(RNS) What a revealing end to a disturbing political convention.
An actor who built a career on pretending to be a tough guy talked to an empty chair, pretending it was President Obama, on a stage where nominees and their endorsers had told one lie after another, blaming others for problems they themselves had caused and pretending to care about ordinary Americans.
So went the demise of truth at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Now it's the Democratic Party's turn in Charlotte, N.C. Will they show any greater respect for honesty?
Politicians lie. We know that. In their minds, the quest for power justifies everything from bromides to bribery, from phony patriotism to suppression of rights. The weak pretend to be strong, the craven pretend to care, serial adulterers pretend to be family-first, money-grubbers pretend to be virtuous.
Usually, the American public is wary in responding to this chicanery. We've all seen the Veg-O-Matic huckster work a crowd. "Voter beware" and "buyer beware" go hand in hand.
This year's GOP convention, however, revealed a mass madness that went beyond having fun.
Delegates shouted as one for destruction -- not only destruction of their opponents, who are seen as evil, but destruction of a national consensus on caring for others; destruction of the very safety net that they -- even the mega-wealthy among them -- depend on; destruction of the frayed but durable civility that enables a diverse nation to function.
Delegates descended into nihilism -- a rejection of social values and institutions that built our nation: They rejected social conventions, such as respect for others and self-determination. They rejected the very religious pluralism that America was founded to allow; indeed, their calls for cruelty and exclusion violated their own Christian gospel.
They rejected morality -- other than get-mine. They rejected truth -- as if reality were an inconvenience. They rejected hope and meaning. I'm sure they didn't see it that way. But when you shout down truth and allow rage to cloud your vision, that's what you are doing. You are saying nothing is real, nothing matters.
I understand that some white Americans cannot abide having a nonwhite president. I understand that some men are frustrated by the emergence of women. I understand that better days seemed to end long ago and many feel helpless to find a new and acceptable normal.
Nihilism, however, takes it further, and is thoroughly nonpartisan about it. Nihilism destroys everything, even the dreams one is pursuing, even oneself. In nihilism, people lose touch with their self-interest, not to mention their sense of the common good. In nihilism, people trash the very institutions that once gave them hope, not because they have found a better avenue to hope, but because hope itself has vanished.
What, for example, is the point of pouring money into public education if education doesn't lead anywhere? What's the point of protecting liberties if free citizens cast ballots and make decisions that I don't like?
Predators and demagogues lead the cheers for nihilism, because they expect to benefit from it. A report of strategist Karl Rove telling 70 mega-wealthy donors that victory is almost theirs was as chilling an account as Clint Eastwood's delusional dialogue with an empty chair.
Nihilism, however, won't stop once the RNC did. It will bring down everything.
Is it this bad? Just ask yourself what it means when "Dirty Harry" talks to a chair and thousands of angry delegates surge forward to salute him.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)