Having been to many political conventions over the years and watched many more slumped on the sofa bed in my home bunker, and now having watched two mostly remote events courtesy of Republicans and Democrats, I have finally isolated the element that has historically made these occasions so maddening and unpleasant: people.
Specifically, I have in mind the people who go to political conventions. Every four years, their unquenchable ardor for partisan expression leads them to pack up their air horns and vuvuzelas and drive or fly to an uninteresting hotel in some faraway city so that they might jump up and down on cue in a packed sports arena. The attitude of a journalist to such people is supposed to range from mild amusement (“Wherever did you find a muumuu with Richard Nixon’s face on the bosom?”) to forensic curiosity (“Which way do you think the Huguenots in your county will swing in the off-year primary?”).
In truth, convention-goers serve mostly to prolong what is already insufferably tedious. They do this through wild, frequent, indiscriminate applause; through random, often indistinct chanting; through a mulish refusal to follow the protocols of crowd control; and through endless, visitors-bureau boosterism during roll-call votes. No, New Mexico. You are not the “Land of Enchantment.” I’ve lived in Albuquerque.
This small revelation burst upon me as I watched the last two nights of the Republican National Convention. Like the Democratic convention the week before, the RNC was a slickly produced affair, free of techno-glitches. The speeches in both were competently written and for the most part well delivered. The “human interest” stories were both interesting and human, as they should be, if undeniably and inevitably manipulative. But as one vignette passed into another, what I found myself enjoying most of all were the transitions between them. They were seamless. They were blessedly silent.
The silence had many positive effects. For one, it helped keep things moving along at a steady clip, uninhibited by delegates ventilating their need to show their delight and approval. More important, it allowed listeners to absorb what they’d just heard. The knife edge of Nikki Haley’s much-contested assertion—“This is not a racist country”—would have been blunted, for good or bad, if delegates had been there to receive it as an applause line, as surely they would have done. One shudders to imagine the cheapening effect of traditional whoops and hollers on the almost unbearable testimony of Ann Dorn, the widow of the retired cop who was killed defending a friend’s store during the riots in St. Louis.
At the same time, those whoops and hollers rising from the convention floor might have obscured, even normalized, the bizarre, shouty performance of GOP Week’s It Couple, Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the latter of whom seemed to be doing an impression of Danny Kaye lip-synching an aria by Patti LuPone. Don Jr.’s high-decibel speech was taken by pundits as evidence that he is embarking on a political career of his own, with an emphasis on barking.
And then Melania Trump showed up, and so did an in-person audience. She appeared in the Rose Garden Wednesday night to deliver a speech to a crowd in the traditional manner. If we leave aside the grotesque deformation of the executive mansion into a campaign venue, her speech was good enough. It was also 35 percent too long. This defect I insist on putting down to the presence of real human beings arrayed before her. In the minds of some performers, an audience is an invitation not to discipline and self-control but to self-indulgence. A still better example than the first lady’s speech was that of Ivanka Trump the next night. Hers was even more indulgent, even less necessary. Ivanka is a fan of yoga, which keeps her limber enough to pat herself on the back. At moments, she displayed the grasping intensity of a speaker who might never surrender the mic, like a dark horse who’s won a surprise Oscar for best supporting actor and knows this is her one and only chance to give a speech in front of Brad Pitt.
Self-congratulation and self-indulgence are twin characteristics of the Trump presidency, and both were well received by the partisans who crowded the South Lawn when Trump took the stage Thursday night. Joe Biden is no less a fan of Joe Biden than Donald Trump is of Donald Trump, and he is, if anything, even windier. Yet Biden’s speech accepting his party’s nomination was a third the length of Trump’s speech accepting his. In his nearly empty convention center, with the nearest funny hats and noisemakers attached to his fans in the parking lot outside, Biden looked lonesome and bereft, conditions that moved him to an economy of words he has never before shown. The speech was undistinguished, but it was the most welcome performance of his career.
Not so with Trump. The presence of a worshipful crowd encouraged him often to depart from his well-written text and sow it with his pointless asides and incidental self-commentary. The audience was indiscriminate in its appreciation, as political-convention audiences always are. Trump had only to pause for breath to cue the cheers and applause. The crowd was too small, and the venue (despite the best efforts of the RNC’s gaudy set designers) was too dignified, to rise to the kind of pressurized mania that traditional conventions achieve at their best. Thursday night at the RNC was neither one thing nor the other. The obligatory cheers had the effect of simultaneously lengthening the speech and draining it of whatever rhetorical meaning it might have had. Thanks to the crowd, the climax of the Republican convention was also its low point. The fireworks were pretty terrific, though.
The noun convention comes from the verb to convene—I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know—and if there aren’t delegates convening, you’re not going to have much that can qualify for the noun. I will stipulate to that. And I don’t pretend that the success of these mostly crowdless pandemic conventions will have any lasting effects; the human and institutional needs satisfied by the traditional convention are too enduring to ignore. But what we’ve seen the past two weeks was perfectly adequate for us outsiders, for the bulk of ordinary voters—indeed, a marked improvement over the usual convention as a means of showcasing the tendencies and policies the parties want us to think they embody. In 2020, COVID-19 has altered nearly every aspect of social, cultural, and political life for the worse, in many cases tragically so. We should give it credit when it gets something right.