I think things. Then I write about them. It's the narcissism, you see.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

GOP Convention Day 2: Stop the World...

...Ben Carson fell off. For better or worse Donald Trump is the nominee for the Republican Party. Ben Carson joked about Satan, Donald Jr plagiarized but didn't, and no one can explain Melania's speech. But the convention marches on.
Paul Ryan’s speech was a welcome change of pace. I was hoping for some specific ideas; Ryan is an idea man and policy wonk, after all. What Ryan lacked in specificity, though, he made up for in vision. He reminded people that Republicans stand for—or, in Ryan’s telling, are supposed to stand for—the opportunity for people to live their lives to the fullest potential without onerous government intervention. He also spoke to the need to address poverty—a recent passion of his and an issue that Trump hasn’t spoke of directly but that dovetails into Trump’s broader economic message. Ryan’s philosophical musings—and attacks against the Democratic Party that didn’t hinge on invoking Hillary Clinton—didn’t receive thunderous applause in the arena, but as the man shepherding a conservative agenda through Washington he at least enunciated broad themes about the Republican Party. This could serve the dual purpose of turning some of Trump’s support into actual Republicans and a reassuring conservative Republicans that the party hasn’t completely abandoned its principles. Ryan finished with a call for unity—implicitly stating that no matter what voters on the right think about Trump, Clinton will be worse.

Chris Christie’s speech was relentless but felt out of place on the second night’s prime time line-up which, compared to Monday, was more optimistic (slightly) and more about Donald Trump (slightly). We get it, Christie—you’d have been a great attack dog. But Trump is an attack dog in his own right, and in anticipation of Mike Pence’s speech Wednesday I find myself wondering whether Trump needed another attack dog as his VP nominee.

The Trump children, Donald Jr and Tiffany, were the easy standouts. Their poise alone said a lot about their father—parents everywhere will wonder how bad he can really be if his kids are that exceptional. The fact that Trump’s children proved so impressive may also help disarm character criticism over his three marriages; there’s been no evidence of dysfunction between Trump and his children, and there was nothing in Tiffany’s or Donald Jr’s speeches to suggest they were less than genuine. Tiffany’s speech was by far the more humanizing, and the report card anecdote was the highlight. Donald Jr tied character observations—such as Trump’s tendency to interact with and talk to the people doing actual work—into his father’s leadership philosophy. Both speeches spoke of Trump as a man who believes the impossible is possible, who believes anyone can rise to the top through merit and hard work, and who implicitly lives by the classic American dream than anyone can do anything. Ryan’s speech expressed this same sentiment but in a more abstract way. In a country where people—despite unemployment figures and jobs reports—may not believe the American dream is working anymore, will voters invest their hope for its return in a wealthy businessman whose attitude supposedly embodies it?

On both days there’s been a weird cadence to the presentation order. This was on display Monday night when Melania Trump’s speech was sandwiched among a cavalcade of Clinton take-downs. This has been blamed both on a lack of star power and on campaign mismanagement. It seems unlikely that political star power would make a difference. If reaction to speakers thus far is any indication, the hardcore Trump supporters aren’t passionate for Republican politicians; they’re only concerned with Trump winning and Clinton losing. Meanwhile the establishment Republican faction that is present doesn’t seem to know what to make of the serious Trump supporters and is less interested in the “celebrity” speakers. Regardless of whether voters coalesce around Trump, the party has a long way to go to integrate the successful insurgency and the rank and file. On the matter of the schedule—and the pundits’ belief that it should be arranged like a television show building to climax—I find myself wondering how relevant that thinking is. Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns demonstrated the value of free media and social media—both of which center around clips and segments rather than lengthy presentations. Add to that the changes in technology that have transformed the way Americans watch television—not necessarily all at once and with the ability to watch the same thing over and over again—and I am wondering how much linear scheduling matters anymore. Does it matter that Tiffany Trump’s speech wasn’t in the crucial prime time hour when it can be found all over social media?

My biggest take away of the night was just how much counter programming it contained. Kimberlin Brown, former soap star turned small business owner, delivered a passionate and well-reasoned argument for supporting Trump that appealed directly to fellow women business owners. She hit back hard against the notion that women are monolithic single-issue voters and denounced the idea that Hillary Clinton is a defender of women by virtue of her gender. The closing benediction was given by a Muslim. Trump’s children and winery manager launched a pre-emptive assault on the expected attack line that Trump isn’t successful in business and doesn’t care about ordinary workers. The night was still largely a tear down of Clinton, and much more work has to be put into telling voters not just who Trump is but also what his ideas are. But Clinton has been in the national spotlight for twenty-five years while Trump is a relative unknown who people mostly know thanks to a television show. Both candidates have high unfavorables, but Trump has the greater potential for rehabilitation even if he can’t fully salvage his character. The question is whether he and his surrogates can stay on message long enough to make that impact.

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