Grand Old Party conventions are the Olympics of symbol management. There may be heroic achievements anywhere and any time during the intervening years, a Nike ad here, a press conference there . . . but every four years, the great players all bunker down inside a fortress in some major city and endeavor to show everyone how the game is played, at a level and for a duration as numbing as it is awesome. For RNC 2004, the symbol under heaviest management is the Big Apple itself, a rather famous city that managed to while away modernity without ever hosting said games—largely because it’s the least Republican-friendly municipality east of Berkeley. Beyond the obvious, what exactly does it mean that the pro-death-anti-taxes party has opted to put on its most elaborate show in hostile territory?
Let’s not pass over the obvious so swiftly; it’s worth mentioning that the incumbent is returning, like a trauma victim, to the scene of the horror that created him. As a political actor rather than a petty historical curiosity, Dub was conceived in Tribeca three Septembers ago and born the next day. As those events are all that give him substance, they’re all he and his party have to run on. It’s the key to the entire symbolic economy of the convention: Bush good, terrorists bad. Or, more precisely, Bush good because terrorists bad. Manhattan gives that claim historical resonance; here the terrorists were worst. The current president may be largely despised in the borough, but he is incomparably powerful; power is what is needed in a world of bad people; and New York still stinks of evildoers. Good people—Bush’s people, Republicans—gather their troops and their firepower and go in where they’re not wanted, because this is what needs to be done.
This is why the security plans for the convention must be as they are. It’s not the terror threat, and it certainly isn’t the protesters; symbol management demands this particular form. We come to your town, we lock it down, we conduct votes that have been pre-decided far, far away. Not only does the Republican occupation of the city—complete with bristling green zone and unhappy natives chafing under an unwanted police state—simulate with eerie accuracy the occupation of Baghdad, it justifies it. An analogy made visible, the occupiers swagger about with cocksure dudgeon: They’re fighting terrorists, remember? The events of 9-11 are a check the administration can’t stop cashing; the symbolic capital of us vs. terrorists bought us the entire country of Iraq.
A windfall is the suggestion once again that the 9-11 terrorists and Hussein’s regime have some relationship. They hold the same place in the symbolic order; mustn’t they be connected somehow? All that legitimates the famed imperative society must be defended collapses into a single position (you can now tell society is being defended every time someone looks directly into the camera and says, “Bring it on!”), and the defense must be prosecuted unceasingly. Knowing what he knows today, Bush 43 would still have cried havoc and let slip the war of dogs because it needed to be done. As a politician whose perceived virtue depends on nothing beyond the constant evocation of vile others, Bush is hardly unprecedented. He is reminiscent, for example, of Jean-Marie Le Pen after the South Beach diet.
It’s a politics that’s meaningless without visible enemies, a defense that must signify at every turn in order to make its candidate electable, and thus can’t afford to wait for some offense. New York City, where the Republicans are least wanted, thus is the only reasonable choice. The final turn of the symbolic key forwards the protester = terrorist rhetoric (and not solely rhetoric, as a cursory reading of the Patriot Act shows). By going to the site where the vague category “bad people” points irrevocably toward anti-American bombers, anyone behaving badly submits to that indexical damnation. Thus the Republicans have beaten the most fearsome anarchists to the punch in bringing the war home; even the local-est local with a homely ELEPHANT GO HOME sign is cast as a mad zealot, a barbarian at the gates of her own city. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the green zone, the imperial pageant plays out as the script demands, wherein the Bush army does its one party trick: busily engaging in defense once more, a defense that manufactures its enemies in order to become visible, a defense that necessarily takes the appearance of entirely real occupation and purely symbolic democracy.