U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland Monday night around 11:30 EDT, almost three hours after the freshman Montana congressman was scheduled to speak. The hall was drained. After a long day, delegates began filing out during the remarks of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst an hour earlier. By the time Commander Zinke spoke, most of those who remained wore cowboy hats. They were outnumbered by empty red chairs.
It's too bad Zinke fell victim to his party's poor event management, because he had just taken one of the bravest stands of his political career. Although he kept his commitment to speak, Zinke resigned as a delegate to the convention over the weekend, objecting to a plank in the party's 2016 platform that advocates transfer of federal lands to the states. Speaking to the Billings Gazette, he called the GOP platform "more divisive than uniting."
Pretty much everything about the first day of the convention was divisive, too. It began with a bitter floor fight, when anti-Trump delegates tried to force a roll call vote that would delay the prime-time speakers and embarrass their orange nominee. Convention organizers and the Trump campaign quashed that effort, but the speeches were a mess anyway.
The theme of the evening was "make America safe again," which draws attention to the negativity implicit in Trump's slogan. Just as "make America great again" implies that America kind of sucks now, "make America safe" suggests we are all in danger. The speakers who preceded Zinke did what they could to stoke that fear.
In addition to "Duck Dynasty" personality Willie Robertson and former Fonz cousin Scott Baio, presenters included Patricia Smith, who said she "personally blame[d] Hillary Clinton" for her son's death in Benghazi. Next came a pair of siblings whose brother was killed while working as a Border Patrol agent. They were followed by three different relatives of people who had been killed by illegal immigrants.
After this parade of xenophobic grief, speakers moved into old-fashioned race-baiting. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who is black, blamed Black Lives Matter for the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who called the same movement "inherently racist" the previous week, blamed it for inciting division. His subtle bigotry was a refreshing change from daytime speaker and chair of the convention's Committee on Arrangements Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who told MSNBC earlier in the day that white people "contributed more to civilization" than any other ethnic "subgroup."
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
It was in a tired, sparsely attended version of this climate that Commander Zinke took the stage. He had planned his remarks for a larger audience, as his first pause for applause made painfully clear. After saying he was honored to share the bill with so many veterans, he added, "I also represent the great state of Montana, and the first SEAL in the House of Representatives." Pause. Scattered clapping. Glum, tight-lipped smile. Undaunted, he elaborated on his time as a SEAL, his daughter's career in the Navy and her marriage to a SEAL. Then he moved into his A material.
"Have you ever heard of a place called Gitmo?" he asked. "Let's just say I'm personally acquainted with many of those individuals experiencing those accommodations, and let me tell you, they need to stay there forever."
This is what is called wry understatement. Gitmo is the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where "enemy combatants" in the war on terror have been kept indefinitely and, according to several international organizations, tortured.
For many Americans, Gitmo symbolizes the damage the war on terror has done to this country's soul. Monday night in Cleveland, Zinke made it an occasion for a half-dozen people in an empty hall to shout "woo!" Then he spoke for another five minutes about SEAL Team Six, Benghazi, and the president's and Hillary Clinton's shared blame for ISIS.
It seemed like a missed opportunity, particularly in context of his commendable stand over the weekend. Why is land management sufficient reason for Commander Zinke to buck his party when torture of military prisoners is not? Why would he lend his name and service record to a parade of angry mourners, terror alarmists and dog-whistle racists whose overarching theme was that black and brown people are making America unsafe?
Zinke's military service required unflinching loyalty. His service to the Republican Party may call for something else. He was at his best last weekend, when he put his own sense of what is right ahead of party consensus. Unfortunately, Monday night found him at his worst, struggling to engage what little audience he had in support of an agenda designed to inspire fear. He should rethink his part in that disgraceful show, because he is one of the few members of his party in a position to stop it.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and the return of ethnic nationalism at combatblog.net.