If you were a fan of The Apprentice, you will recall that the point of the show was always the performative act of power that came in the last moments, as Donald Trump, sitting behind a monster desk, intoned at some poor victim, “You’re fired.” It was then, as he exerted his actual authority over everyone in the room, that you had the frisson of seeing reality TV get real. The business magnate was magnating, and it was thrilling.
Night Two of the breathtakingly tedious Republican National Convention featured the same dynamic: Between the videos of ordinary people telling ordinary untruths and of Donald Trump’s children celebrating his greatness, there were two scenes of Donald Trump doing what presidents do. In the opening segment we saw Trump brandishing his Sharpie to issue a full pardon to a Jon Ponder, a reformed criminal and now the CEO of Hope for Prisoners Inc. Ponder had just finished singing Trump’s praises when the president offered him a surprise full pardon. Then, later in the evening’s programming, Trump used his prime-time broadcast to make an additional “surprise appearance,” by unexpectedly swearing in five new citizens as they stood by beaming at him. These new citizens have thus benefited from the convention despite the fact that naturalization ceremonies were abruptly halted for COVID-19, which may mean that hundreds of thousands of potential citizens won’t actually be able to vote in November. But Donald Trump has the power to ensure that five of them can, and will.
In other words, Day Two of the GOP convention was transformed from a gregarious rally for the Republican nominee into an evening in Richard Scarry’s Busy Town, in which Donald Trump, after three years of relentless golfing, finally answers the question, “What Do Presidents Do All Day?” It turns out he can actually do stuff, and in typical Trumpian fashion, he did all this stuff on television, and in exchange for a whiff of loyalty from those on whom he bestows the favor.
I found myself idly wondering what Trump would possibly do in the third hour of the evening. The Constitution is a virtual pull-down menu of executive branch powers. Would he perhaps make a treaty? Receive an ambassador? Appoint a judge? Stay tuned, America. (America was disappointed. He did nothing, but stay tuned: Tomorrow is another day in Presidential Busy Town.)
All of this feels a bit silly, sure, but recall, please, that Mike Pompeo, speaking live from Jerusalem, violated the guidance of his own Department of State by abusing his office to campaign for the president. Or that another Cabinet member, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who is not in fact serving legally, also improperly appeared as part of the surprise prime-time naturalization ceremony. Or that the president violated every norm of his office by staging the convention on White House grounds, in violation of the Hatch Act. (The Hatch Act prohibits civil servants from using their title, office, or any sort of government resource while engaging in political activities.) But never mind. The Hatch Act has been toilet paper on the shoe of this administration for a long time. And if the convention was to be repurposed as an exercise in performing actual presidential acts on network television, it only makes sense to press Cabinet members, and the White House itself, into service as props, extras, and sets. Which means that the truly astounding aspect of the evening wasn’t just that political officials were using their office to shill for their president but that they were lending an oar by officially ensuring that Trump’s official acts would be conducted as part of this campaign.
We knew, going into this convention, that Trump would make use of the grounds of the White House as he made his bid for reelection. But he has actually gone further, by using the actual powers his office bestows on him to perform presidential acts as part of the convention. It’s strange, because the act of pardoning a reformed prisoner or naturalizing a citizen is both uniquely presidential and, for presidents, relatively routine. But turning that kind of sober, consequential, and legal ceremony into a live show that is a bid for your reelection? That would be chilling if it weren’t so decidedly Mark Burnett. But it’s also just really chilling.
For two nights you’ve heard that Democrats are destroying America through their prodigious, imaginary powers of mind control. That is, after all, the only actual power Democrats must have, given that the Republicans control the White House, the Senate, and with every passing day, the courts. And yet Tuesday night was a dramatic show of the actual power that inheres in the president himself; it’s a power that’s partly real and immutable, and partly, in this president’s hands, a bit. The real, enduring, terrifying power is not all that different from that which we witnessed in Lafayette Square this summer, or in Portland, Oregon, last month. This is a president who has grossly abused his office, whether for the purpose of pardons, extrajudicial targeted killings, pursuing his enemies, or pressuring allies into digging up dirt on political rivals. Tuesday night, he casually deployed two powers of the presidency—intended to be considered, and judicious, and life-altering—not to promote justice or correct wrongs, but because he can, because it’s television, and because he wants to win an election.
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