The stage in Cleveland was lit so intensely with floor lights that the surface took on a liquid, reflective quality. It was tinged slightly blue, as was the backdrop — the blown-out gray of a screen that is on, but not transmitting anything yet. From the wings emerged a silhouette, shadowy but unmistakable. That shambling gait, that helmet-like bouffant; these are the physical attributes of a man as reviled as he is adored, as mocked as he is lionized.
And now, these are the traits of a man on the verge of being officially nominated as the major political party’s candidate for commander-in-chief.
His wife is the former model, but it was Donald Trump who made a runway entrance at the Republican National Convention’s first night in Ohio. The theme of the evening was “Make America Safe Again,” but with that backlit attention to not just image but mere silhouette, the first night of the RNC was about what this entire campaign has been about: Trump, as cipher and spokesman, running for diva-in-chief.
It’s the silhouette that does it. Trump’s entrance had a lot in common with the professional wrestler the Undertaker’s entrances, which require similarly smoky blue light and a shadowy figure walking into the arena. The floor lights were so bright that Trump appeared to be floating slightly above the stage, and he walked out in triumph to Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” The queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” who are themselves each silhouetted at the end of the catwalk before they walk the runway, would have recognized Trump’s style.
Trump was merely coming out on this opening night to introduce his wife, Melania, for her primetime remarks that were intended to humanize her husband. It’s not common for the presumptive nominee to appear at all on the first day, let alone to introduce their spouse. But Trump likes a spectacle, even if that spectacle looks more like “The Hunger Games.”
His grand entrance came at the end of a day that emphasized death, fear, and paranoia, whether that was in the form of Benghazi, ISIS, mass shootings in America, or 9/11. At one particularly low point, the accusations of a grieving mother had primetime attention. The first night of the RNC was marked by a sense of disjointed removal — both from the rest of the American conversation and, more tellingly, from each other. Melania Trump, reading her remarks in a studied teleprompter address, appeared to be describing a unifying, compassionate campaign that was absolutely nothing like the one her husband has been running, even as she described a “kind and fair and caring” man that was absolutely nothing like the candidate the American public has come to know. Naturally, just minutes after the convention ended, journalists uncovered that passages were lifted directly from Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
But if Melania’s speech seemed to be about a different campaign, it was at least semi-competent and charming. The other speakers at the RNC were talking about a different America, with extraordinarily hateful rhetoric even for this era of alarming and unchallenged public statements. Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke applauded the acquittal of officers involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, Jr. while in Baltimore police custody. Pat Smith, the mother of the public servant killed in Benghazi, called for Hillary Clinton to be “put in stripes,” i.e., imprisoned. Homeland Security chief Michael McCaul ominously declared that “You may have fired the first shot, but rest assured, America will fire the last.” Actors Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato, Jr. declared vague notions of ending socialism, halting political correctness, ending illegal immigration, and making America great and/or America again over chyrons that read, variously, “SITCOM STAR: ‘WE HAVE A CHOICE IN NOVEMBER’” and “Antonio Sabato Jr.’s Calvin Klein billboard hung across Trump Tower in the ’90s.” (Sabato, at that point, was an underwear model.)
It was a rinky-dink circus, a scattershot convention that felt like it was taking place inside the “Benny Hill Show.” After Melania’s speech, half the assembled conventioneers, presumably exhausted with chanting “U! S! A!” left the stands; Iowa senator Joni Ernst spoke to a half-empty crowd that was rapidly dwindling.
Faced with a Republican National Convention unattended by nearly every major Republican in presidential history, save former presidential nominee Bob Dole, in clearly poor health, no wonder Trump played his most reliable hand — his trump card, if you will — the art of the spectacle.
The debut of his candidacy on Monday night was literally smoke and mirrors: and little surprise. That’s all his campaign, and this RNC, seems to have to offer.