There were two very early signs that the 2020 Republican National Convention was going to be wildly unusual even by the one-week-old precedents of the virtual convention. First, Donald Trump made a “surprise” appearance after his formal renomination in Charlotte before a sample-sized collection of delegates holding proxies, and when the small crowd chanted “Four More Years! Four More Years!” here is how the president responded:
“If you want to really drive them crazy, say twelve more years,” Trump told the crowd. A handful of people in the audience began to chant, “Twelve more years,” as others cheered.
Unconstitutional authoritarianism is a joke to Trump and his followers, a way to “own the libs” and show how politically incorrect he can be. This is not, to be clear, a traditional way to win the allegiance of swing voters, and isn’t the most obvious way to energize the non-deranged part of the president’s base, for that matter.
But hey, maybe Trump was just ad-libbing and mugging for the MAGA troops? It later became obvious he wasn’t when the evening’s convention program began with a fiery oration from kiddie right-wing ideologue Charlie Kirk, who offered a plague-on-both-houses attack on Democratic and Republican elites (one of the rare uses of the word “Republican” in the first evening of this Republican convention) and began a long series of speeches from behind a podium framing the election as a stark choice between Donald Trump and socialism accompanied by an inner-city assault on virtuous white suburbs.
Kirk’s opener was jarring for those who remember how Democrats eased into their attacks on Trump last week. But there was much more of that to come. Even “real people” speakers intended to humanize Trump and his record, like Montana businesswoman Tanya Weinreis, were strangely strident, talking as though Trump, in close partnership with Jesus Christ, had answered her prayers by signing a bipartisan bill setting up the Paycheck Protection Program. Failed Georgia Democratic politician Vernon Jones, who was offered up as a counter to the Republicans who endorsed Biden last week, was allowed to rant and snarl for many long moments about the “mental plantation,” a favorite right-wing conceit treating Black voter fidelity to the party of civil and voting rights as a sort of imprisonment.
Even boring GOP pols like Steve Scalise and Tim Scott made jarring references to a “far left”–controlled Democrat Party frantic to impose socialism on a freedom-loving people. But the speakers who stood out took extremism to new heights for a national party convention, and I’ve been watching them since 1964.
There were the McCloskeys, the famous gun-toting attorneys from St. Louis who menaced Black Lives Matter protesters passing their mansion and told us tonight that their horrifying experience seeing Black folks on their street “could happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country.” Their reference to Biden wanting to shove “low-quality housing” into suburbs was one of the most timeworn racist dog whistles in existence.
There was Cuban emigre and gas executive Maximo Alvarez, who, close to tears, made a direct claim that Joe Biden is a communist fellow traveler who will do to the United States what Castro did to Cuba.
And most of all there was former Fox News personality and Donald Trump Jr. paramour Kimberly Guilfoyle, who howled at maximum volume and at interminable length about Trump’s world-historical greatness and the evil radicalism of Joe Biden. Guilfoyle wasn’t the first or last speaker tonight to utter the lies that Biden wanted to defund police, open the borders, and subordinate America to China, or the parallel lies that Trump was all over COVID-19 and has a better civil-rights record than any Democrat, but she was surely the loudest and most redundant. Perhaps her most important service to the Trump family was to make her boyfriend Don Jr.’s speech seem almost measured by contrast.
In the postmortem, even on “liberal” networks, there was an understandable tendency to focus on the two least-deranged speakers, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. And they were indeed the rare speakers who did not sound like they were refugees from a CPAC conference or a Trump rally. But even they gave vent to rhetorical excess, with Haley claiming that “Joe’s boss was Obama … [but] this time, it would be Pelosi, Sanders, and the Squad. Their vision for America is socialism. And we know that socialism has failed everywhere.” And Scott accused Joe Biden — Joe Biden! — of plotting to introduce a “socialist utopia.” That these two speeches came across as offering reassuring voices of reason was perhaps the most sinister development of all.
Stylistically, it’s incomprehensible to me that Republicans chose to present most of their speakers behind the same podium at an empty Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington. It’s a format that made some sense at traditional conventions when delegates were actually being persuaded and actually had something to decide. It’s made less sense at the ritualistic live conventions of the recent past. It makes no sense at a virtual convention. It simply made Kimberly Guilfoyle’s voice echo endlessly. If the rest of the convention is like its first night, it may well end with Trump enthusiastically claiming he’s already won.