After New Jersey Governor Chris Christie turned the Republican National Convention into a show trial—where delegates chanted “lock her up” and pronounced Hillary Clinton “guilty” of imagined crimes—CNN’s Tuesday evening panel was studious about distinguishing Christie from the mob he was leading. Christie, they noted, hadn’t participated in the prison-fantasy chant, and he wasn’t accusing Clinton of crimes. His speech was an indictment of her ideas and her leadership, not her legal conduct.
This was slicing Christie’s presentation a bit thin.
Christie chose the show trial metaphor not because he thought it was the best conceit for filleting Clinton’s policy record, but to inspire the crowd, primed by 24 hours of bloody-shirt waving, to take up pitchforks. When the crowd first erupted into the “lock her up” chant, Christie nodded and smiled. “Give me a few more minutes,” he said. “We’ll get there.”
Christie is a boffo performer and his schtick “worked” insofar as the crowd was enthralled. But in another, more important sense, it was a shocking spectacle, even if the cable nets couldn’t bring themselves to address the very obvious and troubling subtext. Here was one of the GOP’s best speakers, on a night nominally dedicated to addressing the country’s economic concerns, using his time in the limelight to stoke the revenge fantasies of the angry GOP base.
If the Republican National Committee were an institution with any sway or self-respect, this never would have happened. Much of what we’ve seen since the convention gaveled to order wouldn’t have happened. Even if it wanted to, though, the GOP couldn’t have prevented the convention from degenerating into a grotesque, haphazard mess. After all, the Republican Party has been gutted, and Donald Trump—who can’t run his own campaign properly—bought it up like a cheap, distressed asset.
In the past 48 hours, the Trump campaign and the GOP have:
- Invited a C-list actor who called Hillary Clinton a “cunt” on Twitter to speak on stage.
- Invited another C-list actor to speak on stage, only to have him run to the cameras to call President Barack Obama a Muslim.
- Invited Ben Carson to speak on stage, where he called Clinton an agent of Lucifer.
- Encouraged a party-wide consensus that their presidential election opponent should be in jail.
- Blamed Hillary Clinton for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi.
- Plagiarized a speech Michelle Obama wrote eight years ago, then lied about it.
- Shrugged it off when a Trump adviser and party delegate called for Hillary Clinton to be shot—executed—for treason.
When Democrats convene next week in Philadelphia, it almost goes without saying that their event won’t devolve into kangaroo court proceedings against Trump, and that nobody on stage will call him say, a pantywaist, and that if one of Clinton’s advisers calls for Trump to be killed, that person will no longer be her adviser.
It also goes without saying that they will devote a reasonable amount of time to discussing real problems people face in their lives and how to solve them. But this is the difference between a party that, for all its flaws, is still a functioning institution, and a party that has failed.
Institutional failure doesn’t merely explain why racism and crackpottery have dominated the GOP convention, but why the convention itself has, relatively speaking, been an operational calamity. Organizing a four-day political convention featuring dozens of speeches, big crowds, live television broadcasts, and a high demand for effective pageantry is a huge, complex undertaking. Just nailing down logistics and planning requires a whole staff, one separate from the party and campaign officials who coordinate message and stagecraft—vetting speeches (say, for plagiarism), identifying themes that resonate with the public, and booking speakers who can address those themes coherently.
As the GOP establishment has drifted griftward, as it has hollowed out, and now as Trumpism has filled the void, it has lost the skill and cohesion required to pull something like this off without committing a bunch of unforced errors. That’s why John McCain’s 2008 convention was basically a dud in Sarah Palin gift wrap, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012 was somewhat slapdash—themed after a random, decontextualized Obama “gaffe,” ending with Clint Eastwood striking up conversation with an empty chair.
It’s no surprise Trump accelerated the GOP’s waning capacity to undertake big projects, and whittled it down to where all it can do is reflect Trump’s own ugly, erratic id.