The bar for what a political convention might look like in the era of COVID-19 was, to say the least, low. After months of watching Zoom squares take over our screens like a never-ending “Brady Bunch” credits sequence, it didn’t seem all that possible for a remote event spanning several days to yield halfway compelling television. And yet, last week’s Democratic National Convention was pulled off relatively seamlessly from locations scattered across the country, mixing formats to keep each night moving along at a steady clip. Even when it didn’t totally land, this year’s DNC more often found ways to turn the potentially disastrous necessity of broadcasting from dozens of locations into a net positive. It helps, too, that the Democrats came into this final stretch of the election season with a united message: the president has done a bad job, and they can do better.
Going into their own convention, the Republicans didn’t have quite as cohesive a strategy. After the originally desired location of North Carolina refused to accommodate the kind of in-person event the RNC was after, the convention shifted the bulk of its events to Florida and staged the first night in Washington D.C., at the White House itself. A schedule of speakers didn’t materialize until the weekend before. The roll call, which the DNC managed to turn into one of its unequivocal highlights with videos shot across the country, unfolded midday on Monday as a series of near-identical talking heads to scattered applause from the relatively few delegates gathered. (This is not, notably, how the roll call was portrayed later in the evening, when a hyper-speed montage of people saying their respective state’s name flashed across the screen in a couple minutes flat.) And despite them both being scheduled to speak later in the convention as key attractions, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump accepted their nominations at length on Monday afternoon, seemingly at random.
Come Monday primetime, the RNC’s approach — at least insomuch as its general presentation — came into sharper focus. A litany of the party’s most reliable hits took the stage, from a teacher railing against unions, to a small business owner thanking Trump, to the president’s eldest son Don Jr. decrying the supposed rise of socialism thanks to Democratic mayors. While most of the night featured live speakers, there were a few pre-taped exceptions, including Trump moderating brief discussions between himself, frontline workers and recently freed hostages. In front of the live D.C. cameras, though, each speaker strode to the same podium flanked by the same draped flags, framed in the same medium shot, and gave remarks with so much overlap that they might as well have been delivering the same speech relay race style. Unlike the DNC, which let politicians personalize their addresses by way of different background and venues, the RNC kept every speech uniform to serve the same purpose. Tonight, the speakers weren’t there to be themselves, necessarily; they were there to be President Trump’s enthusiastic mouthpieces.
Any other year, speakers trading places on a stage would be an entirely unremarkable approach. But this year, and especially after the DNC chose to shake up its format to such telegenic effect, it was especially exhausting to watch a series of people stand at a lectern gravely intone the horrors that a nation under President Biden would face to a completely airless room. As quarantine has taught us the hard way, some things just don’t work the same way without people physically present. (No moment proved this quite like Kimberly Guilfoyle’s downright jarring speech, which she delivered with the kind of aggressive gusto usually reserved for hyping up an NFL stadium to exactly zero applause.)
One of the strangest aspects of the first night was the clash between its supposed theme and the dire speeches counteracting it. Each evening ostensibly has a different theme, each more optimistic than the last: Monday was “Land of Promise,” Tuesday is “Land of Opportunity,” Wednesday is “Land of Heroes,” and Thursday, the night in which Trump will formally bring the convention to a close, is “Land of Greatness.” It’s an arc that appears to mimic Trump’s most enduring 2016 campaign promise: that he, and he alone, could “make America great again.” But as the 2020 election rapidly approaches, Trump now finds himself campaigning on the defensive, making the RNC’s purported aim of touting his incredible successes — “promises made, promises kept” — more difficult than originally imagined.
In the effort to counteract the DNC’s narratives and paint Biden as the politically correct socialist Trump’s base most disdains, the RNC’s first night erred extremely dark. Speakers painted a grim picture of the Democrats turning the country over to “crime, violence, mob rule” and “anarchists…flooding our streets.” At one point, Representative Matt Gaetz suggested that all Democrats want to do is lock you in your home and let the MS-13 gang take over. Guilfoyle pointed to California as an example of the Democrats run amok, turning a once great state into “a land of discarded heroin needles.” It’s not like this kind of fearmongering doesn’t work; it is, after all, the cornerstone of Fox News’ increasingly powerful empire. But on the most basic level of messaging, the swerving between “the country has never been better!” and “the country is descending into chaos!” was too rapid to ever truly let either message land. If the RNC wants to make a real impact in the coming days, it might want to get a bit more creative than sticking to business as usual.