The past two weeks have been kind of surreal: I watched four nights of the Republican convention and then four nights of the Democratic convention, and somehow I survived. But I must admit I'm still recovering from what I saw and heard. It's not that watching political conventions is something new for me-- I've seen my share of them over the years. But these two conventions were surprisingly compelling (and sometimes concerning). And now, even after both events have concluded, many of us are still trying to sort out what happened.
I've watched enough political conventions to understand that Republican and Democratic conventions showcase two entirely different perspectives on the issues. It just seemed that this year's RNC and DNC showcased two entirely different universes. It's not that one was good and one was bad-- although both had moments of drama, moments of tension, moments of anger, and yes, moments of boredom; and both conventions had speakers who were inspirational, as well as speakers who put the audience to sleep. But what struck me when I watched was that one convention was the polar opposite of the other in terms of its tone, and its vision of America.
At the Republican convention, I saw speakers who were furious, who vehemently blamed Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama) for everything wrong in the world. According to various speakers, there was no terrorism (and certainly no ISIS) before the two of them came along; crime rates were low; people had good jobs; and everyone felt secure. But now, because of them, life in America has become nightmarish. Donald Trump in his keynote speech said that illegal immigrants with criminal records are running rampant, there are riots in the streets, racial tensions are worse than ever, the Second Amendment is about to be eliminated... and only he can make us feel safe again by restoring order to a chaotic America and a dangerous world.
And then there was the Democratic convention. Yes, many Bernie Sanders supporters were also furious, especially after the conveniently leaked emails that showed what many of us knew all along: the establishment of the Democratic Party was not neutral about who should be nominated. Party leaders supported Mrs. Clinton; they did not see Bernie as electable, nor did they see him as someone with any loyalty to the Democratic Party. But the fact remains that Mrs. Clinton did get more votes during the primaries, and while Senator Sanders was a gentleman (and a pragmatist) about the fact that he did not get the nomination, some of his supporters decided it was okay to disrupt the convention. They were incredibly rude, interrupting speakers (including widely-respected civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis) every time Hillary's name was said, and even booing Bernie himself when he asked them to accept Hillary as the nominee and focus their energy on defeating Donald Trump.
But after that first night, after speeches from both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, there seemed to be a shift. Some Bernie supporters remained furious throughout the convention, but they seemed to be a minority of the attendees. Nearly everyone else was caught up in the historic nature of nominating the first woman presidential candidate of a major party. Over the next several nights, there were amazing speeches by Michelle Obama (hers was so uplifting that even Donald Trump and his endless tweets could find no fault with it); Barack Obama and Joe Biden were also effective in making their case for why Mrs. Clinton was the right choice. And when Hillary gave her acceptance speech, she did not talk about a dystopian and hopeless America: she talked with pride about the goodness of America, about how "we," the American people, can work together to improve our democracy, and how great America would continue to be. She even quoted Ronald Reagan, much to the appreciation of some of the Republicans who were watching. (Some Republican critics noted that she wasn't wearing a flag pin, as if somehow that was a sin; but the entire convention hall was filled with flags both small and large, and with red-white-and-blue balloons.) If the stereotype of Democrats is that they do not embrace patriotic symbols, they certainly embraced them enthusiastically throughout the convention.
There were two deeply emotional moments for me-- at the Republican convention, one of the mothers who lost her son during the attack on Benghazi angrily denounced Hillary and said she held Mrs. Clinton personally to blame. And at the Democratic convention, a Muslim-American man whose soldier son had died fighting in Iraq lashed out at Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim ban and for questioning the loyalty of American Muslims. The man's wife stood next to him but did not speak-- not because (as Trump later suggested-- erroneously) Muslim women aren't allowed to speak in public, but because she is still unable to speak about her son without crying.
At the Republican convention, even a preacher giving the benediction felt the need to be partisan, saying Mrs. Clinton and Democrats were "the enemy," and calling upon God to bring about their defeat. One speaker repeated the myth, widely believed by many Republicans, that President Obama is a secret Muslim; another suggested Hillary Clinton is a servant of Lucifer. But in fairness, some of the Democratic speakers had equally harsh assessments of Donald Trump and of what he has done to the Republican party (and what damage he could do to America if elected).
The Democrats had more appearances by celebrities, and a number of big-name Democrats (along with a few Republicans) gave testimonials about why they thought Hillary would make a fine commander-in-chief. Many women, especially those who had waited for so many years to see a women get the nomination (including one who was 102 years old), beamed with pride when Mrs. Clinton took the stage. Yes, there were those who didn't agree with her on every issue, but seeing her accept the nomination was very moving for a lot of the delegates in the hall. The Republicans had few big names-- in fact, even major members of their own party stayed away. But the lack of star power wasn't a problem, nor did it seem to upset the attendees-- for them, Donald Trump was the biggest star of all, and they had a wonderful time being there to show their support for him.
And now, the campaign for president begins in earnest. The next 100 days will show us which vision of America will prevail, and which of these two very polarizing candidates-- who have records of accomplishment as well as record low approval ratings-- will persuade the majority of Americans. Mr. Trump said the Democratic convention was too optimistic and failed to address the real issues; Mrs. Clinton said the Republicans offered only fear, bigotry, and a dangerous claim that we need an autocratic leader to solve our problems. Mr. Trump said Mrs. Clinton is too corrupt to lead. Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Trump is too thin-skinned, and incapable of providing steady and calm leadership during a crisis. I'm not looking forward to 100 more days of name-calling, but as I sit here writing this, I sincerely wonder how the voters are feeling now that they have seen two such different visions of what America needs...