Donald Trump began the first day of the 2020 Republican Convention on Monday ranting against CNN, MSNBC and even his beloved Fox News. The ludicrously described “bodyguard of Western civilization” ended it with a tweetstorm.
Coming off the Democrats’ cohesive coronation of Joe Biden last week, it was a tale of two conventions and the GOP seemed to lose the plot almost from the start.
Partially a Fantasy Island of sorts from what is really going on in an America kneecapped by COVID-19, near sky-high unemployment and partisan blood sports, Monday was a spin cycle that aspired to maximum overdrive but sputtered throughout with falsehoods. It was also a repetitive knee-jerk response to the Democrats’ pretty successful virtual shindig last week that was either bashing former Vice President Biden or stopping just short of hailing the appearance of four horsemen on the cultural horizon.
All of which, even with a strong keynote finish by Sen. Tim Scott, left the GOP semi-virtual gathering, to paraphrase Sean Hannity on the Bidenfest of last week, taking on the mantel of most downbeat informercial ever, at least so far. Or to paraphrase the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, “boring Donny, boring.”
Maybe there is a positive payoff to come later in the week, but so far, the narrative of the RNC is like its non-existent platform: it’s whatever the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host says it is at the moment. Going almost all Trump all the time, this is what happens when you have no discipline and no Roger Ailes.
With bellowing turns at the podium from the likes of ex-Fox News host and future Trump daughter-in-law Kimberly Guilfoyle, the RNC was a simply slightly more adrenalized C-SPAN. Night 1 certainly lacked the production bombast of the deceased and disgraced FNC creator, as well as the storytelling aerodynamics of the Mark Burnett-produced NBC reality show that Trump fronted for more than a decade.
As if to echo the “American carnage” ultimatums of Trump’s inaugural address, grievance was the temperament of the primarily pre-recorded opening round. Even ex-UN Ambassador and 2024 contender Nikki Haley uttered the term in what was one of the few relatively restrained speeches of the self-administered wound in motion that was the GOP’s first day. In a constant chorus, Republican surrogates, low-level defecting Democrats, ballplayers and family members droned on about being under attack by elites.
They didn’t sell it well, but if there was one overriding theme for the night, it was that Trump is saving America from the radical left.
In a speech to the near empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., Guilfoyle said that the left wants to “destroy” America, with the implication that Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris will let it happen. The appeal may be to Trump’s base, but some of the president’s Republican detractors say the sentiment still could have some resonance with suburban voters.
Overall, the lineup lacked the rigor Democrats deployed last week, as speaking topics flipped from one to another and the tone of those given a platform shifted throughout the evening. The first few speakers went from young pro-Trump voters (Charlie Kirk) to an anti-teachers union appeal (Rebecca Friedrichs) to a small business owner (Tanya Weinreis). Then came Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), one of Trump’s staunchest firebrands letting loose like a cracked gas meter.
“What we’re going to see tonight is the gaslighting of the country,” former John McCain aide and renegade Republican Steve Schmidt predicted on MSNBC earlier Monday. “We’re going to see a theater of absurdity.” A master of hyperbole, Schmidt didn’t know the half of it. And it wasn’t just the tirades from the flag-filled Mellon stage.
The Promises Kept videos on this “Land of Promises”-themed night were slick-ish, but, packed full of complaints and bravado, they trampled on themselves over and over.
If there was one focused redrafting of the narrative of the night, it was the Trump campaign’s chest beating its “decisive action” on the coronavirus response. Yet, even then, the hard math stood in clear contrast to the effort.
Republicans gather to proclaim how well the country is doing, in an event held virtually because a containable virus killed almost 180,000 Americans in 6 months
— Sarah Cooper (@sarahcpr) August 25, 2020
To be honest, even with Sarah Cooper’s certitude aside, it sure looked like the Trump team and the man himself couldn’t really commit to the fantasy.
A pre-taped East Room-set chat that aired tonight with Trump and selected frontline workers saw the incumbent do more talking than his socially distanced guests — even when they tried o flatter him. “I’m for the nurses, I’m for the doctors, I’m for everyone,” Trump said in a non-sequitur before succumbing to his bell-dragging stance of calling COVID-19 the “China virus.”
Promising to appear every night of the convention before his White House South Lawn acceptance speech Thursday, Trump popped up again in his Rose Garden campaign with an equally one-sided sit-down with what FNC called “U.S. Hostages Freed Under His Administration.” There was an awkward pre-taped moment when Trump, in speaking with pastor Andrew Brunson, praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had imprisoned him.
Unsurprisingly, FNC’s Dana Perino praised the opening night of the RNC coming off the Democrats’ widely acclaimed “unconventional convention” last week, though the compliment was a bit backhanded. “I think the production of this has been very good,” the former press secretary to George W. Bush exclaimed well into the second hour of coverage. “They were trying to lower expectations a bit because they only had a month to plan.”
The GOP gathering was supposed to be held in Charlotte, NC with thousands of delegates, but the state’s governor wanted the party to behave more responsibly as coronavirus cases rose and deaths increased. At no small expense, Trump hauled most of the shebang over to Jacksonville, FL, in June, but that plan withered on the vine as COVID-19 surged in the Sunshine State. On July 23, Trump suddenly said the convention would be remote and virtual like the Democrats’. There was a tiny convention in North Carolina today that formally nominated Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. That shut down not long after the candidates addressed the sparsely attended event this morning.
In that context, the lower expectations Perino noted was certainly the politest way of putting the on-screen stint by the well-heeled St. Louis couple who turned their guns towards protesters on their way to the Missouri metropolis’ mayor’s residence. In a blasting dog whistle, the subsequently felony-charged Patricia and Mark McCloskey were given a primetime spot meant to provoke. They accused Democrats of seeking to abolish the suburbs by ending single-family zoning for “low-quality apartments” — even though those decisions are made at the local level, not by the White House.
“Trump’s America is a land of opportunity” Donald Trump Jr. told viewers in his near marquee speech that was recorded earlier Monday. However, the Trumps being the clumsy Trumps, turns out, the eldest son doesn’t mean the whole country, at least not its largest state. “If you want to see the socialist Biden-Harris future for our country, just take a look at California,” proclaimed Guilfoyle, the ex-wife of current Golden State Gov. Gavin Newsom. The former First Lady of San Francisco also decried the “land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets and blackouts in homes” of her wildfire-afflicted home state.
In fact, it really did seem as if the GOP wanted to boost Biden’s commitment in his acceptance speech to be an “ally of the light, not the darkness.”
Though they landed a few punches.
“Joe Biden is the basically the Loch Ness monster of the swamp,” a glassy-eyed Trump Jr barked in what was a lunge for the line of the night. The POTUS offspring continued in toothless attack dog mode by calling the ex VP “Beijing Biden” in his best bumper sticker manifestation.
In terms of coverage, Fox News Channel dipped in and out of the RNC, much like the Rupert Murdoch-owned outlet did for the DNC. MSNBC actually cut away for an extended period of time to fact check COVID-19 claims made by speakers on-screen. Only CNN and C-SPAN really stayed consistently with the convention over its 2 1/2 hours Monday night.
Joining the buzz-killing party at 10 p.m. ET, the broadcast networks cut in and out of the speeches during their coverage, fact checking at some points and going to commentary at others. CBS News’ John Dickerson previewed the evening: “You won’t be able to forget that this is Donald Trump’s party. It’s almost like one of his buildings with his name on it. And it’s not just because he’s going to be there every night. He’s in everybody’s mouth. This is not about the Republican party. This is about the party of Donald Trump.”
Too dismal and dark to be termed a party by anyone’s definition of the more celebratory use of the word, tonight just made Biden’s day and he didn’t even have to go all Dirty Harry on the amateurish GOP — at least not yet. Although the poll-leading challenger did hit the bull’s-eye in a social media shot of his own.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 25, 2020
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