Throughout the weeklong broadcast of the Republican National Convention, speakers argued that Donald Trump was not in fact the person we’d seen for nearly four years as our president and for longer as a presence on social media and in the national psyche — that he was gentle, loving, kind, generous. The challenge Trump faced was to make it seem for an evening true; the challenge Democrats face now is that, for an evening terrifying to anyone who hopes for a Trump defeat in November, he could be seen as having sold it.
Somehow and some way, Trump managed to stay so riveted to the TelePrompTer as to give his head a particular incline and the ending of his lines a trailing-off sensation, with the only spontaneity borrowed from a breeze blowing both Trump’s hair and the tableau of flags behind him outside the White House. What was lost in the sort of thrilling moment-to-moment possibility of strangeness (give or take an ad-lib, as when the President claimed “they” spied on his campaign in 2016) that lent Trump his past electricity was gained in defusing potential critiques, for a moment, of Trump as untrammeled. It added up to something like a conventional nomination-acceptance speech, coming at the tail end of a convention in which we were consistently informed, with the sort of crisp rigor that refuses to brook disagreement, that Trump was the sort of President whose personal warmth and care inform his decisions. The decision to largely book family members and administration staffers, rather than rising stars within the party (but then, who can be a rising star in a sky with Trump in it?) bore out true; we heard about no aspects of the party’s goals but the continued promotion of an image of Trump unrecognizable to close viewers of the news. (Notably, the convention has produced no platform, choosing instead simply to support Trump.)
The rigidity of Trump’s reading a scripted address served to produce a sense of something toxically tempting for what one imagines may be many voters — normalcy. Not just of the time before COVID but of the time before Trump; the president sounded so unlike himself, even while delivering paeans to some of the most threatening of his policy impacts, as to come close to pulling off the trick his daughter Ivanka long has attempted, of putting a happy face on grimness. Many of the most severe crises of his presidency were indeed in large part ignored in favor of lengthy statements about, say, cancel culture. Speaking of which: In a introduction so lengthy as to suggest that the bid for something more interesting than daughter-in-chief is swiftly forthcoming, Ivanka Trump said of her father’s presidency, “The results speak for themselves,” a comment so brazenly tempting a rebuttal as to leave at least this critic momentarily dumbfounded. They do! But is it possible she just doesn’t see it?
That she likely doesn’t care either way didn’t matter: The RNC of 2020 was a feast of bad faith. Its counterpart put on by Democrats the week before stumbled in its first night due to a sort of brutal commitment to earnestness (the celebrity MC’s stumbling through intros! The Zoom aesthetic!), before coming to seem charmingly homespun, the work of people doing their best to abide by the governing mores of unchartered times. To invoke the Hatch Act seems as pointless to a President who can’t be made to care as trying to impress upon him the importance of social distancing, but leave it simply to say that watching Trump deliver a massive political address from the White House lawn, with a packed crowd of supporters, gave a sinking feeling, and not just from the sense of potential viral spread. “We’re here, and they’re not,” Trump declared, gesturing towards the house, shortly after a set piece in which he’d slowly gazed to either side, as if having his profile etched for a coin. Given his willingness to be wily in deploying both untruth and the gaudy trappings of incumbency, how much longer is that to be true?
There has not thus far been an enforcement mechanism to stop Trump from using the White House for the massive political gain he derives from running for re-election on their grounds; there is, too, no way to make voters look into the claims about the “China virus” and its purportedly low “case fatality rates,” about fictitious ninth-month-abortions, about so much else he put forward in his most placid tones, sounding as nonchalantly delivered as a truth might be. How are we to hope he might respect a defeat, or, worse, behave after being let loose with a second-term victory?
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