The first night of the 2016 Republican National Convention made it inescapably clear that the Republican Party has almost nothing of substance to offer voters. The theme for the night was “Make America Safe Again,” and presumably the festivities were meant to showcase how the GOP under Donald Trump will flex its muscle and once again become the party of tough-guy hawks. But we didn’t get any of that. Instead the modern Republican Party gave us institutional chaos and forced us to drink from a fire hose of racial resentment.
Let’s begin with the chaos. The convention devolved into an angry shouting match as #NeverTrump delegates moved to derail the approval of a rules package requiring bound delegates to vote for the candidates who won their states. As Slate’s Jim Newell writes, the convention chairs quashed the mini-rebellion through a combination of hard-nosed vote-whipping and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvering which left the #NeverTrump agitators complaining that the process was rigged against them. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign had been working diligently to avoid precisely this sort of acrimonious display of internal discord, but instead they wound up with high-profile Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee and Ken Cuccinelli attacking the party leadership for violating its own rules.
But while they may have failed to deliver on the promise of party unity, the convention planners found far greater success with the day’s secondary theme: demonizing immigrants and leaving the party’s core constituency of aged white voters scared and angry. Much of the convention doubled as a sort of family grief pageant as the relatives of Americans killed by terrorists and undocumented immigrants were paraded out to have their sorrow weaponized by the RNC. A large chunk of the programming was eaten up by needlessly detailed and graphic retellings of the Benghazi attacks, all of it punctuated with frequent demands that Hillary Clinton be imprisoned for whatever unspecified crime she committed.
This was all completely divorced from any sort of policy platform (besides repeated celebratory invocations of “the wall” Trump promises to build on the southern border). The message was simply that immigrants will kill you, criminals will kill you, terrorists will kill you, Donald Trump is strong, and Hillary Clinton should be in jail. It was purely emotional, grossly manipulative, and heartlessly exploitative.
The first night of the convention also proved to be kryptonite for Republican politicians who have national ambitions. The schedule of events allotted plum, primetime speaking spots to formerly famous actor Scott Baio and one of the half-shaved yetis from Duck Dynasty, both of whom used their highly coveted platforms to dribble semi-coherent nostrums about hard work and American greatness. Meanwhile, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, often described as a “rising star” of the party, was given a late-evening spot that immediately followed retired general Michael Flynn, who cleared the delegate hall with a dull, incoherent screed about national security. Thus Ernst, one of the few high-ranking Republican officials who bothered to show up at the convention, was stuck delivering her dull, pabulum-heavy remarks in front of a mostly empty room. Among all the speakers, only one managed to drum up any sort of energy and life from the crowd: Rudy Giuliani, a political punchline who got the crowd on its feet by literally screaming about how much he loves cops.
There was one brief moment of political normality in this festival of racial grievance and disorganized shambling: Melania Trump’s bland-but-earnest speech in praise of her husband. The speech was nothing special, but it was in such stark contrast to the hateful garbage that surrounded it that pundits and reporters couldn’t help but celebrate it as the highlight of the evening. But even that minor success was short-lived, as it was soon revealed that portions of her remarks were cribbed from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic convention.
That’s the story of the first evening of the Trump nominating convention. Efforts at promoting unity abruptly devolved into red-faced screaming matches. Gross displays of nativist hate were presented as demonstrations of “strength.” Stolen words were used to convey earnestness. We saw a Republican Party consumed by its baser political instincts, overrun by hucksters and thieves, and at war with itself. And there are still three more days to go.