The President’s persistent affection for them notwithstanding, ratings have long outlived their usefulness. The Nielsen family grows less representative of the American media diet every day. The streaming giants do not need ads, for which the number of eyes on a screen set the price; they need subscriptions. The social media giants need engagement to mine your data. The news media needs a lifeline. It is increasingly less likely that any particular person deliberately watches a show so much as they allow a variety of images and texts to wash over them. I find it hard to imagine anybody, even the kind of anybody whose job it is to do so, turning on the TV and giving their undivided attention to the Republican National Convention.
I had an uncle who was one of those adults who liked to tell whining children that only boring people get bored. I bristled at this as a kid and still do. The convention was boring because the people who made it are boring, even if they also happen to be dangerous. Having insisted upon as much of an in-person event as possible, most of the speeches were given on the same stage in Charlotte filled with American flags. Speaker after speaker painted a picture of America that was not entirely inaccurate: rioting, protests, fury at the police, and feckless Democratic mayors incapable of bringing peace. They offered an alternative path, one where nobody can get an abortion, where so-called law and order prevails, and where Twitter and Facebook are not allowed to ban someone just because they promote antisemitic conspiracy theories. Trump warned that the left would prevent this all by somehow forcing Biden to install “radical judges” and as a result the American Dream would die. If that was what these people saw in their sleep, I thought, I hope we all wake up soon.
Trump’s first speech, mercifully brief compared to the one he gave on the final night, outlined the agenda for the rest of his campaign. He swore that mail-in ballots would be illegitimate, praised the enthusiasm of his base, and gloated about nearly starting a war with Iran. “We are going to fully fund law enforcement and hire more police,” he promised, which is in fact a point of commonality between the two campaigns even if they plan on spending the fall denying that the other means it. After Trump accepted the nomination on the first day, “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People poured out of the speakers. Young man, pick yourself off the ground Victor Willis sang as an authoritarian septuagenarian walked away, his face briefly obscured by a Women for Trump sign. There is a certain critical tendency, the same that catches on every moment of baldfaced hypocrisy, that would see incongruity in choosing this song for a gathering of racist homophobes. But fascist America, like America in general, has rarely had a problem with absorbing the cultural output of those it seeks to destroy. A banger is a banger even if it is gay and black.
The most coherent parts of the pageantry were delivered by the representatives of the anti-choice and petite bourgeoisie wings of the party. The Catholic nun and Abby Johnson, an anti-choice activist in big pearls and, in place of an American flag pin, a gleaming 1972, in honor of the last good year, before Roe v. Wade, were clear about what they wanted—a restriction on the right to abortion specifically and on women’s ability to participate in political life generally. The small business owners who felt “under assault from shutdowns” and “riots” needed order, a miracle cure and labor discipline. The couple invited for no reason other than that they pointed a rifle and a pistol at black people outside of their suburban mansion said that “Marxist liberals” were intent on “ending single-family zoning” and “defunding police.” The category error in the nomenclature aside, they are more or less correct. Their solution was to wave guns around. “What you saw happening to us could just as easily happen to you” is perhaps the right’s response to “it can’t happen here,” but the limits of this solidaristic second person are pretty obvious. It is hard for me to see myself on the grounds of a midwestern palazzo, fearful, furious, my finger dancing around a trigger, the barrel of my gun sweeping over a crowd of black people likewise fearful, furious and chanting the names of the dead. The night was not made to indulge my fantasies.
Over the four days of the convention it became harder to focus on what anybody was saying or doing. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and S.E. Cupp joined pundits like John Podhoretz in praising the effectiveness and production value of the propaganda, which made me wonder whether they had seen the kind America has produced in the past. Frank Capra and John Ford made propaganda. Tony Scott had to give Tom Cruise his iconic role in Top Gun because Matthew Modine thought it too propagandistic. We have never lacked for fine craftsmen of dirty lies. Here the key light was so strong on Mike Pence in a video highlighting Trump’s effect on ordinary people that viewers, accustomed to Hollywood productions capable of executing basic three-point lighting, thought he was speaking in front of a green screen. No conspiracy is needed where incompetence will do.
These bizarre interludes to repetitive speeches competed for attention with what was happening beyond the pageant halls. Kenosha continued to burn in the wake of the police shooting Jacob Blake in the back, and then Kyle Rittenhouse, 17-year-old former cadet and Blue Lives Matter supporter, opened fire, too. The link was obvious because everything has been strikingly obvious for some time now. Someone unearthed a TikTok Rittenhouse had recorded from the front row of a Trump rally months ago. The speaker at the podium shouts “record levels, record for African-Americans, record for Latinos, sixty-five-year high for females. This president doesn’t preach. He gets it done.” This was the same line that a shockingly high number of black speakers—a football player, a politician, a lawyer—offered in Charlotte. African-Americans should not be held captive to a party that has failed them; rather, they should side with the party responsible for the best times of their lives. The Republicans, like the Democrats, would describe some part of the years 2012–2020 as the high water mark in black American life. There are ways in which that is true, but that is not a high bar to clear. There is, of course, another way to read those years. They were years of near constant protest, disruption and uprisings. They could be characterized by the formation of a white supremacist movement emboldened first by the presence of a black president and then of one whose administration has winked, nodded and prodded them along. “You have the right to bear arms, especially when you look at a Portland,” Trump informed his supporters the day before two people were shot dead by one of them. This President doesn’t preach.
When dealing with people who do not preach I prefer to read them plainly. Years ago I interviewed the director Cristian Mungiu when his 2012 film Beyond The Hills was being released in New York. Known for a highly choreographed, sparingly plotted form of realism, he told me that he did not believe there was such a thing as metaphor in cinema. On the screen things are what they are. Is has no transmutative power like it does in language. If her eyes are diamonds it’s because there are diamonds there. It is true enough that I often repeat the principle. It is definitely true in political television. There is less of a need to read the feints and sleights of hand than to just look and listen. The black man who flashed his pearly whites, and slipped between them his anger at anarchists tearing up our cities and black people “not being trusted to speak for themselves,” was not a metaphor. He is Kentucky’s Attorney General and he has within his power the ability to oversee a serious investigation into the killing of Breonna Taylor. There he was speaking for himself, railing against “the politics of identity, cancellation and mob rule.” People are dead, his state is racked with grief and fury, and he smiled and inveighed against cancellation. Certainly a fear made for television.
Toward the end of the convention the only good TV currently airing was suspended. The Milwaukee Bucks attempted to forfeit their playoff match against the Orlando Magic in protest of the events in Kenosha. Other teams followed suit, and the restarted NBA was indefinitely postponed due to a wildcat strike. The action was infectious. WNBA players, MLB players, and MLS players struck. Naomi Osaka struck and brought the tennis world to a halt. Jared Kushner sneered in response. The cancellation of your ratings rival is typically a good thing, but the story was so unbelievable until the moment it happened that speeches paled in comparison. Conventions happen every four years, but wildcat strikes have been illegal since 1935. As the party faithful well know, there is little else like seeing people flaunt the law and get away with it.
The strike withered, but it highlighted the real undercurrent of the Republican Convention: to anyone psychically invested in the velvet glove of normal life, we are already in the throes of an insurrection that must be stamped out. We are nearing the end of a summer that taught us nothing is inviolable, not precincts and not the promise that black people will entertain us to the bitter end. Republicans know that what has been unleashed will not be pacified easily. Pat Lynch, the head of the NYPD union, gave a speech castigating the left and the Democrats and all but swearing fealty to Trump. The congressional Democrats who embarrassingly kneeled in kente cloth were featured in a video roll call of radicalism alongside the DSA and toppled Confederate statues. Riots have become so commonplace that there was little mention of the one that happened in Minneapolis this week. Millionaire athletes are accidentally starting sectoral strikes through the mere suggestion of refusal. These are not the kind of antagonisms resolved by counting votes.
There is a passage in Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed that I kept thinking about, whenever somebody said “law and order” or when Mike Pence invoked the “thin blue line.” In the novel a young woman is believed to have been murdered, and something is being pulled from the lake near town. “Because something is as big as a human being doesn’t mean it has to be one,” Jelinek writes of the thoughts of the people charged with the grim task, but “the men know what it looks like is probably what it will be.” I kept asking myself: what does this look like? Production value aside, it was a hymn to the Right and to the right to protect private property—with the police if possible, and on your own if necessary. A woman does not have the right to an abortion. It would be better if she were at home after a long day running a regional coffee shop chain, carefully loading a gun alongside her husband in case protesters made their way past the gates of her community. It is a strange but familiar politics, more plainspoken every day. As Hurricane Laura approached the Gulf Coast, I remembered reading about how in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, when the levees had nearly burst, white men forced black workers at gunpoint to lay down and use their bodies to plug the holes so that the white townsfolk would have more time to evacuate. If you have ever seen the river you know that there is nothing that will hold it back, especially not something as frail as flesh. I thought of these things because they make do without metaphor. A person is a person, a body is a body, not something else. These politicians promised what they promised. The only thing that made it hard to parse was their insistence on performing to an empty room. They frequently failed to cut away immediately after the end of a speech, meaning that the camera would linger on what should have been a thunderous conclusion. Instead there was silence. We have seen the fascist stoking and stoked by a roiling mob. This was more like watching them rehearse in a bedroom mirror all wild-eyed and brimming with violence, but slightly pathetic. In light of this it was smart for Trump to give his speech in front of real people. What’s a fascist without a crowd? A lone wolf, I guess. There seem to be more of those every day.