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.
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.