Why the Trump convention crackles with life
Yes, it's provocative and maybe a little gauche. But consider the alternative.
The Republican National Convention changed so fast Monday, you could have gotten whiplash.
For all the talk of Republicans getting a Trumpian makeover in this year, the first half of the convention's first day featured a Republican Party that looked more conventionally Republican and older than usual. It was all silver-hairs and septuagenarians invoking the legacy of Reagan, and shouting the oldest and most stale tunes from the Republican hymnal.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), denounced Democrats for putting together "the most extreme left-wing platform the country has ever seen." So far, so boring. "We will be the people who restore the Constitution," Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) intoned on the convention floor. These rote perorations strike one like a dead political orthodoxy, like the rantings at the Soviet politburo in the mid-1980s.
There were only 15 unpredictable minutes in the first half of day one of the Republican National Convention: the anti-Trump forces' doomed petitions for a vote. The roll call they called for would have allowed a show of strength for their side and it had a long shot of overturning the rules that "bound" delegates to vote for Trump. But the Republican National Committee, working with the Trump campaign, put down this rebellion quickly and with familiar tactics, ones that were successfully used against rebellious Ron Paul delegates four years ago. It was actually a little astounding that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and other anti-Trumpers did not anticipate and prepare for this, staking their cause on the integrity of the Republican National Committee chairman. When it was over, the convention devolved into crushing familiarity.
Until the evening.
Then, the parts of the convention that have been truly Trumpified — the celebrity speakers, focus on scandal, tear-streaked calls for Hillary Clinton's imprisonment — all crackled with some kind of life, or at least provocation. Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr. were ridiculed on Twitter as celebrity D-listers, as everything gauche or shambolic about the Republican Party after the Trump takeover. They were met with snarky chyrons from the networks.
And yet, their speeches were not filled with policy minutia or indications of tiny quadrennial ideological development that are the normal fare of conventions. They were broad and simple speeches, but delivered with some real emotion and actorly skill. The speeches by soldiers who were at Benghazi, or relatives of those killed by illegal immigrants, were far more emotional and sad than is normal at a convention. They fit with Trump's pattern of using rallies to let normal people speak. And of course they crackled with life because they expressed the demotic passions of the American right, passions that are no longer constrained by a normal political campaign's strictly poll-tested messaging apparatus.
The only elected Republican who seemed to pick up on the actual mood of the Trumpified GOP was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He spoke with convincingly theatrical outrage about Islamist terrorism, and promised, "We're coming for you."
Trump is doing everything wrong. He's filling the convention with his family (and his wife has already been accused of plagiarizing Michelle Obama), with angry victims of crime and disorder, with righteous veterans and cops. His campaign is using strong-arm tactics with the party, and its faces are demanding the imprisonment of the party's political opponent. It's angry, hot-headed, and swerving dangerously around the summer's political corner. The #NeverTrump movement was always going to get creamed by it. And, especially because there are a few casualties along the way, it's hard to tune away to the programming in which every story is written for a happy ending or tidy resolution.