Analysis: Day One of the Republican convention showed that Trump's takeover of the GOP isn't yet complete
Donald Trump is president today because of his ability to channel conservative media and his willingness to do so. Perhaps he actively realized in 2015 that the cultural battles being fought on Fox offered a route to power in the Republican Party; it's more likely that as both contributor to and consumer of Fox's coverage, he sincerely believed the rhetoric in which he was swimming. But that was his advantage in the primaries and in building a big enough base of energetic support to win the general election. He said what the people on Fox and Breitbart were saying, and it worked.
Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Donald Trump campaigns in tweets about what he's seeing on Fox News and he largely governs in order to shape Fox's coverage. So despite a pledge from his campaign that the Republican convention would offer some breath of optimism - and despite an email from the campaign in the middle of the first night describing the Democratic gathering as "the darkest, angriest, gloomiest convention in history" - speaker after speaker offered remarkably grim assessments of what might be, should Trump lose in November.
"Don't let the Democrats and their socialist comrades take you for granted," shouted Trump campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle. "Don't let them step on you. Don't let them destroy your families, your lives and your future. Don't let them suppress future generations, because they told you and brainwashed you and fed you lies that you weren't good enough!"
Democrats "will disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said with a grin. "And the defunded police aren't on their way."
The McCloskeys, a couple from St. Louis who earned national attention after confronting a peaceful protest with a rifle and a handgun, warned that Democrats wanted to destroy American suburbs.
"Forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods," they said, presumably speaking from their large mansion in the city of St. Louis.
An immigrant from Cuba who built a successful gasoline distribution business told viewers that he had no doubt that Biden and his allies "will hand the country over to [the] dangerous forces" of "socialism, communism, and totalitarianism."
The line of argument was consistent: The Democrats are an unprecedented danger against which Donald Trump stands as the only barrier. It's a message that Trump himself made last week, and it's a message that is a staple of Fox's primetime programming. Donald Trump Jr.'s assertion that the election is "shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism" could as easily have aired on Tucker Carlson's or Sean Hannity's shows, and probably has.
Again, this immersion and intermingling with what Republicans would see on Fox News is intentional. It's a swamp of its own, a universe of coded language and baseline assumptions that are as much about the opposition as about the president himself. Trump bears the sword and is the subject of the ballads to some extent because he decided to be that figure and the culture war coalesced around him.
It requires building a Trump who doesn't exist, a guy who's constantly at work and who embraces America's exceptionalism and diversity. He's the guy the ballads are about, but that doesn't mean the ballads are entirely accurate.
Coming into the convention, it seemed that the party had folded itself into the president entirely. Its platform for 2020? Whatever Trump says it is. Who gets to speak? Anyone named Trump, anyone who can speak Fox and anyone willing to pay some form of fealty. The election doesn't have to be about validating Trump, but everyone involved seems to have decided that it might as well be - buying into the argument that feverish support for the president is the only thing that will pull enough Republicans to the polls that the party might actually win. It's the bet Fox News made early in his presidency, and it's working for them.
But even with all of that, even with the muddied references to culture fights and the hyperbolic invocation of the historic threat posed to the nation and even with the endless insistences about how well Trump had done as president - there were still glimmers of a Republican Party that exists apart from the guy who's currently bearing its mantle.
Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley gave a speech praising Trump's approach to foreign policy while weaving in her own life story and excoriating the Democrats in a way that resonated with the primed conservative-media audience. But her speech, unlike nearly any other, was clearly less about the president than about a broader vision. It was, in a way, a normal convention speech about the outcomes the party was seeking; it stood out now, though, because it wasn't another in a series of hagiographies of Donald Trump. There aren't many politicians who've both been outspoken against Trump and worked for him, who can speak believably to his base and to his skeptics, but Haley's one of them. That, as she knows, could position her well for a post-Trump Republican Party, should such a thing ever arise, and her speech Monday was calibrated to that end.
Haley's speech was useful to Trump anyway because it broke from the Hannityesque parade of frustrations and demonization. Each of these conventions aims as much at what people pick up from their Facebook feeds as from their cable news feeds, and lots of suburban women will undoubtedly be shown snippets of Haley's speech over the next few weeks. That this serves Haley's ambitions is secondary for at least the next four years.
Fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott, R, probably did the most effective job of prosecuting an actual case against the actual Democratic Party and not exclusively against the "they're all commies" caricatures offered by the night's Trump Juniors (both literal and figurative). He, too, told a life story about growing up non-White in America, even quietly invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s metaphor of the arc of the moral universe.
"Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime," he said, describing the struggle his grandfather had faced. "And that's why I believe the next American century can be better than the last."
This is actual optimism, something that was in short supply over the course of the evening. It came despite Trump and the focus of Trump's closest allies, slipped in as Scott made his own case for what a future Republican leader might look like. Again, his speech was useful to Trump, validating the president's constant insistences about how much he'd done for Black Americans. But it was also useful to Scott and, perhaps, for the party.
The Republican Party clearly belongs to Trump and Fox News, in some sort of timeshare arrangement. But even as that partnership dominates the direction of Trump's reelection campaign, there is still some faction of the party which knows that there has to be something once Trump is gone. It's possible that a Trump victory in November might quash faction for good. It's also possible that the old party can't be resuscitated even if he doesn't.
But - maybe unexpectedly - that faction was nonetheless able to be heard Monday. Fox News even carried the speeches.