The third night of the Democratic National Convention was an affirmation of the formidable opposition to a second Trump term. Here was Kamala Harris, a Black and Indian American woman, becoming the vice-presidential nominee with the crack of a gavel. Here was Hillary Clinton, the road not taken made flesh, dressed in suffragette white and warning the country not to blow it again. Here was Elizabeth Warren with a plan. Here were children made electric in their fear of dying in bullet-riddled classrooms. Here was Gabrielle Giffords to underscore their point in blood.
And here was a former president shattering conventional norms to sound a klaxon alarm about the existential threat to democracy posed by the current norms-shattering White House resident. Barack Obama did not tell the nation that Donald Trump’s policies are bad, or that his behavior is shameful. He looked dead into the camera and told the country that the sitting president is an active menace to their freedom. Half a century on the planet, and I’ve never seen the like.
“No single American can fix this country alone,” Obama said from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”
Trump’s ongoing assault on the U.S. Postal Service — democracy’s lifeline in a pandemic election year — served to make last night’s overarching message on voting an emergency siren. That message did not crowd out powerful segments on the damage Trump has done with his fascistic immigration policies, and did not obscure the children who stood to warn of a day when this planet and its damaged climate will shake us off like water off a dog’s back. These various threads, and more, came together in Obama’s speech to form a warning from, and for, the pages of our history.
Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshiped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.
I’ve seen that same spirit rising these past few years. Folks of every age and background who packed city centers and airports and rural roads so that families wouldn’t be separated. So that another classroom wouldn’t get shot up. So that our kids won’t grow up on an uninhabitable planet. Americans of all races joining together to declare, in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state, that Black Lives Matter, no more, but no less, so that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism.
A number of immigration activists hailed the sentiments Obama espoused last night, but wished someone else had given them. “Obama did a lot of things right, but not immigration, he didn’t get that right,” wrote author and immigration activist Julissa Natzely Arce Raya. “I promise you, tonight there is a Estela whose mom was deported by Obama. We must face all the things we don’t like. The uncomfortable truths. This is one of them. If we can face it, admit the harm, then, and only then, can we do better.”
And of course, nothing had changed when the sun came up this morning. Trump is still president, still racist, still ranting, and his minions are still coring out the Postal Service like an apple. More than 173,000 Americans are dead from the still-uncontained COVID-19, and the Republicans in the senate still don’t care to help. California is on fire, again. It is all as shabby and scary as it was yesterday.
Nothing had changed, but there is now a definitive sense that a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. In her acceptance speech, which followed Obama’s remarks, Kamala Harris reinforced the warnings.
Even as Trump proved the validity of those warnings with yet another fact-free tweetstorm, Harris looked hard into the camera and summoned some history of her own. “This week marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment,” she said. “And we celebrate the women who fought for that right. Yet so many of the Black women who helped secure that victory were still prohibited from voting, long after its ratification. But they were undeterred.”
Tonight, Joe Biden will accept the presidential nomination he has sought for the term of his long political life. Over the course of the last three evenings, voice after voice has been raised to proclaim his decency, his capability, his worthiness to assume the office of the presidency. This is, of course, the standard stuff of conventions since time out of mind. Whether Biden and his career record of conservative centrism are equal to the monumental tasks awaiting him should he win is as uncertain as the COVID-marred dawn.
The fear suffusing this convention, however, is a rarer form of element unseen at such affairs in generations. Barack Obama gave it a voice last night, Harris and the others made it a chorus, and in 75 days we will find out if anyone was listening.