Events worthy of mass and simultaneous witness are hard to come by on TV these days. So rarely since satellite, DVR, Netflix, and the Pirate Bay do the people of the United States seem to be watching the same thing at the same time. Sports come close, and America’s prodigal children will tune in from time to time for a State of the Union, the way one listens to a voicemail from dad. But the moon landing of our time is most likely The Dress, which happened on the internet. What else has compelled millions of people to drop what they’re doing, turn to the screen, and reflect as one on the miracle of science? Not the Republican National Convention, but the speakers in Cleveland last night did their best to conjure this sense of momentousness and wonder, or short of that, allude to it. “Forty-seven years ago today”—not a round number, but they’ll take it—“Apollo 11 landed on the moon,” said various speakers and voiceovers. There to provide a concrete semiotic link was Eileen Collins, unrelated to that mission but “the first woman to command a space shuttle.” She gave a tepid speech about the importance of big dreams and firsts, the theme of the evening being “Make America First Again.” Her inclusion, otherwise inexplicable, was a subliminal message: this is good TV, historic TV, as important and unifying as the moon landing—even as she bored everyone. That, at least, was my reading, and by the end of the night it felt sort of true.
I skipped the first day of RNC speeches. Partly I thought they’d be something like the pre-televised part of the Grammy Awards—boring, insidery, the speakers the regional-politician equivalents of “Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media” and “Producer of the Year: Classical.” On Tuesday, I caught Giuliani’s hysterical invocation of Trump’s love of people “from the top to the bottom from the middle to the side!”—confusing, in the process, the hand gestures for “top” and “bottom”—before my boyfriend asked me kindly, from the other room, to let him know when I’d be finished; I shut it off. Wednesday, I was home alone.
The two most impressive speakers of the opening set—the two who left an impression at all—were the bottle blondes Laura Ingraham and Michelle Van Etten, who represented the best and worst of the night’s speaking talent. Ingraham, a conservative talk-radio star and O’Reilly Factor substitute host, was mid-speech when I tuned in, and I found her skillful and terrifying, all lean muscle in a short-sleeved lavender wrap dress (or was it blue?), nailing the audition for Ann Coulter’s job that was undoubtedly taking place in her head. Ingraham referred to some Democratic Party policy as “a bad joke, like skinny jeans on a man, or a man-bun”—not her best, but a nice swipe at the hipster beta male—and occasionally resorted to direct address, pointing at the camera like an evil pop-star hoping to collapse the distance between the proverbial and literal you. At one point, she narrowed her eyes, hunched her shoulders, and squinted up toward the press box to dramatize the media’s Olympian attitude toward the people below. “Do your job!” she shouted, as if scolding a dog. Donald, she said, was doing it better, daring to “tell us the hard truth about what happened to our country.” Ingraham demonstrated impressive stage presence and bodily control until closing, accidentally, with a Nazi salute.
Van Etten, a “small business owner,” was far weirder, making for better TV. Her speech was like a Real World audition tape before the requisite do-overs, and I wondered who, if anyone, had deemed her most fit to speak on behalf of Women in Business for Trump. Here was a truly random person, blonde-ish in a sort of trench capelet, relaying a confusing story about her childhood dream of being in the circus. Some dreams do come true, if only metaphorically. Van Etten punctuated her meandering tale with senseless gesticulation and sing-song body language: one finger held up while she said the word “two”; Judo chops at the air, not to emphasize words but rather to signal that she was at a loss for them; arms held out like the shrug emoji. At this juncture, Twitter was good company. “This speech is amazing, it’s like Quaker Meeting at my elementary school,” wrote my friend Anna. It really did feel like the mic was open to anyone: Van Etten had been moved to speak, and that’s what mattered.
For months now, I’ve been unable to think of this election as anything but television. “Can I binge watch it later?” I joked last fall, knowing the answer was no. I did not, and do not, relate to the junkies who refresh Politico with twitchy fingers and allow their personalities to become Facebook grotesques, but they remind me of the people who once insisted I watch The Wire—how had I not seen The Wire?!—and now insist I watch House of Cards: the TV addicts who manage anxiety via narrative suspense meted out over time. Freud explained anxiety dreams as wish fulfillments, since our deepest wish as humans is to be spared from trauma, which is the result of being caught off guard. If you envision the worst, then nothing can sneak up on you; why else would soldiers dream of grenades? Election coverage resembles both an anxiety dream and a reality show, and it’s possible that people unconsciously believe that watching enough of it, obsessing over the minutiae, playing more or less the same scene over and over with slight variations, will shelter them from the shock of the outcome.
This kind of anxiety management does not work for me. I’m a serial binge-watcher, and my problems are different. I’ve missed too many episodes and the recaps confuse me. Once again, I feel unprepared for the season finale; I don’t even know what show I’m watching, or understand the rules of the game. Election TV, like a dream, is the product of condensation and substitution, a stylistic mishmash that the RNC produces in miniature: it’s The O’Reilly Factor and Shark Tank and The Apprentice and a televangelist show and The Hills (with Ivanka as Whitney Port) rolled into one conservative revue. Meanwhile, offstage, other reality TV world-systems battle for prominence. The contest for the Republican nomination followed the logic of Survivor: make allies, not friends, and don’t get voted off the island—simple as that. In the Democratic corner, Hillary alone finds herself on The Bachelor, stuck auditioning for a job by doing something other than that job. The paradox of The Bachelor and old-school courtship is that you must be a good date before someone decides you’re a good wife. Hillary must prove she’s a good offstage President by first being a good onstage politician—a game her people rightly complain is sexist, rigged, and not suited to her strengths. But who’s to say she’d win Iron Wonk? For better or worse, this is the show she’s on.
So went my internal monologue as Scott Walker took the stage. The podium placed before previous speakers had suddenly disappeared, and the screen behind him was transformed into a digital collage of rural patriotism—amber waves of grain, stars, stripes, a barn—recalling the Waltons’ Pioneer-town set design for the Walmart shareholders meeting. I was too distracted by the way he flapped his arms in his jacket, like he was doing the chicken, but very subtly, to listen to what he was saying, but I noticed that his voice broke on the word “high school,” which felt a skeleton key to his psyche. Rubio was beamed in on Skype, looking handsome and hostage to some off-screen capo (were his hands literally tied? Why didn’t he come in person?). And then there was Ted.
As Ted Cruz spoke, I refreshed Twitter and found my feed, like the room, was silent. His was the first real speech, structured and snark-proofed, and as he talked about cops and children and life in the womb, I felt tremendous relief that this man had been deprived of the Presidency by someone so much stupider. A script-on-parchment image of the Constitution, or maybe the Declaration of Independence, was projected behind him, signaling his seriousness as a patriarch, and people cheered him, loved him, until the moment came when he should have said Trump’s name. He didn’t. People began to grumble, then to boo, shouting and mouthing “EN-DORSE TRUMP!” as Cruz delivered the rest. The man who had spent the past few minutes celebrating freedom to vigorous applause was now exercising his, alone. Small, isolated, unloved on the stage, he was perhaps the only Republican present to understand that your right to your freedom doesn’t protect you from other people’s desire to beat you up. In a twisted way, I was proud of him.
“This is good television,” tweeted the lawyer of a famous whistleblower.
“Anyone who is not watching this is missing one of the best things ever to be on television,” tweeted an editor at the newspaper that published the whistleblower’s secrets. “You couldn’t script it. Pure genius.”
“And yet . . .” replied the old TV critic from the New Yorker, “there is something to be said for missing it.”
“Years from now, people will try to describe it to you, and you’ll wish you had been watching,” the editor tweeted back. “It’s like Woodstock.”
“But life would have a certain sweetness if one missed it,” she replied. Also: “I AM WATCHING. Wouldn’t miss it.”