We learned a lot of interesting things in first two days of the Republican Convention. Weren’t you shocked, for example, to find out that Trump Wines still makes payroll? That Hillary Clinton was inspired by Lucifer? That Rudy Giuliani is possessed by him? Fascinating, all.
Equally surprising has been the unassailable takeaway that Donald Trump, supposed media maven, doesn’t always thrive under the spotlight. Actually, if this bumbling and lame-ass event is any indication, the spotlight kind of withers him.
What we’ve seen from Cleveland hasn’t been a master manipulator or a populist oracle at work. It’s been a parade of Q-list nobodies buttressed by B-list Republicans and comically effete members of his family, nowhere expressing a cogent ideology except reverence for Donald Trump.
That’s a problem. Presuming he actually does want to get elected president, Trump has a lot of ground to make up among the majority of Americans who find him repugnant. And if he was indeed smart, or a media manipulator, or a populist oracle, he would use the convention to start making his case.
Instead, he’s doubled down on promoting himself. He’s given valuable airtime to his family, to “celebrities,” to his employees, and to utterly sycophantic political figures like Chris Christie. Sure, they bash away at Hillary Clinton and repeat conservative cant. Mostly, though, they are a fan club, and they worship at the feet of Donald the Trump.
All of this would be fine if not for the fact that the man himself is not what anyone is there for. Trump won the primary because he articulated nativist vitriol to the base. The braggadocio and wealth parade were always less important than his core message, and more accurately, the license his message represented.
The fact that Trump is going to be the last person who figures that out should settle an important, unresolved question: Let no one say again that this man had any political talent.
The 2016 Republican National Convention has been a tacky, vapid wreck, just like Donald Trump himself. Melania’s plagiarism scandal has been the focal point, but it’s obscured the fact that the Trump campaign is utterly failing to articulate any of the sentiments that got it here.
Trump’s ascent has been, and would be wise to remain, an expression of populist frustrations. The people who attend his rallies and cast protest votes in his favor don’t give a shit about Melania or Ivanka or gold lamé shower curtains. They support Donald Trump because he has made white nationalism permissible again. The circus show has always been part of the Trump spectacle, but it’s played second fiddle to the rabid politics he promoted. Trump’s value to his base is his ability to give cover to a type of vitriol that was taboo until his arrival.
Yet as the RNC has shown, he really is stupid enough to think this charade is all about him. One wonders if he’s ever paused to consider why a caucus of conservative voters, who are highly jealous of decorum, have embraced him, a profane golem. It appears he has not. Trump probably thinks his political success is just the world’s ultimate plaudit to the ultimate celebrity.
To be fair, his ego has been useful on the campaign trail to this point. At rallies, his zeal for adulation lends buoyancy to proceedings that would otherwise bum out on his dystopian worldviews. Without heavy doses of camp, Trump would just be another apocalyptic firebrand like the repulsive Newt Gingrich. Instead, he’s self-stylized into a passive imago of nationalism and white populism. His fans get a safe space for their base impulses and his ego gets a roadshow. It’s like Burning Man for racists, if the Man in the middle was a rich piece of shit.
But the days of Trump’s ego tentpoling his campaign are coming to an end. Dogshit rallies in New Hampshire aren’t where the game is going to be played from here on out. He’s the nominee now. He needs to start attracting big slices of the public. That means convincing moderate voters that either things are as bad as he claims, or that he has some sort of vision forward (lol) or both. Meanwhile, those voters hate him. Trump’s image has taken him as far as it can. Now it’s time to be a politician.
That’s why it’s so funny to look at the convention he put together. Instead of expounding on the internal logic — or even just the frustrations — of “Make America Great Again,” Trump has made the RNC about him.
Who outside of Donald Trump thinks the sight of his estranged daughter Tiffany having her first lucid day in months is moving the needle for anyone? Or that his Patrick Bateman son claiming to be wonnada guise on the construction site is anything but insulting to our intelligence?
Trump earned his spot here by titillating hayseeds with tough talk. What in God’s name does that have to do with the lady who works for Trump Wines?
Instead of glamorizing the decadent and disgusting life he lives, an intelligent version of the RNC would have cast Trump as a necessary prophet of the people. It’s not like it’s hard to get a respected figure to argue the perils of free-trade agreements. Or to dramatize the consequences of underrepresenting poor white Americans. Or to soften the reactionary blow by highlighting his more naturally moderate stances.
Less effective are these lectures from the dregs of IMDb who Trump probably feels add a touch of Hollywood. As long as we’re listening to people we’ve never heard of, why not bolster the populist aspect of the campaign by giving the floor to a small-business owner or a police officer?
Nope. Not for Donald. Beyond the stock convention speeches delivered by the actual political figures—Giuliani, Christie, Carson—most of what we saw over the first two days was a delusional egoist attempt to prove that he’ll bring a touch of glitz to the White House.
The results have been grimacingly bad. People have pounced on Melania’s speech as the gaffe of the event, but I think it’s more salient to point out that the guy who calls everybody a loser on Twitter could only get Scott Baio to speak at the biggest event of his life. I’m not in favor of voting restrictions, but if anyone in the public was swayed by the words of a former soap opera star and ex-drug-addled 80s heartthrob, we need to ship them off to Peter Thiel’s seastead.
More consequently than the convention’s tackiness, Trump been totally unable to do the convincing he needs to do in order to have a shot at victory. Unless, of course, all he really wanted to do was show off his celebrity on its biggest stage yet.
It’s true that the plagiarism episode has offered yet more evidence of Donald Trump’s inability to even run a pre-planned media event. It joins many other pieces of evidence at pointing to his general incompetence as a manager. We knew that already.
I’m more interested in putting a bullet in the idea that Trump has gotten here because of some mysterious political savvy. It doesn’t exist. All Trump has is a yuuge ego that sold out to reactionary politics in exchange for attention, aided crucially by a media that has been all too happy to exploit him for clicks.
But the calculus is changing now. The public, and the media, are getting serious about assessing his viability for leadership. Will he adapt? Will he realize where his strengths lie and start presenting himself as an executor of popular will? Or will he stick with being Donald Trump, Loose Cannon, and get annihilated by Hillary? I think there’s only ever been one answer. He’s only ever been interested in one thing.
To the once and future has-been, I say, thank you for forcing the GOP to own up to years of veiled racism and abject ignorance. It’s been rewarding to watch. To the rest of us, let’s just agree to remember the Great Trump Farce of ‘16 for what it really was. There was no political talent here. It only proved that if an attention whore dares to embrace a message that is mean and small and retrograde, the party of mean and small and retrograde embraces back.