Long camera shots that tracked Donald Trump and Melania through empty halls and corridors as they proceeded to and from the Melania Trump Renovated Rose Garden conveyed the impression of nothing so much as a vacuous parvenu with pretensions to royalty or maybe some pipsqueak generalissimo and his consort. The transformation of the White House into a stage set and the office of the presidency a prop for a political campaign was surprising only insofar as it was so over the top. How could anyone question Trump's patriotism and devotion to country with so many flags behind him as he stood at the podium to accept his party's nomination for the presidency?
The spectacle was worthy of the president's peers Putin and Kim Jong Un, and for a time it appeared that he had turned to Fidel Castro as a model for how long a speech should run. Historian Michael Beschloss, a regular on the PBS NewsHour who chooses his words carefully, minced none here when he noted that the mixing of symbols of state with domestic politics is a mark of an authoritarian society (per my notes from NewsHour coverage; I am unable to locate the exact quote).
The curtain mercifully fell last night to catcalls and hisses from the left, center, and Never Trump conservatives, subdued applause from quarters where cutting taxes, deregulation, and a judiciary dominated by hard-core libertarians are the cure for whatever ails the body politic and thus an acceptable trade-off for the trampling of institutions and norms, and wild whoops from a base for whom it is all about owning the libs, denouncing the media, and guns.
I tuned in to convention coverage from some perverse conviction that doing so is an obligation of citizenship, accompanied by, I confess, a morbid compulsion to get a flavor of the dingbattery I anticipated would be on display. I watched as much as was bearable, turning the sound off and my attention to a book when I could stomach no more. As with last week's Democratic convention, I have no profound analysis or insight to offer. What follows are the impressions of someone who makes a good faith effort to be well informed, tries to think critically and as well as he is able, and believes perhaps naïvely that our words and acts might mean something in this crazy world.
Political partisans routinely go in for exaggeration and hyperbole, portraying themselves in the best possible light and their adversaries in the worst. This is nothing new and far from unique to the American scene. But even in the arena of raw partisan politics some kernel of credibility has to underlie the rhetoric if it is to be taken seriously by any but the truest of believers or dimmest of wits. Here too the only surprise, if anyone was indeed surprised, is just how over the top it all was. The polemics went well beyond spicing up campaign boilerplate with jibes clever, witty, or ham-fisted as the case may be and blithe misrepresentation of an opponent's record and platform that might send an incredulous viewer scurrying for the fact-checking resource of choice.
Not even the flimsiest patina of truthiness, must less truth itself, was anywhere to be found in creative claims about positions held by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party on taxation, health care for immigrants, health care generally, school choice, climate, taxation, abortion, police and criminal justice reform, and violence in the streets, fabrications about spying on Trump's 2016 campaign by the Obama/Biden administration, assertions of Trump's triumphant response to the pandemic and deliverance of peace in the Middle East, and much else.
There was an exception, when Trump said, "This is the most important election in the history of our country. There has never been such a difference between two parties or two individuals, in ideology, philosophy or vision than there is right now."
The McCloskeys, those gun-toting personal injury lawyers from St. Louis, kicked off night one with gibberish about Marxist, liberal revolutionaries and radical, socialist, Marxist Democrats who will unleash rapists and drug fiends on the suburbs. I can't surpass this description of the zany couple courtesy of Tim Miller, filling in for JVL on The Bulwark's Triad newsletter: "a pair of ambulance chasers who waved their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters from the grassy knoll outside their enormous Italian palazzo."
It gets better when we learn a little about this intrepid duo:
The McCloskeys, who have spent decades suing their neighbors and family members to protect their property…have asserted "squatter’s rights" on a patch of shared land in their subdivision, sued a dog breeder who sold them a German shepherd, and destroyed beehives that were part of the education curriculum at a synagogue next door to their property, threatening legal action if the congregation didn’t clean up the mess, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported. "They are bullies," the rabbi Susan Talve [a McCloskey neighbor] told The Forward yesterday. "It’s upsetting we make heroes out of people who hate." (Emma Green, The McCloskeys’ Unsubtle Message to White America, The Atlantic, August 25, 2020)
Along with the main message that Democrats are socialists and Marxists who want to burn the flag and destroy the suburbs, I learned that Kimberly Guilfoyle, Junior Trump's girlfriend, is the former Mrs. Gavin Newsom. She was first lady of San Francisco for two years when California's current governor served as mayor. The marriage alone, however brief, should cast sufficient doubt on Newsom's judgment to disqualify him from ambition for any higher office.
Guilfoyle's animated oration to an empty room came off like she's been taking elocution cues from Jim Jordan, the honorable congressman from Ohio, who saw no evil, heard no evil, spoke no evil when a university doctor sexually abused wrestlers he coached at the Ohio State University. (Avery Yang, Ex–Ohio State Wrestler Says Rep. Jim Jordan Asked Him to Deny Abuse Allegations, Sports Illustrated, February 12, 2020). For his part Jordan was almost subdued by his standards as he delivered a litany of the usual talking points of questionable veracity. Maybe he took my advice and cut back on the steroids (sarcasm alert).
What I have left out? "The radical left's god is government power" (Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of Billy Graham). Media and tech companies are keeping Americans "mentally enslaved" by "promotion of biased and fabricated views"; our choices of who we vote for are manipulated and invisibly coerced by media and tech giants (Tiffany Trump, whose father by contrast is perfect and without blemish).
The rest of the Trump clan were forgettable. Melania was credited for acknowledging the pandemic and expressing condolences to those who have lost loved ones, a small act of decency noticeably lacking from the rest of the convention, and speaking about the opiod crisis and social media bullying. Her speech was less histrionic than Junior's and not as riddled with inaccuracies, to put it tactfully, as those of her stepsons; nonetheless she dutifully got in her quota of disinformation in praise of her husband and defamation of his adversaries. Junior had already followed up Guilfoyle's appearance with more of the same. Theirs seems to be a match made among the carcasses of slaughtered big-game trophy animals. I cannot speak to Ivanka's contribution because she spoke during one of the periods when I had to step away for sanity maintenance and I have not yet looked closely at accounts of her no doubt sterling introduction of her father.
The effort to claw a few votes away from Biden by shining a spotlight on women and black supporters throughout the week made sense. How effective it will be or what difference it might make at the ballot box or the electoral college remains to be seen.
Among the more bizarre themes was the clarion call to bring back sports. America needs sports. And sports devoid of protest. Don't get them wrong. Republicans support peaceful protest. All for it. It is rioting, looting, and protest that defiles the playing field and the basketball court that they stand patriotically against.
PBS NewsHour regulars Mark Shields and David Brooks summed up at the end with Shields rating Trump's speech "decaf Trump" while Brooks simply said that it was the worst acceptance speech he has ever heard. I have no quarrel with either assessment.
I have rattled on far more than intended and not come close to doing justice to the week's desecration of the Constitution and the ideals on which the country was founded, nor the rampant dingbattery whose excess defied rational expectation, from which I am left the dismal conclusion that rationality like truth is a quaint relic from another age.
Recently a long-time friend echoed my thoughts when he asked rhetorically, how did it come to this? It is not as if we view the country through rose-tinted glasses. We are pretty cynical, some might say too cynical, and even we are dumbstruck by it.
Keep the faith.
Related reading, wrap-ups, and fact checks
Thomas Beaumont, AP FACT CHECK: Biden’s stance on suburbs twisted at RNC, August 25, 2020
Josh Boak, Hope Yen, and Calvin Woodward, AP FACT CHECK: GOP taps distortions to heap praise on Trump, August 25, 2020
Josh Boak, Hope Yen and Calvin Woodward, AP FACT CHECK: Pence presses a distorted case on economy, August 27, 2020
Ryan Lizza, Trump's blueprint for victory, Politico, August 28, 2020
Politico Staff, The nation’s cartoonists on the week in politics, August 28, 2020
PolitiFact Staff, Fact-checking Donald Trump's 2020 RNC speech, August 27, 2020
Steven Shepard, Trump's garden party: The most notable and quotable moments from the GOP convention finale, Politico, August 28, 2020
Charlie Sykes, A Convention Reality Check, The Bulwark, August 26, 2020
Hope Yen, Amanda Seitz, and Calvin Woodward, AP FACT CHECK: Trump, GOP distort on health care, vote fraud, August 24, 2020