Donald Trump gave an interview to The Washington Post over the weekend that had buried within it a nugget that probably sent shivers down whatever remains of the spines of that shrinking circle of Republican officials and insiders known as the Establishment.
Donald Trump…asserted in an interview that he should have at least partial control over programming, stagecraft and other issues [at this summer’s convention] by virtue of his front-runner status — even if he does not have the delegates to secure the nomination beforehand.
Trump blasted the GOP’s last convention, in Tampa four years ago, as “the single most boring convention I’ve ever seen.” The billionaire real estate mogul and reality-television star said it was imperative that this year’s gathering have a “showbiz” quality[.]
One wonders what a Trump-produced GOP convention would entail. A keynote speech by former “The Apprentice” contestant Gary Busey? Delegates mandated to wear souvenir Trump wigs on the convention floor? A swimsuit competition for all 17 candidates who ran in the primaries?
Trump has also allegedly been turning up his nose at the choice of location for the convention, noting that Cleveland is a “heavily Democratic city” that could attract many leftist protestors. Which is funny because a GOP convention is likely to attract leftist protestors anywhere. You could hold it in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and leftists will be outside, probably in a “free-speech pen,” demonstrating against the Republicans and their revanchist agenda.
It is all too hilarious. The party that was at one time associated largely with the colorlessness of northeastern WASP-ish rectitude, the party of the Checkers speech with its good Republican cloth coat, is fighting to keep this garish walking cantaloupe with taste that can best be described as “Sheldon Adelson on acid” from taking over its presidential nominating convention and turning it into a spectacle that makes the excesses of Louis XVI’s court at Versailles look like an Edith Wharton novel.
There is a bit of irony here as well: Trump is correct that the GOP convention could use a little bit of showbiz flair.
Granted, that might be a bit tough to take for the party that has long sneered at Democrats’ closeness to “Hollywood liberals.” It might be difficult to hear for people who, in 2008, mocked then-Senator Obama’s acceptance speech in front of faux-Greek columns in a 76,000-seat football stadium. But a political convention that kicks off the general election for both president and both houses of Congress absolutely needs some flair. This might not have been the case back in the 1950s when television was not nearly as omnipresent as it is now and the internet didn’t exist, so Republicans could let Robert Taft drone on for an hour without hurting themselves. But now, it won’t work.
And for a party whose most lasting image from its 2012 convention involves an aged superstar actor babbling to an empty chair he spontaneously dragged onstage with him, having a master showman like Donald Trump pushing you to be more entertaining is, in theory, not a bad idea.
There is another irony here, one that really gets at a problem with the modern Republican Party, which is that it can simply no longer do bullshit very well. Which is a terrible skill for a major political party to lose, seeing as how bullshit fuels so much about politics, from campaigning to governing.
This sounds terribly cynical, but that is not my intention. My use of the term “bullshit” here refers to the ability of anyone working to sell a product, be it a Hollywood producer telling you that “The Postman” will be the greatest movie of all time or a politician claiming that electing his opponent will mean the end of Western civilization. And frankly, the GOP has been awful at this during the last couple of presidential elections. Really, it has been awful at it during the last few election cycles, period. But it has still maintained large congressional majorities thanks to gerrymandering and liberals clustering in heavily blue, urban districts, where their votes for representatives essentially become overkill.
For a specific example, look at the Republicans’ 2012 convention in Tampa, which Trump this weekend called “the single most boring convention I’ve ever seen.” I already mentioned Clint Eastwood and his infamous empty chair, but what also sticks with me is that the convention’s theme of “You didn’t build that!” was a transparent lie that couldn’t stand up as a rallying cry through the entire general election.
“You didn’t build that,” of course, was a quote from an Obama speech that the GOP took out of context and subsequently built its election rhetoric around that year. But the most successful political slogans aren’t that specific. Rather, they are generalized platitudes that at least have a grain of a shade of a feeling of truthiness that a campaign’s supporters can latch onto and carry with them through Election Day.
But Republicans are lousy at this artifice these days. Think of the repeated promises to repeal and replace Obamacare, or the ever-more-ridiculous accusations about the president and the left that they have hurled at their base: That Obama is planning to take away guns, despite there being zero evidence of this. Or that he won’t enforce immigration law because all those Hispanics flowing across the southern border will vote for Democrats. Or that climate change alarmism is a hoax driven by scientists trying to score big grant money and keep themselves in big houses and luxury cars.
This ham-handed and incompetent bullshitting is partly responsible for Donald Trump’s power with the Republican Party’s base now. Trump is the ultimate showman, which was obvious long before that day last June when he took that infamous escalator ride at Trump Tower. It is why he has maintained a consistent lead in every poll while his competitors’ numbers yo-yoed up and down (mostly down). He has achieved front-runner status and kept it by exposing Republicans’ promises for being empty nothings, even while promising empty nothings of his own. And he did it in such a way that the GOP’s insiders never knew what hit them.
Donald Trump should absolutely get a large role in planning the GOP convention. He’s already insinuated riots might occur if he doesn’t win the nomination, a promise that probably has TV news executives salivating even as they publicly profess horror at his cynical charlatanism. As advertising, it was kind of brilliant. Who knows what else he might come up with to motivate the base and make sure people remember this convention?
Trump might be a terrible standard-bearer for a political party that still fancies itself one that has something to contribute to public life. But as an entertainer with a flair for bullshit, he is unparalleled. No wonder he has captured the imagination of so many Republicans. They were hungry to be competently lied to by their party.