Like Mickey Mantle calling his shot, the GOP announced last week it had no platform to present at 2020’s Republican National Convention beyond whatever President Trump’s second-term agenda would be.
By that rubric, the RNC’s opening day was a grand slam.
The event was heavily steeped in projection, conflicting messages, and denial of reality: unable to stay on any topic—even the rare good point!—for very long before utterly negating it. In that way, it was a perfect encapsulation of the president the event is sweatily propping up.
Beyond last week’s platform announcement, the party and Trump himself have been shaping expectations for the event for a while. First, the president prepared the world for a contrast with the Democrats, in which only his convention would take place live in a human-filled arena, alternately in Charlotte and Jacksonville. However, after he filled an arena back in June, against all medical advice, and it proved to be a disaster both on a PR and a health hazard level, Trump conceded that his convention would also be a virtual one.
RNC chair Ronna McDaniel further set expectations with an op-ed in USA Today following the Democrats’ generally well-reviewed turn last week, vowing an alternative to all the “doom and gloom” and hand-holding with Hollywood.
“What stood out most isn’t what Democrats said at their convention,” McDaniel wrote, “but what they didn’t say.”
She has a point. The Democratic National Convention did spend more time on the problems of the present than solutions for the future. However, coming from the GOP, this charge is laughable. The RNC has thus far been a soaring symphony of things left unsaid—mainly that under this president’s watch, the coronavirus has killed 176,000 Americans, and taken jobs and health insurance from many millions more.
The projection and denial began early in the day with Trump’s surprise, hour-long afternoon speech.
He started off playing fascism-footsie with the crowd, goading them to chant “12 more years” after they apparently underbid with the usual four. From there, he dove immediately into the trademark shambolic ranting that typifies his frequent phone calls to Fox & Friends. It was a combination of stream-of-conscious complaining and bragging, mixed with the five or so topics he planned in advance to hit hardest. The difference is palpable when he briefly lands on criminal justice reform and “opportunity zones,” but you can see how pained he is having to tick off those boxes before moving on to something less boring.
He jumps from the fictitious, impossible-to-define scandal alternately called Obamagate and Spygate, to dire warnings of rampant voter fraud by mail, to the wildly insulting, predictive conspiracy theory that Democratic governors will keep COVID precautions in place until just after the election, because “they want to make our numbers look as bad as possible.” It’s only the latest instance in which Trump accuses people of making the unethical maneuvers he might make himself, were he in their position. (Also, he has been in their position; deciding whether to keep cities closed, and making such decisions based on political optics.)
While Trump accuses the Democrats of pretending coronavirus is worse than it is, his speech did the exact opposite: playing down its impact. Hours after he finished his speech, inexplicably cued to “YMCA” by the Village People, the pretending continued with the actual convention, where speaker after speaker touted Trump’s historic, messianic response to the novel coronavirus, without ever acknowledging that the reason they are screaming at a podium on an empty, flag-flanked stage, instead of a packed arena, is because we are still in the thick of a deadly pandemic, whose carnage the president at least partly owns.
The mix of live speeches, B-roll of a thumbs-up Trump, and pretaped videos, was just as stultifying in its repetition as any night of the DNC, but half an hour longer—not counting the bonus hour earlier in the day of Trump’s carnival-barking.
The staunchly anti-Hollywood affair began with a video narrated by Jon Voight, featuring a Getty Images-procured tapestry of people whom the RNC imagines to be hard-working, Trump-supporting Americans.
Right away, we are off like a rocket into a galaxy of pure delusion.
Beyond the contradiction of the father in a double-Oscar family vouching for the TV game-show president to kick off an event honoring the Forgotten Man, Voight’s narration describes Trump as “a man who loves America, and all Americans.” It’s as though Trump didn’t spend the last three and a half years governing exclusively for those in red states, and demonizing Democrats and the media at every turn, despite their also being Americans. Not to mention that what many of Trump’s fans love about him most is how much he hates who they also hate.
There is no level of cognitive dissonance roomy enough to accommodate both Voight’s view of Trump and reality.
Similarly, the specter of God hung over the whole affair—from Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s opening prayer to small-business owner Tanya Weinreis thanking the Lord that her prayers were answered with a PPE loan, to South Carolina senator Tim Scott blessing God a number of times in his closing speech—even though Trump’s evangelical friend Jerry Falwell Jr. became an object of ridicule over his decidedly un-Christ-like sex scandal earlier that very day. How fitting for the party whose leader claims to be “the Chosen One” yet can’t name a favorite Bible verse, and recently joked about a deceased political opponent going to hell, and had an affair with an adult film star while his wife was pregnant. In order to reconcile those glaring contradictions, evangelicals must be working in ways as mysterious as God does.
As for McDaniel’s promise that the RNC would have a more optimistic message than the DNC’s “doom and gloom,” well, it went about as well as those other promises. Right away, campus crusader Charlie Kirk called Trump “the bodyguard of Western Civilization,” who is up against a “rotten cartel of insiders,” while “the American way of life is being dismantled by… deceitful, bitter, vengeful activists who have never built anything in their lives.” Mini-Trumps Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan sprayed similarly venomous invective in their turns, dismissing Democrats as “woketopians” who actively want to coddle MS-13, the Right’s gangland bogeyman counterpart when Antifa just won’t do.
But the positivity fest wasn’t merely populated by politicians and pundits. Plenty of “real people” also popped up at the podium. Nurse Amy Ford vowed, “Donald Trump’s quick action and leadership saved thousands of lives during COVID-19,” despite Trump regularly putting that figure at “millions.” Bone cancer survivor Natalie Harp donned third-degree “Can you believe these guys?” face as she lied about Democrats trying to prevent Trump from personally saving her life. A Parkland dad also stopped by to excoriate the media for not praising the president’s “safety recommendations,” despite no meaningful or even superficial changes coming from them, and despite Trump immediately walking back his tepid flirtation with gun control after a meeting with the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre.
Some other guests blurred the lines between “real people” and “living memes.” (Including Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who each became memes during the convention for different reasons.) How to classify the wealthy St. Louis couple who shot to instant fame in July after pulling guns on BLM protesters near their house? Either way, they stopped by the event briefly, calling recent primary winner Cori Bush a “Marxist liberal activist” for marching with Black Lives Matter protesters in their gated community. It was but one of many attempts to position the Republican party as the antidote to Black Lives Matter.
Paradoxically, the many nods toward rioting and looting in America throughout the night suggest that the most disagreeable parts of the recent uprising are a preview of life in Bidenland. The only way to quash the racial tensions that came to a boil under this president—even though America is not a racist country, according to former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley—is to ensure he remains president. Twelve more years!
It’s not just the distortions that are muddled, though—it’s the good points too.
Every potential punch the RNC almost lands is rendered a love-tap by something else. Nobody can decide whether Biden is the mad political scientist behind the last half-century of D.C. politics or an ineffectual stooge. The sanitized, New Tone Trump mixing it up with regular people on stage at night (“I love the post office!”) is negated by the ranting demagogue from earlier that afternoon. A video about how everyone else got coronavirus wrong, which includes Nancy Pelosi’s cringey “Come to Chinatown!” moment, somehow elides the fact that Trump called coronavirus a Democrat hoax in extremely late February. There are a handful of legitimate critiques, such as Tim Scott calling out the SALT cap rollback Pelosi slipped into the Heroes Act bill, but these are vastly overpowered by all the theatrics.
The speakers at the RNC act like COVID was a momentary bump in the road, and the only reason we’re past it, which we’re not, is Donald Trump.
They act like the 176,000-and-climbing Americans who have died from it are an acceptable loss.
They act like the rioting this summer happened for no reason, as though Trump hasn’t purposefully stoked racial tensions in America since he started campaigning five years ago—or escalated the recent rioting by deploying military might domestically.
For people who claim to hate Hollywood, they sure do act a lot. And that’s just the kind of contradiction that’s emblematic of the RNC opening day altogether.
It will be fun, though, to watch the folksy Everyman president act like he doesn’t care that the TV ratings for his conventions opening night were lower than the Democrats’.