The third night of the Democratic National Convention was a marked improvement on its predecessors in one crucial sense: there were no Republicans present.
The party had spent the first two evenings of its virtual gathering stuffing proceedings to the gills with assorted GOP war criminals, enemies of women’s and worker’s rights, and predatory capitalists. On Wednesday, though, Democrats apparently decided that they weren’t needed.
The evening was also the most well-produced and policy-heavy of the DNC thus far, with slick packages on issues ranging from climate change to gun violence to immigration, and assurances from people like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would actually do good things if they came into power.
The essential playbook, though, remains the same: gesture around, say, “you see this?” and let the horror of the moment do the work. Obama, especially, was as charged as I’ve ever seen him, at times seeming close to tears as he urged people to overcome attempts at voter suppression by whatever means necessary.
There has been so much bone-deep injustice over the past four years that this is a perfectly sound electoral strategy. On Wednesday, we were reminded of the Parkland massacre and the monstrous crime of family separations; of Trump’s assault on the environment and his hatred of women.
Above all, we were reminded of his essential inhumanity. Part of what makes Trump seem so malevolent is that he is not even able to fake straightforward human emotions. He is almost beyond mere amorality; there is simply a frightening blank space where a person should be. Compared to that, someone who shows that they are capable of something as basic as a feeling comes across as a blessing.
Democrats know this. Biden’s “decency” and “empathy” were stressed over and over again on Wednesday, as they have been for the whole of the convention. We kept being promised that he cares. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who cares back in charge?
Well, yes, it would, but here is where the sting in the tail emerges. There is a nasty gap between the rhetoric the Democrats put forward—they are increasingly adept at echoing the talking points of activist movements—and the reality of who Joe Biden actually is.
Much of Wednesday night was dedicated to women—an appropriate theme for an evening in which Kamala Harris was anointed as the vice presidential nominee and clear future leader of the party’s establishment wing—but it was hard not to think about Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill, or the fact that his signature Violence Against Women Act (itself an increasingly controversial piece of legislation) was part of his notorious push for mass incarceration. There was a lengthy, gut-wrenching segment about Trump’s immigration policy, but Biden’s role in an administration that presided over record numbers of deportations—and his spiteful defense of that policy—went unmentioned.
This dissonance is not just found in Biden. It is the dissonance of the Democrats as a whole. If they win in November, we will see whether their rhetoric is real—whether they meant it—or whether they will, once again, revert to type.