The Republican National Convention, despite all evidence to the contrary, was not a four-episode long reality competition series in which the most unlikely option rose inevitably to clinch the title of “Your Republican Presidential Nominee.”
Or was it? After all, political pageantry is just another kind of theater, as both British and hip-hop royalty could attest to. The party conventions, in particular, are a performance of a specific ideology for a specific audience — or a performance of affinity for a certain person that the speaker does not really feel. You would have to be a very innocent viewer to take every word of the speeches as solemn truth. But at the same time, the image of what is happening at the RNC is all we, the viewing audience, have to work with.
And for the first time in our living history, we are faced with a candidate who is all performance and no substance; all the signifier, and none of the signified. That’s a quality we’d normally associate with the most superficial elements of the entertainment industry — those narratives that actively resist engagement, because the surface-level is all it is. This is why Trump’s methods so frequently invite comparisons to professional wrestling, reality competitions, or (I am not trying to be mean) pornography; these are, definitely, mediums that ask you to eschew meaning, at least temporarily, in order to find some other fix.
And meaning really did have to take a backseat during the 2016 RNC. Following his meandering, 75-minute speech last night, talking heads on CNN observed that Trump did not outline a single policy plan, instead mostly throwing out broad insinuations. Which serves to underscore that it’s not that Donald Trump has a secret agenda for what he’ll do when he takes office; it’s that really, he has no agenda. The implication is all that is there. Like a lot of other people who end up on television, he just likes to be the guy everyone is paying attention to. He has chosen to pursue that goal in a way that you might find deplorable, but his candidacy did not come out of nowhere. His desire for validation just happened to go down a path was made clear for him by decades of dog-whistling and propagandizing Republicans before him, from Richard Nixon to Roger Ailes.
And yet: What was galling about this RNC was that the illusion kept fraying at the seams. Trump is the candidate of first impressions and performative victory, and yet his four-day long coming-out party was plagued by technical errors. This was an astonishingly badly-run convention, one that did not deliver either a coherent message or an entertaining dog-and-pony show. Indeed — the biggest signal that it wasn’t a carefully orchestrated reality show was how disorganized, glitchy, and ineffective the production was, from malfunctioning tech and leaked speeches to non-endorsements and plagiarism. The event ran gleefully past its allotted primetime hours nearly every night, with a flagrant disregard for timeslots that would have a professional live television producer in agony.
Even the messaging was dissonant. Each speaker seemed to come from a different ideological planet than the others — Ivanka Trump, Democrat; Donald Trump, Jr., neoconservative; Peter Thiel, libertarian. The only universal takeaway from four days of speechifying was that Hillary Clinton deserved some kind of terrible punishment and that “real” America is wonderful — which could be true, but together make for a rather slim campaign platform.
At the risk of sounding facile, there’s something to learn about Donald Trump from another reality star and business mogul who has been in the news: Kim Kardashian West, who like Trump is not satisfied unless she is in the spotlight, and like Trump is reviled for succeeding at the rules of a game someone else rigged a long time ago. But unlike Trump, Kardashian West understands that at least some power plays need to be masterfully orchestrated.
The night before the RNC opened, Kim Kardashian posted exactly one Snapchat video which torpedoed Taylor Swift’s carefully maintained good-girl reputation. Kardashian West has a reputation of vapidity and superficiality; it was a shot of cold reality to observe that she had the “incriminating” call recorded all along. It was a checkmate the likes of which four days of RNC spectacle could not match up to, except for exactly one moment: Ted Cruz’s speech to the convention, in which he politely, and slimily, declined to endorse Donald Trump for president.
Often, reality television is very good. It’s definitively surface-level, and its stars become experts in manipulating the superficial for attention. But that does not necessarily bar it from being entertaining, well-produced, genuinely surprising, and even morally non-repugnant (though your mileage may vary). And at specific, well-timed moments, sometimes the illusion can be enhanced by offering a glimpse of what lies beneath. Most of us did not expect Kim Kardashian West to suddenly pivot on her strappy nude stiletto and post an amateur recording of a phone conversation that Taylor Swift said never occurred; but most of us did not expect to see anything of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” Kim except various semi-nude photos and product placement. To use the language of foreign policy, Kardashian West established a doctrine of force: she demonstrated what she is capable of when push comes to shove.
The RNC, as the kind of mid-season finale of Trump’s campaign, was an opportunity for a reveal — for a glimpse of the real thing underneath all of the bluster. It could have been, and should have been, that moment — the perfect conclusion to a media event. But Trump whiffed on the chance. The implications remained unchallenged; the insinuations never crossed over into fact. There is no Trump Doctrine that is not pettily complaining about the unfairness of the press.
Which is why I would not dismiss Trump’s campaign as “mere” reality television. It’s reality television, but it’s just not very good reality television. Trump is a showrunner who has an excellent sense of chaos, but he can’t deliver anything on top of that. Chaos, of course, will draw viewers. But at some point, I’ve learned, viewers do like a glimpse of what lies beneath.