CLEVELAND — So much for my brilliant counterintuitive notion that this convention would seem normal, or at least would fall within the normal range of dumb American politics. Perhaps there is some virtue in witnessing the Trumpified Republican Party peel off its flesh-like plastic visage to reveal the gibbering horror beneath, and perhaps Monday night’s prime-time spectacle held some entertainment value on television. But trust me on this: Inside Quicken Loans Arena it was three hours of agony. If the true believers riding a huge high of Benghazi-baiting and Islam-bashing and Hillary-hating and generalized bile thought they were having a good time, it’s the kind of good time you have when you give your car and your wedding ring to a drug dealer for one more hit. They still had to wake up on Tuesday to the permanent hangover of 21st-century America, with no access to the Trumpian fantasy version that never existed and never will.
As nearly everyone in the Western world knows by now, the first evening session of the 2016 Republican National Convention crawled its way through every available shade of ugly, vicious, cruel and stupid, culminating in a speech apparently given by Count Dracula’s great-granddaughter and apparently lifted from another speech given by another presidential candidate’s wife eight years ago. Because, I guess, all artifacts of human society seem about the same to a member of the immortal undead, so what’s the big deal? Or maybe because being a Slovenian fashion model married to Donald Trump somehow failed to provide her with a solid grounding in ethics.
Of course Melania Trump did not write a single word of that speech and could barely read it, and of course it’s unfair and probably sexist to vent too much spleen for Monday night’s world-class sh*t-show on her. But when a person’s baseline accomplishment is marrying that guy, while not literally being held captive in his dungeon, I’m not sure what standards of fairness can be held to apply. Melania’s appearance was no doubt intended as a soft-focus sidebar to the main event last night. That didn’t go quite as planned, but the sheer laziness and incompetence of having the prospective first lady deliver a plagiarized speech on national television illustrated something central about this festival of recycled fear and hatred, whose true headliners were “Benghazi mom” Pat Smith and the evil homunculus now known as Rudy Giuliani.
It’s crucial to apply some human perspective to the case of Pat Smith, whose son Sean Smith died under tragic and murky circumstances in the Benghazi attack of September 2012, and who has repeatedly expressed her belief that Hillary Clinton is personally to blame. Any parent, and almost any child, has some inkling of how unbearable that might be. No one can question Smith’s sense of grief and loss and anger, or her conviction that the United States government in general and the Secretary of State in particular bear much of the responsibility for her son’s death. But the shameless exploitation of a woman who seems unhinged by emotion, and who has focused so much fury on a single individual, speaks to the GOP’s psychotic derangement syndrome, in which the four Americans who died in Benghazi vastly outweigh the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in many countries as a direct result of our nation’s disastrous Middle East policies.
But the dark thrill that went through the Quicken Loans throng when Smith echoed the far right’s “Hillary for Prison” clarion call — “She belongs in stripes!” — was just the warm-up act for Rudy Giuliani, who seemed on the verge of ripping off his clothes and bounding away toward Lake Erie in werewolf form. Seriously, I lived in New York during Giuliani’s mayoralty and that is simply not the same person, if “person” is even the right word. I’m not talking about the way Giuliani reinvented himself as a fire-breathing, Muslim-bashing right-winger during his fruitless quest for the presidency, entirely shedding his old skin as a moderate pro-choice Northeastern Republican. I’m saying that the bald-headed, roaring garden gnome we saw here on Monday night is literally not the same physical being as the old Rudy.
To avoid thinking about all the stuff Giuliani was actually saying, and how much the crowd was loving it, I conjured up movie references from my deep storehouse of geek lore. This was the malicious, post-midnight “Gremlins” version of Rudy, or the one who was shrunk down to dwarf-scale and enslaved in another dimension by the Tall Man from the “Phantasm” series. To paraphrase Molly Ivins’ famous line about Pat Buchanan, Giuliani’s speech probably sounded better in the original, as given by Jabba the Hutt.
The old Giuliani was a ruthless political operator during his Gracie Mansion years, and that guy would have understood that his biggest line on Monday night — “What I did for New York City, Donald Trump will do for America!” — would strike a significant subset of the audience as subversive trolling. I mean, on some level it’s just about right: President Trump would no doubt make the nice neighborhoods completely unaffordable for ordinary people, drive an ever deeper wedge between the haves and the have-nots, ship homeless people and other undesirables off to parts unknown and enforce a suburban-style standard of law enforcement that scholar Michelle Alexander has dubbed “the new Jim Crow.”
One should not make exaggerated claims for the old Rudy Giuliani, who was a thin-skinned, intolerant, race-baiting creep. Or for the old Republican Party of the Bush-Romney years, a massively hypocritical enterprise that made this all possible by repeatedly lying to its own voters about whom it represented and what it would do while in power. That party tried to manage a nonsensical coalition of the capitalist elite and the angry lumpenproletariat while negotiating political reality, a devil’s bargain that was bound to come unstuck sooner or later. It’s undoubtedly more honest, and perhaps better for democracy in the long term, for the GOP to reveal itself as a free-floating paranoid fantasy, completely untethered by facts or reason or ethics or even conventional notions of self-interest and political strategy.
Am I trying to sound reassuring? Or to find a gold nugget hidden within the bag of stinky, flaming poo that was hurled at America’s front door last night? Not really. Americans now face a choice between free-floating paranoid fantasy and a widely disliked establishment politician, and that’s a nightmare scenario waiting to come true. It’s true that no self-respecting political party with something approaching a coherent plan would have expended prime-time bandwidth on Chachi from “Happy Days” followed by the “Duck Dynasty” dude followed by a Calvin Klein underwear model who thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim, or would have sent the candidate’s wife out there to read a plagiarized speech in a Natasha-from-Bullwinkle accent. But who says self-respect or coherence are relevant criteria in 2016? Just because this convention is a ludicrous car crash that’s only likely to get worse doesn’t mean it isn’t working.