Republicans’ Vaudeville Convention

Stephen Colbert has already stolen the show in Cleveland. The comedian-turned-commentator’s career is a good analog of Donald Trump’s.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

All the convention’s a stage, and speakers are merely players. At this week’s Republican National Convention, one former entertainer and political farceur has already pushed to the center in a winking game that alternates between seriousness and an old television persona: Stephen Colbert.

Over the weekend, he and his Late Show team filmed a sketch at the convention that involved Colbert—in character as a Hunger Games-inspired political reporter—hijacking the microphone on the convention stage. He was quickly ushered away as Republicans continued preparations for Donald Trump’s week-long coronation ball, but not before reminding viewers that if he wasn’t supposed to be on stage, “neither is Donald Trump.” His point was clear: the unreal and the absurd have suddenly come true.

Colbert and Trump may seem diametrically opposed, but they are also nemeses who complement each other and the peculiarity of this particular convention. Both managed to finesse careers in entertainment into roles at the center of American politics, despite the wishes of some in serious political media. Trump was always as much of an entertainer and charismatic guy playing a real-estate tycoon as he was an authentic real-estate tycoon. His career as a wrestler and reality-show boss seemed destined to confine him to the realm of unseriousness, until he wasn’t. Colbert also graduated from a man playing a comic role into a legitimate, trusted news source during his time on The Colbert Report.

That may all seem like a bit of a tortured comparison. But who could be a better political correspondent reporting on Donald Trump at a funhouse-mirror convention than Stephen Colbert-as-somebody-else? The event features a speaker lineup featuring a guy who bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, the president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the guy who created Duck Dynasty. As forces coalesce to try to stop Trump’s nomination, Colbert—a person accustomed to simultaneously playacting and maintaining a straight face—is in his element.

There is something unreal about the Republican National Convention, and the abundance of characters is more a symptom than a cause. At its center is a punch-drunk sense that something has gone askew in American democracy. The country was supposed to be “post-racial,” yet serious people in serious places favor banning immigrants, persecuting Muslims, and building a giant wall on the border. The Republican Party after its 2012 postmortem was supposed to be an ascendant and diverse party of ideas, yet it leans on white racial angst more than it has in almost 50 years. Now, chaos unfolds on the floor as its former moderates hope to wrest back control into the hands of more sensible people. Perhaps the lesson of Stephen Colbert is that sensibility has already lost.