For a moment there, it looked like he was going to pull it out one more time. Donald J. Trump, as he likes to call himself, got as beautiful a set-up as any presidential candidate ever has in the modern political era, a stunningly well-made video and an even more stunning and surprising introduction from Ivanka Trump, his Valkyrie-daughter, who managed to show real warmth and presence in doing what seemed impossible: humanizing her tough-talking dad as a concrete-covered marshmallow.
The moment was primed for a new Trump to come out to the podium and blow us away with a gentler, kinder persona. But instead, out swaggered Ozymandias again, with “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” His speech, a long 75 minutes, was all the more wearing for being delivered in a pounding shout—broken only, when a protestor interrupted, for an Il Duce-like stroll around the podium showing off both of his brooding, pouting profiles.
On a night when the entire conservative edifice seemed to be crumbling, with Roger Ailes fleeing Fox News like the Ceaușescus trying to escape from Romania, The Donald had a chance to transform the entire race—and maybe even the course of his new party for years to come. Instead, the “law and order” candidate partied like it was 1968, or 1980, giving us the same old Republican same-old.
He never changed tone or mode, shouting in three-beat clips, unchanging, for the entire speech—all fiery authoritarian, drawing mostly groans of despair. He said he was the man who could do the job, asked nothing from his audience, and by the end of the night left the entire convention center with little to do. He barely spoke to his family and raced off stage. He’d be doing this alone, believe you him.
The whole week had been a disaster, even for the angry dissenters outside. On Wednesday, a protester moved to light an American flag on fire when a Cleveland police officer observed, “You’re on fire, stupid.” Inside and out of the Trump coronation in Ohio, self-immolation was the order of each day.
Conventions have long ago been derided as TV shows, and this convention, at first, appeared to look like all the rest—the state delegations in the audience, the Jumbotron, the blow-out color scheme of red, white and blue. But Donald Trump came to this place not through his business acumen—which is nonexistent, save as a world-class grifter—but as a leading performer on reality TV. And at the Trump convention, reality showbiz continuously lit all those boring primetime production values on fire.
The first night, all the careful orchestration descended into an ugly floor fight, followed in the evening by Melania’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama. The ensuing conflagration drove the potential first lady into hiding and consumed everything else that happened that day, and overshadowed the rest of the convention.
On Wednesday came the next kerfuffle, as Ted Cruz’s inexplicable refusal to endorse the man who called his wife ugly and suggested that his beloved father had helped to pull off the most horrific assassination in our country’s history. Go know. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence gave a perfectly laudable convention speech, but who could remember a word after witnessing Trump supporters—encouraged by the floor whips—try to boo down Cruz, and chase his wife from the floor, with one of them spitting “Goldman Sachs” after her like a curse.
Media covering the convention have struggled to act like this is just some other campaign, but the whole affair has been shot through with Trump’s pissed-off 15-year-old sensibility. Take the Cruz moment. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Earlier that afternoon, Trump had his jet buzz a Cruz rally. During the speech, Trump suddenly appeared at the back of the auditorium, stealing the limelight and trying to silence the deviation on the podium like Joe Stalin emerging from the shadows of his box at the Bolshoi during the performance of a politically suspect ballet.
Later, Trump and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, bragged that they had pre-organized the booing—all in primetime—an eruption of intentional chaos that David Frum later compared to a man setting himself on fire and then convincing himself that the guy down the hall who might happen to smell the smoke is the one really getting burned.
A convention is supposed to reveal the character of the man who has been nominated—usually testimonials from people who know him. But Melania oddly avoided personal anecdotes and the two sons—whom Twitter dubbed Uday and Qusay—mostly discussed their father as a businessman. The saddest speech was from Tiffany Trump, whose personal reminiscences referred mostly to occasional phone calls from Dad, and little notes scribbled on her report cards.
The frantic hypocrisy that is Trump fully revealed itself in the Melania plagiarism moment. The Trump camp offered one improvised lie after another, in a desperate attempt to crush the scandal: the copying charge is crazy, it was mostly little words that “reflected her thinking,” the book “My Little Pony” has some of the same phrases, or it was all Hillary Clinton’s fault.
Meanwhile, it started to sink in that it was not only Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech that Melania had cribbed, it was a passage devoted to the virtues of hard work and honesty. When the Trump campaign finally told the truth, or at least a relatively plausible lie—it was a staffer, a former ballet dancer/ghostwriter who lifted the passages—the speechwriter explained that “we discussed many people who inspired her,” and then added, “A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama.”
Maybe a passing Cleveland cop explained to them: “You’re on fire, stupid.”