DNC & RNC 2020: Watching the conventions abroad

This is my fourth US Presidential election spent abroad, and only the 5th one I’ve been old enough to vote in. My first, 2004, was similar to our current situation–unpopular incumbent (GWB), challenged by a candidate whose party wasn’t really enthusiastic about (Kerry). I was in a red state at the time and feeling miserable over the results, and that experience shaped how I think about electoral politics…It’s not fair, it’s not pretty, and no matter who wins on election night, roughly half the country is always going to be upset about the results.

As an American abroad, the conventions are a major part of campaign coverage that I actually watch. I don’t get to see the ads from either side, for local or national offices. I get clips and highlights from late night hosts’ coverage, but in terms of hearing directly from the 2 campaigns, the conventions are my main first-hand experience.

I always love watching the Democratic National Conventions. I love the fanfare, and seeing how the party wants to position itself, what we’re choosing to highlight this time. I even like the procedure—the nomination that acknowledged Bernie Sanders’ movement, the roll call that gives each state and territory its moment in the spotlight (especially when they use it for weird calamari flexes…).

My favourite part is the speeches. In 2004, I cried over Obama’s speech and when I told my best friend we laughed—it was proof that I cry too easily. It was a beautiful speech, and one that launched a young Barack Obama onto the national stage.

This time, the tears were warranted. Like so many Americans, I’ve struggled to make sense of the Trump years. It’s been hard to watch headlines get crazier and crazier—another unhinged rant on Twitter, another civil rights violation, another scandal, another actual crime he gets away with…It’s exhausting. And that’s just watching it from afar! We’re making our own mess with Brexit and mishandling Covid-19 over here, to be fair, but it still seems excessive in the States.

And so to the RNC…it was certainly historic, in the sense that we’ve never had a party run without a new platform before, and we’ve never seen so much of the candidate—every night of the convention! The sheer volume of Trump family members in the lineup demonstrated just how Trump-centric the party has become. Instead of a rainbow coalition approach, with room for everyone under the circus tent, this was a one-man show.

I watched clips of the crazy highlights—Don Jr’s glassy-eyed fear-mongering and his girlfriend’s shouty rant (I think it was Colbert who called it her “Trump family audition tape”!), but I only watched two speeches in full. Melania is such a mystery to me, and her speech revealed nothing new. I get the impression that she really doesn’t want to be there. Many commentators picked up on her line about the American people deserving honesty from their president—the audacity of her speechwriters! Even nearly 4 years on, when crazy things like that happen, I expect Ashton Kutcher to come out on stage and reveal that we fell for it. It genuinely feels like we’re being punked.

These conventions this year…What can I even say to sum them up? This election is like 2004 on steroids. There are multiple genuine threats to the American people and the world, and the DNC highlighted them and set out plans to address them, while the RNC ignored them and in some cases, flat out lied about them and claimed they weren’t happening. The GOP sees these threats as hoaxes, all part of a conspiracy, whether it’s QAnon or China or “the globalists” or whatever next thing (apparently “lizard people” are a theory that some people actually believe). When non-voters say they don’t bother because “there’s no difference between the parties”–well, this year, there’s a massive difference. I don’t know how ANY voters could possibly be undecided, or not feel inclined to vote. Nobody can sit this one out.

I’ll close with my favorite quote about undecided voters (from 2008, but more relevant than ever) from the brilliant David Sedaris:

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

David Sedaris, Undecided, The New Yorker, 20 October 2008

Joe Biden is an old-fashioned roast chicken with peas, carrots and mashed potatoes. Not very exciting, and maybe you don’t like peas, or maybe you’re even a vegetarian who’s unhappy with both options, but at the end of the day, you know what you’re going to get with Joe, and it’s demonstrably better than the alternative.

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