackdown on the supporters of the coup, but which, given the raw numbers and generalized targets of the arrests, can only be an attempt to undermine all opposition to his leadership. If one needs a primer on how to marginalize and debilitate political opposition on the road to dictatorship, one only needs to look at what has been happening in Turkey in the past forty-eight hours: use a real event as a smokescreen for the total liquidation of dissent. It is a classic tactic with which even those with only a casual knowledge history will be familiar. And it is a tactic which Erdogan's supporters are whole-heartedly embracing. As Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu wrote in the New York Times: "While secular and liberal Turks generally opposed the coup, it was Mr. Erdogan's supporters who flooded the streets and gathered at Istanbul's airport to push out the occupying army. They mostly yelled religious slogans and chants in support of Mr. Erdogan, not of democracy itself." They go on to make it clear that Erdogan's support of free political expression is extremely one sided. "When other groups, like gay and lesbian organizations or labor unions try to gather in public spaces in central Istanbul," Argano and Yeginsu write, "the streets are sealed off. Armoured vehicles with water cannons suddenly materialize, as do police officers with tear gas canisters."
The story is an old one but the implications are ominous as governments everywhere seem to be using the force of the state to shut down opposition and curtail democratic rights. Turkey after the coup will undoubtably be a less free and more draconian state. But citizens of Western nations should not feel comfortable nor satisfied that Turkey's troubles are distant from us. Democratic rights are everywhere under fire and Republican convention in Cleveland this week should remind us that Erdogan's tactics are by no means a 'foreign' or an 'Islamic' phenomenon.