Painting the nation: Which vision of America spoke to you?
With both party conventions in the rearview mirror, we are left looking into our own mirrors to figure out which portrait of ourselves we recognize.
First, from a messaging standpoint, it is worth recalling that politicians running for an office they don’t currently hold often rail against the country they want to fix. They point out the flaws in the America we are, and then they often pivot to the America we ought to be, taking out their sunniest colors to paint a picture that inspires hope and optimism. That’s the classic arc of story telling.
It is what Ronald Reagan did when he addressed the Republican National Convention for the last time in 1992, calling upon his party to recognize that Americans were all “equal in the eyes of God” regardless of religion, color or creed, and then going one step further to insist that as Americans “we must be equal in the eyes of each other.”
It’s what Barack Obama did at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he talked about the America he loved: ”Clear-eyed. Big hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
This year broke a lot of political rules.
President Trump seemed to have very few pretty colors in his palette.
If he were running for president for the first time, I would understand his desire to paint America in apocalyptic terms, conjuring fears of mobs of agitators and anarchists attacking cities and suburbs and thugs exporting drugs and crime. I might even understand his criticism of so-called “cancel culture” and his view of rampant immigration with rapists and terrorist gangs infiltrating the border. I might even know what his anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theories mean and the roots of white nationalism that fuels so much rhetoric from his supporters.
But Donald Trump is now president of the United States of America. He won in 2016. This is the country he has built over the past four years. Whatever he thinks of it, it’s his creation. Why does he want to fix a country he broke?
On messaging, I think the Democrats had the upper hand on painting America since they did not delay and bungle the response to the pandemic. Democrats didn’t build a half-baked wall that Mexico didn’t pay for. Democrats did not encourage immigrant children to come here seeking separation from their families. All they had to do was train their cameras on young, hopeful, eager voters looking to be part of a great nation. It was hopeful. You wanted to sing at the end of it.
The Republicans should have had an easier time on a human and economic level, despite the losses from COVID. The stock market had just ended a record-breaking week, and all three major stock indexes posted solid gains. The Dow was up 160 points and had wiped out losses from earlier in 2020. The S&P 500 had risen 0.6 percent to post its fifth straight positive week.
Confirmed COVID cases and deaths were starting to come down. Some colleges were open. I would have guessed we would see lots more Republicans cheering.
But the Republican convention went negative in painting a dismal view of a future America that suggested dark forces were afoot to destabilize our cities and suburbs. It was like watching a promo for a horror movie. No thanks.
Politics needs to be forward-looking and optimistic. Eventually we will get to the other side of the pandemic and the pessimism. The holidays will come. A new year will be ushered in around the world.
So which America will you choose in November: The angry one with scowls and tirades, fear and loathing and clenched fists; or the one with all those smiles and outstretched hands eager to build a multiethnic, multiracial nation beckoning those who yearn to be free?
By nature, we are a hopeful nation. I hope that hope wins.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy.