In theory, the Republican convention could have been thrilling television. An elaborate show of fighting family members and sycophantic aides, all breaking the norms of democracy in primetime, should have conveyed at least a little conflict and drama, as Donald Trump did when he strode across Lafayette Square, the fumes of tear gas still wafting through the air, and brandished an unread Bible in front of a church.
Instead, Tuesday night’s session of the Republican Convention was guilty of the greatest sin in Trump’s worldview: It was boring television. And the soporific snore-fest seems likely to continue on Wednesday night when Mike Pence, who has described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” delivers the headline address.
The underlying problem is that when Trump himself is offstage, the Republicans are unable to find a consistent tone.
The best speakers of the convention thus far—Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, both of whom spoke on Monday night—pretended that they were speaking at a normal Republican Convention rather than at a family-filled telethon of Trump triumphalism. While Eric Trump was more modulated than his wild-eyed brother Donald Jr., his speech on Tuesday was full of lines like “Radical Democrats ... want to disrespect our flag, burn the stars and stripes that represent patriotism,” which sounded like a parody of the GOP’s voice-of-doom attack ads.
The Republicans tried every gimmick they could concoct to make Trump seem like a commanding leader rather than an ill-equipped termagant unable to cope with the worst pandemic in a century. And if democratic traditions were shattered in the process, well, anything to uphold Trump’s greatness.
Normally, a naturalization ceremony is an inspiring event, reminding observers what America has meant to immigrants for centuries. But by turning it into a convention stunt, our anti-immigrant president cheapened everything–especially since Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security whom the Government Accountability Office has declared is holding the job illegally. That detail—and the possibility that all of Wolf’s actions in office may be invalid—provided an odd counterpoint to the five new citizens vowing, “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
None of the events inspired more hand-wringing in advance than Mike Pompeo’s speech from pre-dawn Jerusalem. Needless to say, this is not the proper role of a secretary of state on a government-paid trip to Israel.
But at least Pompeo’s droning recital of Trump’s supposed foreign policy triumphs was more likely to have inspired a channel change than a vote change. Pompeo burbled that “our grandchildren will read in their history books” about the recent peace deal between Israel and United Arab Emirates (though, by that standard, Jimmy Carter belongs on Mount Rushmore for brokering the truly historic 1978 Camp David Accords creating a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt).
Then there was Melania Trump’s non-social-distanced speech. She deserved credit for being the first major speaker at the GOP Convention to acknowledge the ravages of the pandemic when she said, “My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one, and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering.” But there was also a deliberate and comic obtuseness to the first lady’s speech. Amid the viciousness of the Trump family attacks on Joe Biden and the Democrats, it was stunning to hear Melania say, “I don’t want to use this precious time attacking the other side because as we saw it last week, that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further.”
She was standing, in an ironic twist, in the White House Rose Garden, which was designed by the American heiress Bunny Mellon. The Mellon family has been playing a surprising role in this convention. When Trump was not exploiting the White House for political purposes, most of the convention events took place at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington, which was named after Herbert Hoover’s Treasury secretary—a fitting choice now that America is once again facing unemployment numbers to rival those of the Great Depression. Bunny Mellon was married to Andrew Mellon’s son Paul, and nearly six decades after she designed the Rose Garden as a favor to her best friend, Jackie Kennedy, Melania Trump destroyed the soft, natural look of the garden by ordering the removal of 10 crabapple trees and flowers and other plantings. As Meryl Gordon, the bestselling author of a Bunny Mellon biography, told me during the first lady’s speech, “The Rose Garden looks so corporate—like a Marriott.” (Full and proud disclosure: Meryl Gordon is my wife, and the exclusive interview took place on our living room sofa).
In a sense, the Rose Garden can serve as a metaphor for the Trump presidency. Even as the first family of reality TV seems headed out the door of the White House, they still have time to desecrate everything in their reach.
The current orthodoxy, judging from the pundit parade on television, is that the GOP convention doesn’t matter much since there are so few swing voters in 2020. Even though it’s partly true, that glib observation glosses over the reality that Trump is losing—and, quite possibly, losing bigly. Every day Trump and the Republicans squander brings us a day closer to the election and a likely Biden presidency.
With two days to go of prime time convention coverage, the Republicans are still torn between sycophancy and apocalyptic visions of a Democrat in the White House. So far, the only surprise is how lost the Trump team seems to be as it struggles to divert attention from a pandemic and an economic collapse.