THE FIRST ACT of what feels like the twilight of the Republican Party unfolded Monday night at the Quicken Loans Arena at 1 Center Court in Cleveland, about 4.3 miles from the West Avenue park where Tamir Rice was effectively murdered for the crime of being black, male and 12 years old, a victim of the angry, antagonistic, Law and Order police culture that people were just beginning to celebrate at the arena not quite across town.
There were moments of honesty, flashes of inspiration, but mostly the first crucial nights of the 2016 Republican National Convention — crowded with stagey symbolism, reflexive cheerleading, lost opportunities and plagiarized rhetoric — were a glittering, meretricious fraud, a collection of so many shiny objects (Party unity! One voice!) dangled before the eyes of the faithful. Objects with a dazzling surface brilliance but little truth behind them, little truth or no truth at all.
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Some of the convention’s most passionate moments happened before the thing had even properly started. Never mind the skirmishes outside the arena; delegates opposed to Trump, some of them under the hashtag banner #NeverTrump, exploded in protests on the convention floor.
The delegations of eight states and the District of Columbia sought and won a petition to convention secretary Susie Hudson calling for a full roll call on approval or rejection of an RNC rules package, which obligates delegates to vote for the winner of their respective primaries, rather than (as many delegates preferred) to vote their consciences.
It made for ugly, captivating television, and the drive for party unity, which both the Trump campaign and the RNC are desperate to communicate to the country in prime time, would not be denied. Nor would Trump’s nomination.
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When it was time for the delegates to vote on the rules package, Enid Mickelson, the co-chair of the Rules Committee, ignored their effort. Protests erupted on the floor with chants of "call the roll" erupting. The convention heads cut off the sound of the microphones, silencing states that wanted recognition, further infuriating protesting delegates. ...
Ken Cuccinelli, chair of the Virginia delegation and helping to lead efforts to change party rules, especially closing primaries so that only Republicans can vote, threw down his credentials in disgust and walked away from the microphone. His delegation, however, forced him back to the microphone, telling him that he needs to stand up and fight.
Protests erupted again and much of the Colorado delegation walked out ...
Cuccinelli said that party efforts to strong-arm delegates were "out of bounds."
"They were telling people, 'we're going to ruin your political life in Washington, in Virginia,'" an upset Cuccinelli said.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a delegate supporting the protests' efforts, said that the Trump team and members of the RNC kept telling delegates that they need unity.
"What that means is, ‘you got to stand down,’" Lee said. "’You got to agree with us.’ That's not unity, that's coercion masquerading as unity."
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THAT WAS BAD enough. When things actually started, there was a missed opportunity to connect a message with a necessary decorum. John Teigen and Mark Geist, the authors of “13 Hours” and two of the Marine security detail who fought in the Benghazi attack, addressed the convention, going on at length with a heartfelt but overblown play-by-play of their battle with Islamic militants for control of the U.S. Embassy compound on Sept. 11-12, 2012, the attack in which four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
What could have been a moving, even defining moment of two American warriors describing their defense of American territory abroad fell prey to the stylings of a standup act. Their delivery had the slouchy, informal look and feel of two vets knocking back PBRs at a bah somewheah, recalling the bad guys they capped during wartime, with some of the ugly details.
Too casual by half, it was an appeal to the audience’s jingoist aspect of its patriotism, and the audience — cheering in all the right bloody places — didn’t disappoint.
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Kent Terry and Kelly Terry-Willis did much the same when they recalled the origin of the vacuum in their lives: the absence of their brother, Brian, a Border Patrol Agent, who was killed in a firefight in December 2010 near the U.S.-Mexican border.
The pain in their faces was inescapable; whether it’s because of (Terry-Willis’ description) “Obama’s failed policies” or not doesn’t matter. These testimonials were as close to real as it got on Monday.
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MORE OFTEN, what you got on Monday was shrill. Antonio Sabato Jr., the actor and former Calvin Klein underwear model, brought his Red Bull A-game to the convention, regaling the crowd with his pride in becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1996. But Sabato weighed in with some perspectives on immigration that, let’s say, run counter to those you might expect from someone who is himself a fairly recent immigrant to those shores.
“My belief in this country and my faith in Jesus Chirst have compelled me to speak now. That’s right! I am concerned about my country’s future. I’m concerned about my children’s future. ... We are weaker by almost every measure. We are on the wrong path.”
Sabato stuck to the hymnal of the evening, and the talking points of the party. “Others who want to come to the U.S. should follow the same rules! That’s right! We are a nation of laws for a reason.”
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And he ‘bout burst a blood veesel when he weighed in on those responsible for terrorist attacks: “In the last seven months, there have been five major Islamic terrorist attacks on us and our allies. We must not be afraid to define our enemy. It is Islamic extremist terrorism!”
"To defeat Islamic extremist terrorists, we must put them on defense! ... We must commit ourselves to unconditional victory against them!" Or reacting to the nuclear agreement with Iran: “We are actually giving them the money to fund the terrorists who are killing us and our allies!”
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ROLLING STONE’S Matt Taibbi reports on convention speakers not dragged kicking and screaming to the event:
“[There] were even a few Republican politicians who seemed to want to be there voluntarily, people like crazed Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who came off like a shaved and slightly angrier version of Yosemite Sam. Ex-candidate Ben Carson emerged from a grain-storage chamber somewhere to connect Hillary Clinton to Lucifer and say things about transgender people so outrageous that even Orrin Hatch rushed to their defense.
“The third group consisted of Republican officials who had no choice but to be there. People like Republican Party chief Reince Priebus and House Majority Leader Paul Ryan rarely spoke Trump's name and seemed pained throughout, aware they might spend eternity giving each other back rubs in hell as punishment for participating in this event.”
But the major deception of Convention Night I, its biggest fraudulence was evinced by Melania Trump, The Donald’s third wife and the presumptive next first lady, who took the stage for her maiden rhetorical voyage in politics, no jewelry in sight behind the podium. At least she took the stage after the next act: an appearance from a special guest: The guest of honor, days early. Of course.
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What we got was something else again: Evidence of The Donald’s addiction to attention, to be at stage center, to reinforce the idea of “me, it’s all about me.”
It was a quasi-Reaganesque move, and one that got early points for its visual daring. When Trump walked out on stage, only his full-body outline is visible, framed in soft-blue light — it reflected a cheesily provocative assumption from Team Trump: that he was a walking meme, one whose mere physical shape, devoid of other defining features, was identification enough. You watch: You’ll be seeing this vaguely sinister, royalty-free image on a book cover soon enough.
Problem is, it was the kind of midrange theatrical moment that should have been pulled off on Thursday, when Trump would arrive to accept the nomination. Instead, Trump wasted a moment of visual drama on the procedurally correct but imagistically curious act of introducing his wife to the crowd. Melania Trump, game to the challenge, took the mike.
It went well until it didn’t.
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I WAS BORN in Slovenia, a small, beautiful and then-communist country in Central Europe,” Melania Trump said. “My sister Ines, who is an incredible woman and a friend, and I were raised by my wonderful parents. My elegant and hard-working mother Amalia introduced me to fashion and beauty. My father Viktor instilled in me a passion for business and travel. Their integrity, compassion and intelligence reflects to this day on me and for my love of family and America.”
What followed was a weave of ethical scaffolds, statement of love of her adopted country and testament to the values and integrity of the candidate. “As citizens of this great nation, it is kindness, love, and compassion for each other that will bring us together — and keep us together. These are the values Donald and I will bring to the White House. My husband is ready to lead this great nation.”
Read the full Melania Trump speech here
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But never mind this optically inartful gaffe, Trump’s own stagecraft was already thoroughly blown, and so was any of the giddy anticipation that convention-goers may have had about seeing Trump in person for the very first time on the night that’s properly his: Thursday night, not Monday night.
The monumental ego of Donald Trump finally upstaged Donald Trump himself. By acting more like an impresario and less like a candidate for the presidency, with respect for the traditions of the process, Trump undercut his own convention drama with a move that was a lot like the Rolling Stones opening for Styx opening for the Stones — the headline act playing a warm-up set before the opening act. It’s just ... wrong.
Something else was wrong too, or not so much wrong as wrongfully acquired. Watching the speech, Jarrett Hill, an unemployed California journalist, noticed similarities between elements of her speech and those of an address by first lady Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He tweeted his findings; the twitterverse did the rest.
Turns out several passages of Obama’s speech were lifted, more or less verbatim, from Obama’s speech. The to and fro over this is still playing itself out, but it changes nothing. Even the most presumably genuine moment of Day 1 of the convention had elements of that moment shot through with fraud. It was a fitting high point to a political paste-jewelry exhibition that was just getting started.
Image credits: Cuccinelli: Ryan Stone/The Washington Post. Durden, Sabato, Giuliani, Trump in silhouette images: Pool. Donald and Melania Trump: Alex Wong/Getty Images.