The first rule of addiction recovery is that the addict has to want to change. This adage came to mind when a steady stream of pundits dutifully reported that the Republican Party had successfully targeted its base on the first night of the Republican National Convention.
The Republican Party is certainly incompetent, but even it can’t possibly miss the wide mark established by its credulous base. Indeed, one can imagine a party convention headlined by Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake would have flopped with the party faithful. But short of that, Republicans will eat whatever they are spoon-fed.
It was clear what kind of convention this would be when the Trump campaign finally released its list of speakers. More interesting than those on the list—far more interesting, as it turns out—were those not on the list. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), well on her way to losing her second Senate race in two years, is nowhere to be found. Perhaps Mormons should fast for her appearance. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), once the future of the Colorado GOP, wants nothing to do with Trump and vice-versa. Whatever one thinks of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), no one expects to see her on a Republican stage ever again. It is doubtful she will even vote for Trump, given her unique loyalties to the Bush family. Even Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a profile and doctrinaire conservative from a southern state, can’t risk taking the stage after polls have shown him down most of the year.
Trump apologist Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC)? Nope—the latest polls show him tied with his opponent in South Carolina. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue (both R-GA)? Nowhere to be found, nor Loeffler’s primary opponent, somewhere-to-the-right-of-Neanderthal Rep. Doug Collins. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) is in a toss-up race against popular former governor Steve Bullock, but you won’t know it from watching television this week. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), embroiled in his own potentially competitive race, had to be talked at the last minute into taping a speech for Thursday night. Only Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), representing a state Trump carried by ten points, was willing to take the stage among Senate candidates in competitive races. And in a convention that apparently features every Black Republican this side of (but not including) Candace Owens, there’s no sign of Michigan’s Republican Senate candidate, John James.
Sean Parnell of Pennsylvania’s 17th District is the only House candidate in an arguably competitive district to take convention time. Republicans have been extra-obsessed with the 17th’s current incumbent, Democrat Conor Lamb, because Lamb captured just the kind of white, rural, formerly Republican district Republicans insist they must win for civilization to survive. As one might expect for a candidate whose imagined purpose far outstrips his actual one, his Monday night speech was unmemorable.
In the absence of actual candidates too scared or embarrassed to appear, Republicans presented their now standard assortment of oddballs, extremists, and sycophants—not a recipe for change. Rep. Matt Gaetz—QAnon Lurch—appeared early in the night to decry “woketopia,” defined as Democrats wanting to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.”1This later clashed with Senator Tim Scott’s complaint that Democrats didn’t work with Republicans on sentencing reform, but I’m assuming if you’re interested in a Republican convention at all, you’re not looking for intellectual consistency no matter what side you’re on. Gaetz was plagiarizing his own very short greatest hits list, having previously referenced Seattle as the capital of “Woketopia” during the pretend CHAZ Crisis of 2020. Ho-ho. It wasn’t that great the first time.
Invoking the old saw that only Nixon can go to China, the GOP called on Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) to deliver anti-Democrat bromides at the same time as he attempted to humanize Trump by explaining that Trump called Jordan’s brother after his son died in a car accident. Of course, calling your most loyal sycophant’s family member after a shocking death is not the usual incompetence or criming of the Trump Administration, but it is another example of the GOP proving too much. It is only notable because Trump actually did it in the first place. It was also undermined by what appeared to be a taped attempt at putting Trump in the same room as a few normal people, one of the more awkward events ever committed to video. It revealed Trump to be—exactly who we thought he was. A very strange concession, as if the simple fact that Trump didn’t have one of his guests fed to dogs was enough for the campaign staff to roll film.
The session’s opening speaker, Charlie Kirk, is notable only because he looks like the young Norman Bates, with the gender politics to match. The Missouri vigilantes showed up, having found gun-toting common cause with the MAGA faithful. Whoever wrote their speeches claimed that the election of Joe Biden would mean “low-quality housing,” a highly-ironic accusation given their opulent park-place mansion. And the execrable Ronna McDaniel took her poor-woman’s Mormon Sarah Huckabee Sanders shtick national. Her main point was that Trump hires on merit. As you might imagine, this message would be less than convincing coming from any Trump hire, but especially from her.
The first night’s star MAGA speakers were the Joker and Harley Quinn of the Trump Administration, Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Guilfoyle’s speech was the event of the night, a shrill, lunatic, ten-minute harangue constructed from various lines cut out of other speeches for being too extreme or bizarre. Somehow, Guilfoyle’s insistence that her Puerto Rican mother was a “first generation American” proved one of her more pellucid statements. As a whole, her speech suggested that she had heard Kim Jong Un was sick and was auditioning to replace him.
Meanwhile, the word “cocaine” trended on Twitter after Trump Jr.’s equally wacky, but more subdued speech, given his unexplained eye trauma and jittery, John Moschitta delivery. But as Jeet Heer points out, Trump Jr.’s physical response is likely an involuntary reaction to the campaign’s dire circumstances. If I were him, I’d want to get it over with as quickly as possible too.
After Trump and Guilfoyle boarded their spaceship back to Planet Nouveauriche, Republicans briefly allowed two “adult” voices to finish the first night. Nikki Haley spent all 2016 feuding with Trump, until she realized that was no way to win a Republican nomination for the presidency. But having sold out, Haley suffers the fate of so many sell-outs, inhabiting a purgatory in the modern Republican mind: Too establishment to be MAGA, too MAGA to be establishment. Haley’s speech suffered from the same schisms. After conceding that her parents had faced “discrimination,” she nevertheless assured the Republican Party’s lily-white voters that they are not at all racist, no-sir, not-for-a-moment, who-could-ever conceive-of-saying-such-a-thing-about-my-Republican-friends? Haley appears to be the front-running candidate for Republicans who believe their party has some kind of non-Trump future. This is why there is likely no such future forthcoming.
Republicans ended their night with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), the upper chamber’s only Black Senate Republican. And if this was, say, 2006, or even 2012, one could call Scott’s address a success. It hits what used to be all the right notes, putting once conservative policies such as school choice and economic opportunity into context. Even Scott’s discussion of tax policy was principled, and he struck perhaps the only real policy chord of the evening by pointing out that Democratic proposals to restore the SALT exemption without corresponding rate adjustments would disproportionately benefit wealthy property owners. His criticisms of Biden’s too-flip statements about Black voters’ loyalties were also well-taken. It was an effective, if not absorbing speech.
But still some things do not fit right. Like Haley, he is eager to forgive Republican voters but asks very little of them. According to him, his election was enough—a questionable proposition every politician believes. Indeed, this criticism seems particularly germane given his appearance on the same playbill as the Missouri vigilantes, the night’s most candid throwback to an uglier time. If Haley’s cynical response to their acts is absolution, one has to wonder what Scott’s would be, if it were possible for him to be honest enough to say.
In any event, after four years of Trump Administration clowning, Scott’s anodyne, neo-Jack Kemp rhetoric must seem like sweet relief. But has anything really changed? Below is a picture of the respective Democratic and Republican delegation roll calls of four states—Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Hawaii. Most of tonight’s convention speakers quite candidly said they want an America that looks like the right column, not the left. That distinction is not lost on most Americans, which is why any advantage to be gained by Scott’s address tonight is likely to be squandered by the time this convention finally, mercifully, ends.