Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the August 18 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
Americans have a choice on November 3: Trumpism or Obamaism.
That’s why Michelle Obama, one of the most popular political figures in the United States, was the keynote speaker at the first night of the virtual Democratic National Convention on Monday. The former first lady has immense sway among female voters and African American women especially, whom Democrats need to beat President Donald Trump. But more importantly, Obama pleaded with Americans to believe that pursuing justice, equality, decency and change through a reason-based political process can still work – even against an opponent who might destroy that system to retain power.
Four years ago, at the 2016 convention, she told Americans, “When they go low, we go high.” That sounds like the idealism of a vanished era – but Obama is doubling down on the creed today. “Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else,” she said.
The Democratic campaign for president this year sounds like an Obama-era restoration, though the party has moved leftward since the 44th President left office. Presumptive nominee Joe Biden is always talking about his buddy “Barack,” and his pick of Kamala Harris as running mate was a bid to reassemble the “Obama coalition” of young, minority and middle class moderates. The politics of the last 12 years have unfolded as a struggle between that group and a rival bloc powered by a white, populist, and rural backlash.
Trump on Monday had reminded Democrats of what they face, retweeting Russian intelligence propaganda, spreading racial demagoguery and warning any election resulting in his defeat will be “rigged.” That evening, Michelle Obama responded: “If we want to keep the possibility of progress alive in our time, if we want to be able to look our children in the eye after this election, we have got to reassert our place in American history.”
We’ll see in 11 weeks if “going high” works better this time.
It was a cross between a charity telethon and a TV awards show.
The strangeness of a convention in the age of Covid-19 was always going to be the biggest takeaway of the first night of the Democratic Party nominating fest. And Trump supporters were always going to blast it as socialism on steroids. But what would an undecided voter think?
They might first of all have struggled to recognize that odd feeling — optimism — after months of socially distanced tragedy. Democratic spin chiefs sought to fuse the unity, idealism and activism fostered during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to suggest a path is possible out of the darkness — with Biden leading, of course.
The convention, a mix of live and pre-recorded video, left no doubt about who was to blame for the pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, either. Trump was lashed for ignoring the threat and botching the response to the virus – and for dividing the nation along the way. The most scathing line of the night came from Kristin Urquiza, whose father, Mark Anthony, believed Trump’s assurance that the pandemic was under control and went to a karaoke bar weeks before the coronavirus killed him. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump,” Urquiza said.
Democrats need a unified party and a young, diverse surge of voters to overwhelm Trump. So Monday was a festival of brown, Black and White faces, with women taking dominant roles. Even the hero of the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, lined up with the party establishment for once, telling supporters to unite behind Biden in a way he never did for his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton. All of Biden’s primary rivals endorsed him in another video. Some Republicans popped up to slam Trump — including onetime conservative firebrand John Kasich, cornily standing at a literal crossroads.
In highly challenging circumstances, Democrats produced a watchable package that may well have helped anyone undecided on Trump to make up their mind — presuming those people actually exist.
Three more nights to go.
‘We may have the worst response of any major country’
“I think it’s pretty fair to say we may have the worst response of any major country,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Institute of Health, during a Center for American Progress webinar earlier on Monday. While Brazil’s response has been poor, he said, the US should not be competing with Brazil for that title. “We didn’t get here overnight. This has really been one mishap after another,” Jha said. “The single factor that really differentiates us from everybody else is denialism that has pervaded our entire approach.”
Postcard from Minsk
As the US frets over the legitimacy and logistics of its November vote, a growing protest movement in Belarus is proving the consequences for leaders when citizens don’t trust the electoral process. Clashes between Belarusian protesters and state security officers have prompted global concern – but activists say this moment also holds enormous hope, CNN’s Fred Pleitgen and Mary Ilyushina report from Minsk:
“Only a week ago, if three people stood on the street together in Minsk and simply clapped their hands, they would probably have been arrested within minutes. Now, Belarus has been transformed by outrage, and hundreds of thousands are gathering for protests. They have already countered a brutal police crackdown with non-violence and it seems they are persevering.
“Immediately after the disputed election, just a few people stood at the side of streets holding their hands up and flowers in the air. Motorists honked in support. That support kept growing: After a few days, demonstrators were able to march to parliament and protest there – security forces did not intervene. On Sunday, around 100,000 people protested in the capital, and now, a general strike is heaping more pressure on the government.
“The protesters want an end to President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-rule. Most want freedom and real elections, and they feel their moment in history is now. They must speak up now, they say, or the moment might fade away.”
“‘We want honest elections, we want an honest count of votes. Nothing else. I don’t even want to say that I am against something. I just want it all to be honest,’ one protester told us.”
‘A moral, environmental and economic disaster’
US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday approved a plan that could clear the way for oil and gas drilling in the 1.5 million acre Coastal Plain area of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, responded on Twitter that the plan would set into motion “a moral, environmental and economic disaster.” “Hard to say what’s worse — destroying the nation’s largest wildlife refuge, or further inflaming the climate crisis with new oil & gas drilling so a few fossil fuel companies can profit at our expense,” Inslee tweeted.