Conventional Wisdom: How the RNC Rewrote the Script

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Conventional Wisdom: How the RNC Rewrote the Script

At a certain point in this week’s Republican National Convention, held at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena (“The Q”), even those in possession of a practiced ear might’ve entertained the notion that words had lost their meaning. The particular moment this general aphasia set in is difficult, in retrospect, to pin down: Was it after ABC’s Jonathan Karl, interviewing Faustian figure Chris Christie on Tuesday night (“Make America Work Again”), described the New Jersey governor’s “indictment” of Hillary Clinton as “blistering” three times in succession? Was it once the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had recycled the subject line “Obama FUMING” in its seventeenth and eighteenth emails of the week? Was it Fox News Channel’s Stuart Varney using the word “celebrity” to describe professional golfer Natalie Gulbis, a second-tier Baldwin brother, and forgotten Saturday Night Live cast member Joe Piscopo?

In a sense, though, the specifics were immaterial. It was the boundless swirl of inanities itself that defined much of the coverage of the RNC, which left the hosts, analysts, and political correspondents of one after another cable news panel unable to fit the square peg of events into the round hole of expectations. Long after the morning 13 months ago on which Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy, the press preferred to see his rise as a malfunction of political gravity, but in the course of four days in Cleveland it became clear that this hoary maxim had mistaken the symptom for the disease. By the time the balloons fell from the rafters Thursday night (“Make America Great Again”), the GOP had nominated a race-baiting authoritarian of so few merits that his main endorsements came from members of his own family, and no number of impassioned dissents to Trump’s acceptance speech managed to shake the impression that his dystopian vision for the country had already been assimilated under the rubric of “politics as usual.” When it came to Trumpism, conventional wisdom had ceded the field.

Despite the hand-waving over the Trump campaign’s “unpredictable” style and “unorthodox” substance, the RNC proceeded—at least as seen from the network sets high above the convention floor—much as previous conventions had, with an emphasis on the Republican script and its stalwart performers. The words in circulation were those of Tampa in 2012 and St. Paul in 2008, or indeed of Houston in 1992 and New Orleans in 1988. There was, for instance, “the establishment,” which needed to be “reassured.” There was also “the base,” which wanted to be “fired up.” There were those spectral figures, “ordinary Americans,” as in, “Can Trump appeal to ordinary Americans?” There was what Trump, or running mate Gov. Mike Pence, or any of the prominent surrogates, “needed to do,” as in “What does Pence need to do tonight?” to which the invariable answer was, “Give the speech of his life.”

This was not relegated to the trashier corners of cable, either: On Monday night (“Make America Safe Again”), an “alt-right” revenge fantasy of Benghazi conspiracy theories, xenophobic sentiments, and good old bloodlust that culminated in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s frenzied, shrieking support for “Blue Lives Matter,” NPR’s Linda Wertheimer convened a pair of commentators to discuss whether Trump’s wife, Melania—part of whose speech plagiarized Michelle Obama—had succeeded in “humanizing” the candidate. (She did not.) The point of comparison was John Kerry’s daughter, who spoke on her father’s behalf at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. If memory serves, Kerry’s need to be “humanized” derived not from his contention that Mexicans are rapists or that women are pigs, but from the fact that he speaks passable French, though this niggling detail went, alas, unexamined.

During a week in which chants of “Lock her up” (“her” being Clinton) roared forth from the delegates at regular intervals, egged on by the speakers on stage, in which Ben Carson described the presumptive Democratic nominee as a devil worshipper, in which Omarosa stumped on Fox News for Trump’s outreach to communities of color and the candidate’s support for NATO wavered once more, the media’s reliance on threadbare political narratives proved sorely inadequate. There were exceptions, of course—CNN’s Jake Tapper holding Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s feet to the fire for the misleading treatment of crime statistics in the nominee’s acceptance speech; MSNBC contributor Steve Schmidt describing his party’s dictatorial rhetoric as “a little banana Republican”—but on the whole the TV coverage tended toward banalities. “That is a moment in history,” Cokie Roberts said on ABC of Trump’s children pledging the New York delegates that put him over the top, and I suppose, technically speaking, she was right.

The actual work of reporting and analyzing the news fell instead to those sectors of the media we often describe as “dying.” An out-of-work TV reporter in Los Angeles discovered Melania Trump’s plagiarism. New York Times correspondents Maggie Haberman and David Sanger elicited Trump’s waffling on the United States’ commitment to NATO. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker examined the Trump family’s speeches and found that their attempts to “humanize” the candidate had leaned on adjectives, not anecdotes. But amidst the full-court press of the cable news channels, and the primetime hour the broadcast networks devoted to the convention each night, the labors that produced the grist for TV’s opinion mill remained more or less invisible. If journalism is indeed dying, our constant craving for spectacle is the cancer killing it off.

Our fraught historical moment, whether it resembles the 1930s, the 1960s, or a heretofore unseen form of political engagement at home and abroad, suggests the need for caution, reason, perspective, integrity, and if the fact that none of these were on display in Cleveland this week is damning, so is the unwillingness to treat Trumpism as a dangerous aberration, and not as a particularly entertaining feature of this year’s horse race. “The media” is not “to blame” for Trump’s rise—that is a consequence of countless factors, each predating his meteoric candidacy—but Trump’s rise requires that we, the media, dispense with the hermeneutic by which politics is a parlor game, guided by the logic of “optics,” of “branding,” of “process.” After decades of directing our attention to the thin performative skein shellacked atop a complex web of local, state, and federal laws, of underfunded programs and sprawling bureaucracies, of constituencies, Super PACs, and special interest groups, perhaps the least surprising aspect of this election cycle is that it’s been surprising at all. “The draw here is the celebrity, not the policies,” Karl remarked on ABC Tuesday night. “One of the fun things to watch is watching the rafters,” Williams noted on MSNBC later that evening. “You guys are taking this way too seriously,” his colleague Nicolle Wallace said of the “Lock her up!” chants, a statement which seemed to demand, though no one obliged, the logical follow-up question: If the highly paid professionals tasked with covering politics decline to take seriously the coronation of a self-styled American Mussolini, why should we expect the electorate to act any differently?

Perhaps shaken by the fascistic glee of Trump’s acceptance speech, an inveterate narcissist’s ominous, 75-minute paean to fear and loathing, Thursday night’s reflections on the GOP nominee assumed a sharper, more critical cast—particularly on CNN, where, for the first time all week, the sense that this might be a portentous moment in the life of the nation came in for sustained debate. As the popping of balloons in the distance mimicked the sound of gunfire, Republican operative Ana Navarro challenged Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord with refreshing candor: “This disgusting speech that we heard tonight,” she said, “does nothing but bring out the darkness in America.”

In the end, though, the convention’s most electrifying moment, and arguably its most telling, belonged to the unlikely, unlikable figure of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. On Wednesday night (“Make America First Again”), Cruz’s stem-winding non-endorsement of Trump sent “The Q” into an uproar, one that exposed the broken undercarriage of the system. It wasn’t just that Cruz was booed and shouted down by the delegates on the floor, though that was indeed dramatic. It was that the wags and wonks gathered on the sets above, faced with a moment that departed from the script, were unable to make sense of its implications. MSNBC’s dreadful Chuck Todd, having apparently failed to glean Cruz’s purpose in the course of his 23 minutes on stage, said that the lack of an endorsement “overshadows what might have been one of the signature speeches of Cruz’s career.” CNN’s Gloria Borger went so far as to suggest that Cruz had been “set up” by Trump, turning the candidate “into a figure of some sympathy.”

Whether Cruz’s motives were vengeful, cynical, or principled, whether Trump had been humiliated or had in fact “upstaged” Cruz by entering the hall near the end of his speech, the fact remains that the greater part of the commentariat could read Cruz’s remarks only in terms of his aspirations for 2020, his poisonous relationship with Trump, or the protection of his conservative credentials: Multiple observers noted, as if imparting a secret, that Cruz’s memorable line, “Vote your conscience,” has a particular meaning on Capitol Hill (“Don’t worry about the party line”), though how this was supposed to differ from the meaning the rest of us might ascribe to it remained unclear. This week, in short, more than a few members of the fourth estate briefly became collaborators in Trump’s terrifying spectacle, as surely as the politicians, from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose prior opposition to their party’s standard-bearer began to wane as soon as it became evident that he might help them accrue power. That those not in a possession of a practiced ear should hear “Vote your conscience” simply for what it is, which is a call to choose the national interest over the partisan one, the public good over the cult of personality, was not a notion that seemed to gain much traction in Cleveland, but then again this was a “moment in history.” Best to let sleeping dogs lie.