The first night at the GOP convention

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The only thing missing from the first night of the Republican National Convention was the kind of dark music I associate with the movie “Jaws” or some Hitchcock flicks. The evening clearly was orchestrated around a particular datum of current polling -- many Americans think the country is on the wrong track – but it took that sentiment and lent it an apocalyptic urgency and dystopian features. The evident aim was to scare the American people and it worked, although not in the way the organizers may have intended. The organizers forgot that Americans may think we are on the wrong track but not necessarily that we are in the kind of funk that Fox News thinks we are in. 

There was Sen. Jeff Sessions, the first U.S. Senator to endorse Donald Trump, and a man whose understanding of America could scarcely be more WASPish. Immigration and trade are the issues he cited as propelling the Trump candidacy, which is true, and which most threaten the prosperity of the American people, which is not true. But, immigration and trade share another characteristic: They involve dealing with other people and can be restricted by the building of walls. On trade, Sessions is big on indictment and short on a better way forward. On immigrants, it is simple race-baiting.

Sessions has been blaming immigrants for what is wrong with America for a long time. His counterpart from the lower chamber, Rep. Steve King, said on MSNBC last night that no "sub-group" of people has contributed more to civilization than white people. Sub-group? Are they "sub" as in "underneath" or "sub" as in one part of the whole? If it is the latter, then white people also have to be a "sub-group" for the comparison to work, and I do not fancy the congressman saying that. If the former, this is the purist expression of racism outside of a Klan rally I can imagine.

But, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had a differ culprit in mind for what is threatening America: "Radical Islamic terror." He shouted the phrase twice into the microphone, apparently forgetting that the whole purpose of the microphone is that you do not have to shout. I thought the blood vessels in his temples were going to burst. The crowd loved it: More non-white people to blame. I had the naughty thought that if she wins the presidency, Hillary Clinton should publicly offer Giuliani the post of ambassador to Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

Let's be clear: The official theme of last night was "Make America Safe Again" but the actual theme was "White Lives Matter." Or, perhaps we can combine the two by extending the official theme: Make America Safe Again from those non-white people. This is why religious leaders, who are normally advised to stay clear from partisan politics, should find ways to speak up and speak out, none more than our Catholic bishops. The GOP convention’s first night was about bashing Latinos and Muslims. Latinos are the future of our church and if we are serious about religious liberty, not merely in a legal sense but in a cultural one, we will recognize the danger of the Muslim-bashing we witnessed last night.

There was a second theme: Isn't she beautiful! Melania Trump is stunningly beautiful. I am not sure why her husband entered the hall to introduce her as if he were entering the arena for a World Wrestling Federation event, silhouetted in darkness with bright lights behind him. Mrs. Trump gave a lovely speech, as was expected, and by none more than the speechwriters. After all, the speech went well the first time when Michelle Obama delivered it in 2008. I was emailing with a friend this morning and we were both struck by what this cribbing actually means. Is it plagiarism? Did Michelle Obama really write her 2008 speech? Of course not. The problem is not with anyone’s character but the incident reinforces the idea that the Trump Team is not ready for prime time and does not understand that unforced errors, in the last fully stage-managed event in the campaign, are unforgivable.

What struck me most about Melania’s speech was that while her assertions about the man she knows personally can be accepted without argument or explication, assertions about why he would make a great president need some evidence. She assured us that he loved everyone, black people and Latino people and the poor and the middle class, but without any evidence for the claim, we are left trying to reconcile this image of the benign Mr. Trump with the image of him announcing his candidacy a year ago and calling Mexicans rapists and drug lords.

I suppose when you are that beautiful, it is foolish to expect a person to be too smart. I am sure Mrs. Trump was glad to have a teleprompter. The collection of pablum that came from her lips did not reveal intellectual heft or even curiosity. She was not Katisha to his Mikado, more like she was vouching for him in the role of both. To her, Donald should be president by right. In any event, "Miya Sama" kept running through my brain as I watched and I entertained the hope that we, as a nation, could fashion some kind of First Spouses contest, maybe even a reality show. Mrs. Trump would win the swimsuit competition, I am sure, but my money would be on Bill Clinton for the Q-and-A.

Speaking of intellectual heft, among the other speakers I missed were Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr. One of the dangers of including non-politicians is that they can go off script. Sabato, after speaking to the convention, told an interviewer that he was sure President Obama is a Muslim. He should have said it in the convention hall. Who would have disagreed? I am betting that this week's convention in Cleveland has the single largest concentration of people addicted to conspiracy theories on the planet.

Yesterday had been a very long day for me, so I was grateful the evening finished early. But, whoever planned the convention seemed not to understand that if your main speaker goes in the middle of the hour of free television you have from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m., the hall will empty, and the networks will cut away, and they did. Maybe the Donald is so good at collecting earned media, he did not worry that the party left a ton of free airtime on the table last night. But, if the man and his team can’t manage a convention for four days, what makes us think he can run the government for four years?

Each night has a different theme: Make America Safe Again, Make America Work Again, etc. The common word is "again." Everything about Donald Trump's GOP has the feel of a restorationist agenda, although the evangelical overtones of the phrase may be unknown to Trump himself. I do not know if it works in American politics unless it is united with a bold and forward-looking optimism, as Ronald Reagan managed to combine them. Certainly, if last night is any indicator, it is an emotive disposition, devoid of intellectual and policy content. It is a mood, not a movement, and if Trump wants to convert it from the one to the other, he will need to do better than he and his team did last night.

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