When my maternal grandfather arrived as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1952, word spread that blue dress shirts would read best on black-and-white television, so he went to Brooks Brothers and bought a new button-down broadcloth. His candidate, Robert Taft, lost the nomination to Dwight Eisenhower, but I’ll bet my grandfather looked spruce on the tube.
For most of my lifetime, Republicans have been the past masters of the telegenic convention—of meticulous stagecraft, stirring videos, and precision balloon drops. But this year, the Emmy Award–winning team behind the Democrats’ intimate, hopscotching virtual convention stole a stylistic march on the Trump campaign, which was left mostly with the echoing neoclassical emptiness of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, in Washington.
So it’s perhaps reassuring that the G.O.P. retained its title in the shamelessness stakes, raising the quadrennial substitution of symbolism over substance to new and cynical heights. A party that has trafficked in coded racial appeals for more than 50 years has never hesitated to deploy friendly Black faces—from children’s choirs to Lionel Hampton, to Sammy Davis Jr.—at convention time. But this week, it offered a live-to-tape presidential pardon of a convicted Black bank robber turned criminal-justice-reform evangelist in the Blue Room of the White House.
What’s next? A baptism? A wedding? A live execution? No, it turns out only a naturalization ceremony in the White House Cross Hall, with Trump, the most anti-immigrant president of modern times, entering from the State Dining Room to the strains of “Hail to the Chief” to swear in a racially diverse group of newly minted citizens, some of whom were shocked to learn they’d become reality-TV props. Even Richard Nixon, that noted lover of gold braid and pomp, contented himself with “California, Here I Come” at conventions.
What’s next? A baptism? A wedding? A live execution?
When Jimmy Carter adopted his “Rose Garden strategy” in the 1980 re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan, by declining to stump in public, he hoped to persuade American voters that he was still being president in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. When Donald Trump took to the South Lawn on Thursday night, it was simply to try to persuade the tiny handful of yet wavering voters that he can still play a president on TV (and blithely flout long-standing taboos against politicking on government property in the process).
Since 1952, when televised conventions first mattered (more than a third of the nation’s households had sets by that year, and CBS’s Walter Cronkite gave politicians pre-convention tutorials in TV decorum), the Republicans have generally put on the smoother, more visually sophisticated show. (There have been rare exceptions, such as the angry donnybrook over Barry Goldwater’s nomination, in 1964.) With the help of image-makers like the Hollywood actor and pioneering television producer Robert Montgomery and, later, Roger Ailes, the dark-arts political-ad-maker who cut his teeth working for the Broadway producer of The Music Man, the G.O.P. gatherings have mostly been models of crisp celebration—if in recent decades so news-less that ABC’s Ted Koppel famously left the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego after two days, declaring that there was nothing left to see.
Yet that same year, Elizabeth Dole electrified the delegates and surprised viewers by climbing down from the rostrum and strolling around the convention floor with a wireless mike, Oprah-style, to sing the praises of her husband, Bob. In 2004, in Madison Square Garden, the party built a special runway with a circular platform in the middle of the arena after the third night, just so George W. Bush could accept his renomination from a spot that resembled a pitcher’s mound.
Trump’s re-anointment has been a more off-putting but less compelling spectacle, with a decided retro feel—and not just because hardly anyone wore masks and speakers made enough references to “the Chinese Communist Party” to satisfy the ghost of General Douglas MacArthur. The whole visual style of the G.O.P. convention was stately but static. The Democrats reimagined the typically rote roll call of the states with a rollicking, ebullient video survey across scenic America in prime time. By contrast, the Republicans performed the same required function—at midday Monday—with each state’s delegate standing stolidly in front of the same backdrop reading #RNC 2020, and one offering the upbeat invective that “Joe Biden is hiding in the dark, waiting to take the lives of our unborn babies.” (The Republicans did manage to mimic the Democrats’ travelogue with a brief montage of faces from across the land on Monday night.)
But each evening, G.O.P. speaker after speaker crossed the same red carpet and passed the same soaring columns of the Mellon’s cavernous interior—which may have satisfied Trump’s penchant for gilded grandeur but only served to emphasize for viewers at home the emptiness of the hall, and perhaps of the whole exercise. By tradition, the party in power holds its convention last, and Republicans have often been quick to exploit that built-in advantage, whether with the elder George Bush’s “kinder, gentler” rejoinder to Michael Dukakis in 1988 or the younger Bush’s rebuttal to John Kerry in 2004, when the Republicans offered a tit-for-tat riposte to virtually every appeal the Democrats had just made at their convention, in Boston, including endorsements from prominent veterans, actors, and up-and-coming Black politicians.
“Joe Biden is hiding in the dark, waiting to take the lives of our unborn babies.”
This year’s Republican show largely missed that opportunity. Instead, there was often a disconnect, not only from the Democrats’ messaging of the week before but from actual facts and events. Yes, the former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi recited a blistering litany of discredited allegations that Joe Biden had helped his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings, but she did so shortly before the appearance of Trump’s own son Eric, whose continued active management of the family’s tattered real-estate empire flies in the face of Trump’s nominal contention that his business has not profited from his service as president.
Yes, Melania Trump, dressed in what one friend called “junta chic,” offered a moving nod to the frontline workers and victims of the coronavirus pandemic—one of the very few G.O.P. speakers to do so—but her plea for civility in politics rang hollow in the face of her husband’s unrelenting incivility. On CNN, the veteran Obama strategist David Axelrod pronounced the convention the ultimate reality show: “They are trying to create an alternate reality.”
On Wednesday night, as Kenosha, Wisconsin, suffered searing spasms of violence, speaker after pre-taped Republican speaker made no mention of the dominant news of the day, and Vice President Mike Pence’s own speech from Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, invoked urban unrest to condemn violence by protesters without acknowledging that the only fatalities in Kenosha had apparently been inflicted by a 17-year-old vigilante Trump supporter. Indeed, Pence’s sheer presence at the redoubt, whose survival inspired the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the War of 1812, was intended to invoke what timely issue? Motherhood? The flag? In contrast, Elizabeth Warren’s and Jill Biden’s speeches from classrooms reflected not only their own careers but the wrenching, immediate, pandemic-induced back-to-school quandaries of millions of parents around the country.
It’s an open question just what effect either convention will have on the comparative handful of undecided voters in the rival camps. Early reports suggested that viewership for both parties fell below recent levels. The race seems all but certain to tighten in the homestretch, but it appears unlikely that either party will benefit from the sort of big post-convention bounce that has sometimes reversed partisan advantage in the past.
Trump’s decision to “profoundly accept” his renomination on the South Lawn of the White House—in front of an unmasked crowd of 2,000 assembled in violation of the District of Columbia’s public-health guidance against large gatherings—was his party’s most visible and flagrant betrayal of its purported support of law and order. (Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last incumbent president to accept a nomination remotely, in 1944, and he did so from a rail car on a Marine base in San Diego as he prepared to embark on a Pacific tour in the middle of World War II.) As I watched the spectacle, and the president’s declaration to his supporters that “we’re here and they’re not,” I could be grateful for only one thing: that Trump had not, in the end, chosen to speak at the Gettysburg battlefield, a move that would surely have left the predecessor he referred to in his rambling opening-day remarks as “the late, great Abraham Lincoln” rolling in his patriot grave.
Todd S. Purdum is a writer based in L.A. and the author of Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution