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Historian Rick Perlstein on the RNC & Trump’s Dangerous Propaganda Driving People to Violence

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President Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination on Thursday before a crowd of about 1,500 on the South Lawn of the White House. In defiance of social distancing guidelines, attendees sat shoulder to shoulder, with few people wearing masks. Trump spoke as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus neared 180,000 — by far the highest total in the world — and repeatedly defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Trump warned of chaos and violence if Joe Biden becomes president, but made no reference to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or the killing of two protesters in Kenosha by a 17-year-old Trump supporter. We speak with historian Rick Perlstein, who says Trump paints a “picture of the world that bears no resemblance to reality” and that he has driven people to act violently.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’re Breaking with Convention. I’m Amy Goodman. President Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination Thursday night before a crowd of about 1,500 people on the South Lawn of the White House. In defiance of social distancing rules, attendees sat shoulder to shoulder. Few wore masks. Trump spoke as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus neared 180,000 — by far the highest total in the world. About the same number of people sat in front of him as die every day in the United States of coronavirus. During his speech, Trump repeatedly defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States has among the lowest case fatality rates of any major country anywhere in the world. The European Union’s case fatality rate is nearly three times higher than ours, but you don’t hear that. They don’t write about that. They don’t want to write about that. They don’t want you to know those things.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the U.S. has the highest total death toll in the world. With a little over 4% of the world’s population, the U.S. has about 25% of the world’s coronavirus deaths. One hundred twenty nations have a lower case fatality rate than the United States. CNN reports this was one of the more than 20 false or misleading statements in Trump’s acceptance speech. Earlier in the day, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris delivered a prebuttal to Trump’s speech and attacked his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Donald has failed at the most basic and important job of a president of the United States. He failed to protect the American people, plain and simple. Trump showed what we in the legal profession would call a reckless disregard for the well-being of the American people. A reckless disregard.

AMY GOODMAN: During his acceptance speech, President Trump made no reference to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or the killing of the two protesters in Kenosha by a 17-year-old white militia Trump supporter.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When there is police misconduct, the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable. And it will. But when we can never have a situation where things are going on, as they are today, we must never allow mob rule. We can never allow mob rule. In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities all, like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago and New York and many others. Democrat-run. There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America.

AMY GOODMAN: During her prebuttal, Kamala Harris directly addressed the police shooting of Jacob Blake and other incidents of police violence.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: As Vice President Biden put it, the shots fired at Mr. Blake pierced the soul of our nation. It’s sickening to watch. It’s all too familiar. … People are rightfully angry and exhausted. And after the murders of Breonna and George and Ahmaud and so many others, it’s no wonder people are taking to the streets. And I support them. We must always defend peaceful protest and peaceful protesters. We should not confuse them with those looting and committing acts of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: During Trump’s acceptance speech, he mentioned Joe Biden’s name, oh, about 41 times. He attacked him repeatedly, claiming he was a “Trojan horse for socialism” and a threat to the American dream.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism. If Joe Biden doesn’t have the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie Sanders and his fellow radicals — and there are many — there are many, many — we see them all the time — it’s incredible, actually — then how is he ever going to stand up for you? He’s not. … Make no mistake: If you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America. They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America. My administration will always stand with the men and women of law enforcement.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Trump’s acceptance speech and the 2020 race, we’re joined by historian Rick Perlstein. Over the last 20 years, Perlstein has written a four-volume series on the rise of the modern conservative movement, the final volume just published. It’s titled Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Rick Perlstein. Can you talk about the tropes, the language that President Trump used last night? But go beyond his speech last night and talk about what you see happening to the Republican Party right now. Would you say last night was just a celebration of white supremacy?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah, I think that that’s a very hard conclusion to avoid. Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, used to say it’s easier to get the public to believe a big lie than a small one. And what he meant was, if you create such an all-encompassing, completely dominating picture of the world that bears no resemblance to reality, people might think that it’s inconceivable that that could be false, right? And that’s exactly what we’ve seen this week in the Republican convention.

And the idea that this is happening while basically a young man who amounts to a stochastic terrorist, that’s basically a person committing political acts of violence believing to be inspired by the acts and wishes of a leader, has happened, is something that you cannot separate from what we saw on our screens. This young man is an impassioned Trump supporter, an impassioned police supporter. He goes to Trump rallies. He goes online and presents videos, believing himself to be an armed vigilante protecting the nation against these dark and frightening hordes. He comes to Kenosha. And every terrorist believes or claims to believe that they’re protecting something, they’re protecting order.

This young gentleman goes around with the support of the police, who hand him water from their riot tanks. And he shoots. He’s fleeing. People are trying to disarm him. And his first instinct is to shoot another person in the head, acting basically in line with not the things that a white supremacist Nazi writer of pamphlets says, but the things that the president of the United States does. And the picture that we’re looking at, of course, bears careful and thoughtful resemblance to the world that the Republican Party made over the last 40 years. But to understand it, we need to go back to the history of strongmen, you know, going back to a Mussolini, going back to a Hitler.

AMY GOODMAN: Johns Hopkins University professor Narges Bajoghli wrote on Twitter last night, “Having studied production of propaganda in history/present for yrs—pouring over endless hours dissecting how it works/lkg for when it works well, the RNC convention past 3 days has been some of best produced+most effective propaganda I’ve seen,” she said. Rick Perlstein?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah. I think that it’s effective in the sense that it’s going to really motivate people who are within this kind of phony worldview, the one in which the coronavirus is referred to in the past tense and America’s economy is the most awesome dynamo the world has ever seen. But, of course, in order to win, he needs to reach beyond that and win the majority of electoral votes. But by the same token, I’ve made an absolute commitment not to talk about the election of Donald Trump and his attempt to retain power only by talking about voters and electoral votes, because he’s appealing so adamantly to the kind of people who will take arms, take up arms in the streets, if he loses.

One of the things we need to understand when it comes to the history of authoritarian strongmen is they are so lawless and their janissaries and enablers are so lawless that they know that if they lose, they may well be called to account for their breaking of the laws. And that makes it an absolute desperate imperative that they not lose. And that’s when you see the most frightening developments — you know, the idea that you cannot allow elections to stand. That’s what we saw in Chile in 1970. They lost an election, and that’s when they bombed the presidential palace, right? That’s in 1973 when they bombed the presidential palace, but that’s when the generals seized power by force of arms, because they knew that were they to lose, they would be held responsible for the crimes that they had committed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Rick, I wanted go back to the Democratic National Convention last week centering on the voices of anti-Trump Republicans but sidelining progressive Democrats, I mean, like AOC, for example — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, she spoke for 60 seconds. She took 90 seconds.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But she actually wasn’t invited by the DNC. She was invited by Bernie Sanders to nominate him.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah. I want to give it a mixed review. It’s absolutely true that they let the former governor of Ohio, John Kasich, a Republican and someone who did things like sign laws to allow guns in bars and was a very adamant pro-life activist — and they let him bait the left wing of the party, which was an absolute absurdity.

But at the same time, they really kind of went all in on a lot of this, on a lot of those nights, for Black Lives Matter. And they had an unbelievably galvanizing segment about the imperative to let DREAMers stay in the United States. And they had a great segment about feminism. Right? So it was really this attempt to kind of create this big tent.

But at the same time, does the highlighting of these Republicans cause such a contradiction that the American people say to themselves, “Well, what does this party really believe?” And it’s absolutely scandalous that the younger generation of Democrats, who are, after all, organizing quite effectively to push aside very long-term incumbent congressmen, were slighted.

AMY GOODMAN: Rich Perlstein, in this last minute we have, and we’ll have you back to talk more about Reaganland, but take us back. You have been chronicling the rise of the conservative and Republican Party for decades now, wrote four books on it.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Take us to Reaganland and the similarities you see — Reagan, Trump, and how Trump has taken it further.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right, yeah. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to express these very subtle similarities and differences. And one thing I will say right now is that Ronald Reagan would definitely say, “Two plus two equals five.” Right? There’s no question about it. But when he would say things like that, it tended to be the off-the-cuff stuff, not the stuff that his speechwriters had written, right? Whereas when Donald Trump takes a podium and he’s reading a speech, that’s when he lies the most adamantly.

And it shows that the kind of lying, deception, propaganda, authoritarianism is qualitatively more systematic than under Ronald Reagan, but at the same time that it would not have been possible without Ronald Reagan and the movement around him kind of priming the Republican electorate and Republican elected officials for this kind of lawlessness and viciousness.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, of course, say that Reagan was one of the most dangerous presidents in U.S. history.

RICK PERLSTEIN: There’s no question, right? I mean, whether a guy cuts 80% out of the public housing budget in eight years, as Ronald Reagan did, with a smile or a scowl, the effect is the same, right? And one of the most dangerous things that Ronald Reagan did as president was something we saw all over in this Republican convention, which is that idea that people who criticize America are not quite Americans. Right? That is the Reagan legacy, not only to America, but to the United States. And that’s something that is completely unquestioned in the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rick Perlstein, we want to thank you so much for being with us, author of a four-volume series on the rise of the modern conservative movement, the final book just published, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980. When we come back, we go to the Gulf Coast. Stay with us.

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