Presented By
  • Entertainment

GOP Convention’s Angry Tone Sets a New Standard for Televised Politics

4 minute read

The TV broadcast of the ongoing Republican National Convention, which wraps up Thursday night with a speech from nominee Donald Trump, contained moments of drudgery that were comfortably familiar.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has been a genial, pleasant master of ceremonies of sorts—as a TV personality, he’s rather like Neil Patrick Harris at an awards show, moving the process along over making any sort of ideological point himself. And during segments like, say, the roll call, when states tout their unique histories as the home of Johnny Cash (Arkansas) or Pez dispensers (Connecticut) before casting their votes, the usual stream of platitudes had a numbing effect. This was just another convention.

Until it wasn’t, such as when Alaska contested how its votes were being counted. Though the nature of the dispute was lost on most viewers, the anger and anguish on the face of a Frontier State delegate protesting the procedural ruling was jarring.

It’s been like this all week. Things seem to be proceeding as they otherwise would have, until a pained yelp of rage breaks out. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was criticized for making a 2012 keynote speech too much about himself, instead turned the focus on Hillary Clinton, leading the audience in a call-and-response on whether the presumptive Democratic nominee was guilty of various offenses, both legal and political. A colleague aptly compared the heady tone, building upon itself in intensity, to elements of a Catholic Passion play, when the audience is asked to play the crowd condemning Jesus.

The events at Benghazi either are or are not in-bounds, depending on your political affiliation. But a speech by the mother of one of the slain Americans in the Libyan city veered far beyond questions of the former Secretary of State’s competence, culminating in her declaration, “Hillary for prison! She ought to be in stripes!” Repeated declarations that the opposing party’s presumptive nominee ought to be imprisoned are not new this cycle, but still come as a surprise at an event traditionally used to frame the party’s vision in a forward-looking sense for the television audience.

Scenes from the Republican National Convention

Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence stand with their families at the end of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio.
Attendees celebrate as the Republican National Convention comes to a close on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
Duck Dynasty reality TV star Phil Robertson on the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Duck Dynasty reality TV star Phil Robertson on the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Donald Trump kisses running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, in Cleveland.
Donald Trump kisses running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, in Cleveland.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
TIMEPOL RNC
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
TIMEPOL RNC
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
TIMEPOL RNC
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Donald Trump with his children Eric and Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, on July 20, 2016.
Donald Trump with his children Eric and Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, on July 20, 2016. Benjamin Lowy for TIME
A man poses at Instagram's "Mini Oval" office at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
A man poses at Instagram's "Mini Oval" office at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Donald Trump supporter Rachel Day, from Akron, stands outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
Donald Trump supporter Rachel Day, from Akron, stands outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
TIMEPOL RNC
Troopers monitor protests outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
Mounted police from Fort Worth, Texas monitor the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
Mounted police from Fort Worth, Texas monitor the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
A man attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A man attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
A Texas delegate tallies up the votes for the Donald Trump's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A Texas delegate tallies up the votes for the Donald Trump's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Delegates cheer at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Delegates cheer at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Comedian Eric Andre is escorted from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Comedian Eric Andre is escorted from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Boxing promoter Don King attends the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Boxing promoter Don King attends the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Donald Trump Jr. speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Donald Trump Jr. speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
Tiffany Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
Tiffany Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
A screen displays the state flag of Mississippi, the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its official state flag, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A screen displays the state flag of Mississippi, the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its official state flag, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
TIMEPOL RNC
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Buttons are displayed for sale outside the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Buttons are displayed for sale outside the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Landon Nordeman for TIME
A pair of men interact with protesters in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A pair of men interact with protesters in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
Trevor Leis, of Lime, supports open carry at the Cleveland Public Square amidst various protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
Trevor Leis, of Lime, supports open carry at the Cleveland Public Square amidst various protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
A police officer stands on a protective crowd control line in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
A police officer stands on a protective crowd control line in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
Delegates pose for a group photo at the Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
Delegates pose for a group photo at the Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.Landon Nordeman for TIME
A man dons a "Make America Great Again" hat at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
A man dons a "Make America Great Again" hat at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.Benjamin Lowy for TIME
Melania Trump kisses her husband, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, to the applause of the ecstatic crowd, on July 18, 2016.
Melania Trump kisses her husband, Donald Trump in front of an ecstatic crowd, on July 18, 2016.Ben Lowy for TIME
Scenes from the floor of the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
Scenes from the floor of the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.Landon Nordeman for TIME
Donald Trump appears on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
Donald Trump appears on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.Landon Nordeman for TIME

Conventions are indeed supposed to put a candidate’s best foot forward. Their perfectly titrated mix of platitudes from other party members build in blunt-force impact towards a positive, affirmative case the candidate makes himself; think of Bill Clinton’s “Man from Hope” framing in 1992 or George W. Bush putting forward “compassionate conservatism” in 2000.

While we remember individual moments that have marred the planned perfection of past conventions—Pat Buchanan declaring “culture war” at the 1992 GOP convention, Ted Kennedy stealing Jimmy Carter’s thunder among the Democrats in 1980—they were but moments, jarring for how out-of-step they were with the mood the convention was trying to strike. This year’s convention, by contrast, has seen moments of placidity seem out-of-step and wrong. Anger is the norm. Take Ted Cruz’s speech, surprising not for what it had (lots of bromides about freedom) but what it lacked (an endorsement of Trump). The chaotic booing that ensued, which rose to the level that Cruz’s wife Heidi left the floor at the Quicken Loans Arena, has come to define the entire convention broadcast, casting a pall over a day meant to serve as the culmination of Trump’s campaign.

The tone of the campaign has come to define the TV event that might have allowed it to pivot. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, delivering a suave and assured speech Wednesday night, seemed like an emissary from another year, or another planet; in the main, it’s hard not to view this year’s convention as a missed opportunity for a televised spectacle showing off Republican unity and vision. But the test will come at the ballot box—perhaps its red-meat spectacle of jeering crowds and condemnatory fire represents taking advantage of a new sort of opportunity, to use free airtime as the opportunity to indulge rage. We could be watching something less than a one-cycle aberration, but rather the start of a whole different kind of convention.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com