The RNC Has Already Run Out of Things to Say

At night two of the convention, Republicans continued to relitigate old battles without responding to the current moment.

Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, and Eric Trump on a red background.
Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, and Eric Trump. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Christina Cauterucci: I don’t know about you, Jordan, but Night Two of the Republican National Convention had me hooked right from the start. There was a montage that took viewers from MLK (good) to the Squad, Tiananmen Square, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara (bad). The message was very clear!

Jordan Weissmann: I think the moment that summed up the night was when everyone on Slate Slack realized we could actually hear the crickets during Melania’s speech.

There were a few moments to get worked up about, but it was, for the most part, a long, relentlessly dull and repetitious 2½ hours, which to some extent reflects how little the GOP has to say at this juncture.

Christina: I called them crickets. You thought they might have been cicadas. It truly proved that for the media, in the words of Nicholas Sandmann, “the truth was not important. Advancing their anti-Christian, anti-conservative, anti–Donald Trump narrative was all that mattered”

Jordan: I mean, the Republicans went into this convention facing a very difficult task: How do you make a case for reelecting the president, without dwelling on the single most important issue the country faces right now, namely, the plague that has killed more than 180,000 Americans?

Christina: The answer was: Don’t mention it!

It wasn’t until Melania chimed in that the mass death was even acknowledged. Every other mention of the coronavirus was filtered through the lens of economic impact and how Trump has allegedly mitigated it.

Jordan: Larry Kudlow referred to it in the past tense! “It was awful.” Was!

Christina: They’re banking on the fact that people whose relatives died today won’t be watching.

Jordan: Somewhere, someone in a hospital room has been watching this convention, where the most pressing problem in America is political correctness and cancel culture, and only the first lady will even bother to assure America that a vaccine is definitely coming.

But even so. It would be a lot easier to treat the coronavirus as the pathogen-that-must-not-be-named if the GOP had some positive agenda to talk about. And there’s really nothing, so instead, we’ve mostly been treated to a parade of family members and scenes of Trump presidenting.

Christina: He presidented in two major ways tonight: He signed a pardon for a supporter who was incarcerated on federal charges then befriended the FBI agent who arrested him, and he performed a naturalization ceremony for five now-citizens. Which one was more craven, in your estimation?

Jordan: I think they were craven in different ways. The naturalization ceremony took more obvious chutzpah—as our politics editor Tom said, it was like watching Hitler light a menorah. But the pardon was more complicated. Less so because of the reality show spectacle of it, but because the contradiction in Trump’s whole approach to criminal justice. On the one hand, the president race-baits constantly by talking about law and order. On the other, he also has pursued some real, if incremental, criminal justice reforms, which he has a right to tout. But how do those two things mesh into a philosophy? I’m honestly not sure.

Can you square that circle? And which presidenting scene did you find more garish?

Christina: To me, both of those scenes were examples of how the Republican Party is fully consumed by exceptions that prove the rule: the “lawful” immigrants that make all other immigrants seem devious and dangerous, the reformed Christian felon who loves law enforcement, making all other formerly incarcerated people seem insufficiently God-fearing or self-hating or pro-cop. The party that loathes affirmative action makes its convention docket 500 percent more racially diverse than its elected officials, appointees, and rank-and-file membership.

The entire thing was set up to vindicate Republican voters who love Trump because of his punishing immigration policies but who love to feel unjustly persecuted by Democrats who accuse them of being anti-immigrant.

Jordan: It’s especially rich given Trump’s actual record on legal immigration, which even pre-COVID had fallen off a cliff under his watch, partly thanks to steps he’d taken.

Christina: Yeah. On that note, I wonder how much of it was staged specifically to troll the libs. The Muslim ban president naturalizes Muslim immigrants on live TV! (It wasn’t live TV.)

Jordan: Has anybody articulated a formal law on this? If it appears Trump is trying to troll the libs, he is probably trying to troll the libs.

Christina: Libs were also trolled, no doubt, by the deliberate lack of social distancing—socialist distancing, in the words of the South Dakota governor—in every segment. Melania’s speech had a live audience of six dozen or so people, all maskless. Which: If you’re going to make a major statement that endangers public health at your party convention, at least have those people cheer like they’re at an actual convention! They were so silent. Silenced, maybe, by all that cancel culture.

Jordan: Speaking of which, it is somewhat ironic that a convention largely devoted to the evils of cancel culture … had to cancel one of its speakers for retweeting a nakedly antisemitic QAnon conspiracy thread (because it’s 2020 and that’s just something that happens now). But anyway, I want to go back to the pardon. Because I think it plays into the one thing I have found genuinely interesting about this convention: the efforts to appeal to Black men.

This is the second night in the row where they’ve pressed the message that Democrats take Black voters for granted. And I think they found their most effective messenger for it, the young, Black attorney general of Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, who like other speakers before laid into Joe Biden for suggesting anybody who voted for Trump wasn’t really Black but did it with a lot more panache.

I think the question, at this point, is why Republicans are leaning so hard into this. Do they really think they can pull off a small share of the Black vote from Biden, which could tip a swing state? Are they trying to reassure white voters that Trump can soothe race relations in this country, which polling suggests is one of his huge weak points? Do Republicans just want to be told they aren’t really racist, that Democrats are the real bigots? Is it all of the above?

Christina: I think it’s all of the above. I suspect it’s mostly the last two things. I imagine the Trump campaign is paying attention to the polls that show support for the Movement for Black Lives is surging across the country. I’m sure they’re seeing all the white people becoming newly concerned with making sure they’re not racist. There are plenty of Trump voters who are marginally disturbed by his rhetoric (“I don’t like everything the guy says”) but like his policies just fine. I think he’s trying to make sure they have plausible self-deniability when they go to vote for him again.

One of the most jarring quotes of tonight’s show, for me, came from an unnamed Black woman in a montage. She said something like, “When people say we’re oppressed here—how?” Meanwhile, all the white people who got speaking time talked about how white, Christian, conservative Americans are silenced, oppressed, canceled, persecuted, hobbled by regulations, and kept from worshiping in peace and pressured to keep their opinions to themselves. All the people of color talked about how they’re not oppressed at all. It was a truly deranged reversal of the victimhood complex we’re told people on the left, who are obsessed with identity politics, have.

Jordan: In fairness, Billy Graham’s granddaughter got up and said that Christians hadn’t faced physical oppression … yet.

Did you notice how they also just slipped some fun, bald-faced lies into those montages of normal voters? Did you know that Donald Trump created a budget surplus before COVID?!?!

Christina: On the topic of random people making claims: I love that the lobsterman from Maine was “offended” on principle by an Obama regulation that protected the environment and affected his business not at all.

Jordan: That was the best line of the night, by far: “Although Maine’s lobstermen don’t fish there, Obama’s executive order offended us greatly.” Maybe that was some Maine politics microtargeting. Susan Collins needs all the help she can get there.

At this point, my primary question is this: How on earth are they going to fill two more nights of airtime without talking about the most important issue in the country? How many more times are can you repeat the same list of movement conservative cultural grievances? It feels a little like they’ve been making a stock. On Night One, they turned the crazy to a full boil, with Kim Guilfoyle shrieking like she was at a book burning rally and Junior weeping his way through his speech. On Night Two, they lowered it to a simmer, and even tried to skim some of the scum off the top. What’s left to watch now?

Christina: Right. The only full-on wackadoo moment from tonight was Abby Johnson—the anti-choice fabulist, opponent of women’s suffrage, and racist mom who wants police to racially profile her own biracial son—who talked about how abortions smell.

What are Republicans supposed to be voting for? The way tonight’s speakers framed the election, it seemed like a vote for Trump would be more of a statement of identity (see: Sandmann ceremoniously donning his MAGA hat at the end of his wooden address) than a vote for a particular set of policies that would make the country work a certain way. With all the fearmongering about the radical left, the tone was way too put-upon for a party in power. That worked when the status quo was Obama. I wonder if it’ll work now, when people have their current lives under Trump—in a pandemic nonetheless—to consider. Lies about the economy don’t (or shouldn’t?) work with people who are actually out of a job.

Jordan: Well, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Let me present to you the most depressing paragraph I’ve read this week, courtesy of Jim Tankersley at the New York Times:

Polls conducted in June, July, and August for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey underscore the degree to which even Republicans hit hard by the crisis continue to give Mr. Trump and his economy high marks. Eight in 10 Republican respondents who lost a job in the recession and have yet to return to work approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Nearly three in 10 Republicans who lost jobs say they are better off economically than they were a year ago, a sentiment that is shared by barely one in 10 Democrats who have kept their jobs throughout the crisis.

Christina: Oh, right, I forgot “economic anxiety” was always just shorthand for “racism.”

Jordan: But aside from a few token issues that have repeatedly been mentioned—school “choice” has come up again and again, which is a biggie for evangelicals, obviously—there just isn’t much of an agenda. Which of course was also reflected in the platform Trump put out, with the immortal bullet point “Return to normal in 2021.” This whole thing has been MAGA Festivus—one long airing of cultural grievances, where the Covington kid can bore everyone with his 48,000th recounting of how the media wronged him (which, in fairness, it kind of did, but there’s also a plague going around that’s a bit more pressing).

Christina: Well, that settles it. The convention has been a rousing success! It’s done exactly what it’s needed to do, which is precisely nothing.

Jordan: That seems to be the message so far. On the other hand, if Trump sees the ratings nosedive, he might decide to bring the crazy back to a boil.

Christina: To Mars!