Shameless: 5 Ugly Themes We Saw at the RNC Convention

The Republican National Convention closed Thursday night. After millions of dollars and countless hours of preparation, planning every aspect of the messaging and visual clues, the most indelible moment of the convention was the wince-inducing image of Clint Eastwood mocking an empty chair representing Barack Obama. Congratulations, Mr. Romney.

Of course Eastwood was far from the only embarrassment on- or off-stage. If Republican Party leaders had any capacity for shame, they would be losing sleep over the truth-be-damned, ends-justify-the-means approach to their entire campaign. But why waste time with counter-factuals? Here are five notable themes from the Republican Party’s week in Tampa.

1. We Built it (on Lies)

For almost as long as I can remember, there was a tremendous reluctance among journalists and even many politicians to call out a politician for lying. People used euphemisms like “misleading” or “untruthful.” Not any more. The GOP’s campaign this year is so thoroughly grounded in falsehoods (there’s another one) that even political journalists who are used to the loose standards of campaign rhetoric are struggling with how to express the scope of the Romney campaign’s lying. RNC speakers kept fact-checkers working overtime to keep up with their lies. Knowing what was coming, the Romney campaign pre-emptively announced that it would “not let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

One of the most memorable examples of journalistic indignation at the shamelessness of the Romney campaign came from political reporter Michael Tomasky:

Analysis of the fact that Ryan can lie the way he does requires the skills of a psychologist. All I can say is that we’re in new territory—a Republican trying to own a Democratic issue, and doing so on the basis of a couple of lies so blatant that he’s practically saying to the Democrats and the media: “Fuck you, come and get me. You can’t touch me.”

Of course, right-wing pundits have spent years pounding an ignore-all-but-right-wing-media message into the heads of their reader and viewers. The first sign of the convention I saw when arriving in Tampa was a billboard near the airport that screamed, “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media.”

2. Tea Party Triumphant

The anti-government Tea Party movement, lavishly funded by the Koch brothers and corporate America through groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, has been working relentlessly to move the GOP further to the right, successfully waging campaigns to purge the party of elected officials deemed too willing to work with Democrats or insufficiently enlisted in the campaign to roll back any regulations on business. FreedomWorks was successful at getting almost all of its wish-list codified into the party platform. Ted Cruz of Texas will almost certainly be joining Jim DeMint's Tea Party caucus in the Senate. And Koch’s hand-picked candidate, Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, is the party’s vice presidential nominee. Maybe even more important than all that, reverse class-warfare rhetoric absolutely dominated the convention: over and over, concern for economic inequality was equated with petty jealousy; progressive taxation was slammed as punishing success; people who might need government assistance were denigrated as lazy parasites. No wonder David Koch and his allies were in the mood to party on the final night of the convention.

3. GOP = God’s Own Party

Sen. Marco Rubio, the shining star of the Tea Party’s 2010 efforts, used his prime speaking slot right before Mitt Romney to declare that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.” Really? Not individual liberty or equality under the law or the protections of the Constitution that apply to people of all faiths as well as none?

Religious Right activists dominated the platform-writing process and made sure that its anti-choice and anti-gay rhetoric would be strong enough to help energize conservative evangelicals who haven’t yet been convinced that they should approach right-wing economics with the same religious fervor – a strategy blessed by the Romney campaign. At the leadership level, the Tea Party and Religious Right rhetoric has already been seamlessly blended, with “American exceptionalism” meaning to some voters a country and Constitution grounded in the Bible, and to others the freedom to get rich without government interference – or both. GOP leaders fully embraced another of the Religious Right’s campaign themes – that Barack Obama is waging a war on religion and religious freedom.

One major goal for the Romney campaign and its Religious Right backers was to erase any remaining qualms that some voters might have about voting for a Mormon - to many evangelicals, a non-Christian – for president. At events organized by the Religious Right speakers who in the past insisted on the importance of electing good Christians now said it wasn’t important where a candidate went to church but whether he shares the religious right’s “values.” Before Eastwood’s strange piece of performance art, the most memorable part of the convention’s closing night came from speakers who talked about the compassionate pastoral care Romney provided as a Mormon leader.

4. Rigging the Rules

Ron Paul supporters were not the only ones outraged by the machinations of the Romney campaign to deny recognition to some Paul delegates and to push through rules changes that would give future nominees basically total control over convention delegates. Even Religious Right leaders complained. But how could any of this be surprising to anyone, given the ruthless voter suppression campaign being waged by Republican Party officials all across the country? The principle of fair elections is far less important to them than the reality of political power.

5. Paging Mr. Orwell

The strongest impression left by the convention is – I have to use this word again – the shamelessness with which Romney, Ryan, and others accused their opponents of the very things that are at the center of their campaign. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says Americans should count on Republicans to be truth-tellers, while the Romney campaign floods the airways with well-documented lies. Speaker after speaker accuses President Obama of waging a campaign of resentment and divisiveness, when Romney pours money into dishonest ads designed to make working Americans resent anyone who receives government assistance – or, as Romney referred to members of the NAACP after being booed at the group’s convention, people who want “more free stuff.”

You almost – almost – have to respect the sheer audacity that it took for Mitt Romney to deliver this line with a straight face: “president [Obama] was not the choice of our party but Americans always come together after elections.” From the moment Obama was elected, right-wing leaders were declaring themselves part of a resistance movement dedicated to the failure of his administration, and they set about savaging him as an un-American, anti-American stealth Jihadist bent on destroying America. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who leads the Senate’s Republicans memorably asserted that his biggest priority was denying President Obama a second term.

Back to the Past

Of course there was more going on. Republicans made an effort to chip into Obama’s commanding lead among Latino voters by giving plenty of podium time to Hispanic leaders who sprinkled their speeches with Spanish. Ann Romney and others were enlisted to make the nominee more appealing to women.

But the party platform and the ascendancy of the anti-government Tea Party faction within the GOP make it clear that when they talk about “taking America back,” they don’t just mean taking it back to pre-Obama days, or even to the era of Ronald Reagan. They are looking further back, before LGBT equality was “threatening” the family, before women had access to contraception or the option to have a safe and legal abortion, before the federal government was promoting socialism in the form of Medicare, before the Supreme Court allowed the federal government to usurp state sovereignty with pesky things like child labor laws.

Marco Rubio, mocking President Obama’s choice of “Forward” as a campaign theme, described the past as a time when wealth and power belonged only to a few. But doesn’t that increasingly describe America in the post-Citizens United era, when wealth and political power are concentrated hand-in-hand? For Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the folks toasting them from the Americans for Prosperity suite, that’s just fine.


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