Donald Trump’s greatest strength, from the earliest days of his campaign, has been his mastery of the modern media landscape.
The man’s reality TV training makes him great on live television, and he has an inherent understanding that people are more likely to enjoy social media accounts if they seem real and unfiltered.
Where other politicians can feel carefully scripted and focus grouped, Trump usually doesn’t give a shit. He bulldozes everybody, and that can be fun to watch, even if the message he espouses is terrifying to millions.
From that viewpoint, then, everything that’s happened since he became the presumptive Republican nominee for president has been confusing. His TV appearances have turned increasingly rambling and centerless, reaching their nadir in his completely structure-less speech introducing his running mate, Mike Pence.
But this continued into the first night of the Republican National Convention, which suggested something that should have Trump and his partisans very worried: His campaign has absolutely no idea how to tell a coherent story of what America is or should be. Trump’s once seemingly invincible command of a variety of media has become an albatross the more he needs to focus on one storyline.
The plagiarism scandal was just the tip of the GOP’s problems Monday night
To be fair, Monday at any political convention is sort of a dump night. Most conventions have lighter, less star-studded schedules, and Monday almost operates as a dress rehearsal for the action to come. This is true, regardless of year and regardless of party.
But even by those standards, Trump’s night one was kind of a disaster. The three biggest speakers were, in order, Melania Trump (complete with introduction from her husband and a section of her speech seemingly plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech about her husband), Rudy Giuliani (still a major force in terms of the party’s foreign policy philosophy), and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (a rising star within the party).
And the three speeches worked pretty well together as a rough narrative of what the Republicans wanted you to think about Trump. Giuliani talked at length about how Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had made America less safe, but he also worked in discussion of how Trump was fundamentally a good guy with a charitable heart. (It conflicted with pretty much every report we have of how Trump operates, but hey, why not.) Ernst talked about the Republican vision of America — as a land of individual opportunity and rugged freedoms.
Melania Trump, in the central spot, argued for her husband as a kind and caring man, someone who had an open heart to all people and would fight for them but also wanted to respect America’s greatness and individuality. But the plagiarism soon overwhelmed absolutely everything else, the ultimate hijacking of the narrative.
Those speeches make sense together, right? Well, here’s how they were presented. Giuliani led into Donald Trump, who introduced (very briefly) his wife, who spoke. After her speech, a very long, rambling speech from former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael T. Flynn returned to themes of Republican identity politics and so-called anti-political correctness, delivered. Only after him — and well past the 11 pm end of primetime cutoff — did Ernst speak.
There’s no story there. There’s simply an incoherent jumble of ideas — even before you get to the problems with Melania Trump’s speech, on both substantive and qualitative fronts, and how the copied portions from Michelle Obama’s speech ended up overshadowing just about everything.
And there were further incoherencies throughout, as when several speakers would harp on the idea of politically correct activists policing what people are allowed to say — only to immediately insist that all acts of terrorism carried out by Muslims be referred to as carried out by "radical Islam," which is its own form of language policing.
Good TV requires a coherent narrative. Night one of the RNC didn’t have that. It was a scattered, all over the place evening, which flitted randomly from accusations that Hillary Clinton should go to prison to lengthy retellings of the tragedy at Benghazi, from jeering dismissals of trans bathroom rights to Joni Ernst’s memories of the Ukraine.
It was, in other words, like reading conservative Facebook.
The RNC is a lot like reading social media — and, also, the show Lost
If you’ve ever wandered onto the social media feed of a conservative friend, or even a conservative publisher, you’ll know that the conservative viral media world takes as a given that the country is in the dumps, that Barack Obama is the reason why, and that Hillary Clinton is a dangerous, if not outright evil, person.
Like a lot of progressive social media, it, too, is driven by a kind of identity politics — only it’s an identity politics driven largely by white resentment. Also like a lot of progressive social media, it’s less interested in policy than in insisting that certain language be used.
Seen through this prism, most of the first night of Trump’s RNC makes more sense. It’s not about crafting a narrative — it’s about creating the sensation that everything is falling apart, about signaling that Trump knows things are going to hell, and he’s here to set it right. (This may account for the introduction of Trump in silhouette, smoke billowing around him, like he was the Pharaoh in a biblical epic.)
But that doesn’t work on television. By the time Ernst was speaking, the room had clearly emptied out, and I could barely remember what had happened earlier in the evening. The same went for the long, long recounting of the Benghazi incident, which took as a given that you already believed what happened at Benghazi amounted to treason, when it seems very few people even understand what the Republican line on Benghazi is supposed to be about.
This is, I think, the end result of a movement winnowing itself down to its truest believers. Think of a TV show like Lost. In the early going, when the stories are new and fresh, it’s easy to get lots of viewers, who follow those stories with hushed anticipation.
But as the seasons go on, and as more and more specific items get added to the show’s back-story (or "mythology" in TV parlance), the audience gradually erodes to a core that knows everything about the show and is deeply passionate about it, but can come off as confusing to anybody who’s not in the know.
Say what you will about American progressivism, but it has its narrative down cold: This movement is about making the country more equal for as many people as possible. Individual progressives may disagree on how to do that — and whether economic issues, or identity issues, say, are most important — but it’s the idea that unites the movement.
What unites the conservative movement at this point? The RNC is a good chance to set that narrative up, but night one didn’t even bother. It was more interested in throwing as many conservative furors at the wall, like scrolling through that Facebook feed I mentioned above. There are winks and hints and suggestions, but nobody can get to the core — just like they never figured out what the Island was on Lost.
Ultimately, of course, there is a narrative, but nobody can say what it is. The narrative this year is fear of the other, an old reliable in politics, but one increasingly buried in suggestion. To make the subtext text would be seen by many as abhorrent. But make no mistake. In the Trump GOP, that subtext is ever-present: Brown people are scary, and they’re coming to kill you.