It's a 'Duck Dynasty' vs. Lena Dunham election: Yes, Donald Trump's D-list convention was a flop by usual media standards, but Hillary Clinton's revisionist celebration actually was more tone-deaf as the disliked candidates careen toward November, their supporters dangerously oblivious.
The Nation divides over many lines, but a basic split is between Lena Dunham, who made a primetime appearance July 26 at the Democratic National Convention, and Willie Robertson, a star of Duck Dynasty and a celebrity endorser at the Republican convention. No longer an actual aspect of political decision-making, party conventions are wholly symbolic affairs, an elaborate messaging apparatus and targeted media platform. In this instance, Dunham represented a cosmopolitan, millennial, pansexual, women-focused view, abhorrent to a significant part of the country, and Robertson a nativist, older, gun-associated, military-inclined, white-male-focused view, abhorrent to the Dunham part.
In any effort to achieve the political middle, or extend the base of support, both figures would seem supremely counterproductive, except that either side — in a world divided not just by politics but by sensibility, cultural experience and media habits — likely is only dimly aware of the meaning of the other. Quadrennial party conventions, once an argument to the country as a whole, are now a clash of cultures that don't know each other — and whose members would probably despise each other even more if they did.
There's something body-snatching about attending American political conventions, as I did for these two weeks of oppressive heat and bombast in Cleveland and Philadelphia. It's as intense a propaganda experience, as skillful and certainly as expensive as any in your average authoritarian regime. It is, if you are sitting in the arena, four days of message-vetted speakers yelling at you. (Once upon a time, conventions actually were a stage for opposing intraparty views — but no more, save this year for the fringy Bernie Sanders remnant in Philadelphia, mostly outside the convention perimeter, and Ted Cruz's "vote your conscience" Trump snub in Cleveland.) Given crowds, security, complex credentialing, long hours in your seat, difficulties getting in and out of the bathroom, and scarce food (though alcohol and catered dinners were available to elite box holders and, if you had an invitation, there was the CNN Grill, a free restaurant), it's a pretty sensory-deprived experience — not an exercise in democracy as much as in thought control. The Democrats' staging evoked a Scientology event, and the Republicans' something like a Hunger Games reality show.
But these are open conventions, and their real importance is not to people on the floor, but to television viewers and — for the first time with great significance — social media consumers. A key part of the propaganda strategy is to force the message through the media filter and make it part of the public perception, hence the repetitions, straight-faced lies, celebrity endorsements, promotional films, sob stories and choreographed demographics. The result is quite a distortion between the real event and the televised one. Protests that were mere murmurs became roars on TV; patently insane (or inane) moments — the Benghazi rescue duo at the RNC — are suddenly serious and meaningful stuff. And, of course, cable news experts — hundreds, it seemed — are there to make politics seem rational and to take speakers at their word. This is all part of how you get someone like my friend Aarthi, an astute, reasonable and otherwise skeptical woman, to tweet about Hillary Clinton's lusterless, cut-and-paste acceptance speech: "I think every woman in the US will remember where they were when Hillary accepted the nomination to become President." That's a propaganda accomplishment.
Certainly it was a propaganda victory and precursor to a nice bounce that, emerging after four days of Clinton encomiums and Trump bashing at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia — at a remote location from the city itself, with most people in the arena held there from midafternoon until midnight — it was for nearly every attendee impossible to believe there could be any way in hell that Trump could win. Although, of course, there is.
The Democrats' strongest card was to present Trump as an existential threat and to foresee the breakdown of democracy's fail-safe mechanisms. This also was quite an alarming approach. The guttural "Lock her up!" chants at the RNC seemed extreme enough. But in a way, the Democrats' position was much more radical. Trump cannot be allowed; Trump is immoral; Trump is — the ultimate disqualifier — insane. In other words, if Duck Dynasty-type voters carry the day in November, that would not be an example of democracy but a failure of it.
The historic departure here is in arguing legitimacy over policies. In this, the Democrats appear to have two fears. The first is that traditional political techniques don't work anymore and that Trump has significantly more mastery over the new techniques. The Democrats have spent $68 million on advertising so far. Trump: $6 million. How do you fight someone who doesn't have to spend? The second is that the party's own policies, pushed left by Bernie Sanders and focused on usually undependable young voters, are up against a backlash that it doesn't know how to defuse and is opposed to accommodating — a protest vote by culturally adrift, undereducated white voters without precise political moorings, an identity group the Democrats hardly knew had an identity (this already may be a cliched portrait of the Trump voter, a broad approximation of people whom the media doesn't know). As President Obama acknowledged, seeming to scratch his head, it's not right nor left anymore, but something much more fundamental and frightening — but beyond that, he seemed as clueless as anyone.
The Democrats' approach, in a convention whose television ratings outpaced the Republicans until the final day (Trump himself remains a bigger draw than Hillary) was to argue that there is an onrushing Trump apocalypse, but not to address any of the issues causing people to vote for the apocalypse. "Some people are angry, I get that," said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, but, more clearly, she was wholly bewildered, and not getting at all — along with the entire lineup of Democratic speakers — whatever it is that's bothering Trump voters. In fact, if anything, the Democrats doubled down on many of the issues and cultural currents that seem most threatening to the Trump side, rather believing that Trump's illegitimacy gave them the freedom to go increasingly left.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
One drawback of successful propaganda is that instead of fooling everybody else, you only fool yourself. Accordingly, Clinton was reinvented as quite a fantasy of women's politics. "She never forgets who she's fighting for," said Chelsea Clinton, a game but cloying figure, pausing just long enough for many reasonable people to reflexively complete the sentence with the answer "herself." But the answer was "the children." Indeed, much of the depiction of Hillary's résumé and her qualification to be president was focused on the four years after law school when she did public advocacy work, without a mention of her long career at the Rose Law Firm, or her quarter-century of Machiavellian intrigue at the pinnacle of American power. Her speech, proper homework for anyone actually paying attention, proposed that the nation elect her because she was a good person, one without a clear point of view other than an eagerness to help: a do-gooder good at do-gooding.
If the age calls for a strongman, Hillary in fact has the résumé for it. Like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, a woman who survives and flourishes at the top of this backstabbing business is surely made of steel. Donald Trump, in comparison, is rather a fancy man. But her obvious desire to be liked, and the hurt she feels that she isn't (and, boy, she isn't), have led her to try to want to be thought of now, in her reimagining, as cuddly, caring and inclusive. That may be a risky bit of self-delusion.
By contrast, in Cleveland, the Republicans offered an unscripted version of a political convention. Not, of course, a place for debate, but a stage dominated by the weird, the unprepared and, sometimes it seemed, the stoned — and, even more discordantly, by Trump's wife, Melania, and his family, a version of villainous richie-sort characters in a Disney film. The almost formal political term here became "shit show."
The Cleveland convention seemed to produce the same, though unintended, propaganda effect as the Philadelphia one: the certainty, at least among the 20,000 or more media people in attendance, that Trump was toast. And yet, the reason he seemed to be toast was in its own way, ominously, a counterintuitive winning message. Trump was Trump. You could be guaranteed that he wouldn't ever be less Trump; he would always be more Trump. If this was horrifying to what was increasingly judged as normal America, including Democrats and Republicans alike, it was as likely galvanizing to abnormal America, this confounding population of Trump voters.
In Cleveland, the entire premise and fundamental strategic understanding of American politics seemed to be turned on its head: There would be no pivot to the center, no effort to be presidential, no political ritual or propriety at all. Indeed this, as much as Trump's policies — most of them still unknown or yet to be formed — is what's causing the Democrats and horrified Republicans to see him as ineligible for the office. This lack of political temperament. This unpredictable behavior. This failure to observe any political convention. Everything he did — and everything he did seemed to egg him on more and more — was designed to shock and appall respectable America.
The difficult predicament here is that respectable America kept saying he was shocking and appalling, which seemed quite likely the exact reason not-respectable America found him so satisfying and compelling. Every time the good people and the established people and the economically motivated people and the women and the LGBT people (there was much debate at the DNC about whether to include the Q) and any other diversity subgroups shuddered and crossed themselves ("God help us," declared Michael Bloomberg at the DNC, surely a better slogan than "Stronger together"), Trump seemed likely to cement another vote. His very lack of acceptability was his success. Not to be politically correct, which was in essence his entire platform — to mock, taunt, defy and crap on every modern aspect of advanced social and political propriety — caused horror among the bourgeoisie and perhaps a great belly laugh among the unwashed.
The annoyed response to my sidewise look, in Cleveland, when the thick-necked fellow next to me let out a piercing whistle during the Trump acceptance speech: "Does it make your pussy hurt?" (In contrast, at the DNC, the large black woman from North Carolina next to me during Hillary's acceptance speech was, in a grandmotherly fashion, shushing people around us and then passing out gumdrops.)
In the days following the close of the Democratic convention, Trump rolled out a series of tweets and comments yet even more appalling and unimaginable to non-Trump America. Not only did he go after the easy targets, he went directly for the emotional high point of the Democrats' event — a Muslim father's grief-stricken account of the death of his son, an Army captain, in Iraq. The respectable people's response was beyond outrage and disbelief, again the certainty that this had finished him off, that he had gone too far. And, at the same time, a complete inability to understand the ways in which Trump's temerity in the face of such universal opprobrium might among the vast unknown Trump base inspire the opposite reaction.
If Hillary is now, despite the contrary impression formed in the country's 25 years of knowing her, mirabile dictu, a dutiful, caring, civic-minded sort, Trump is so much himself that — quite a first for a modern media-world political candidate — he doesn't have to edit what he says. It's all instant reflex and always, however appalling — the more appalling the better — headline grabbing. His is a simple bet: He wins by violating the political norm.
The Democrats' comfort at this point is in the numbers, if not in their candidate.
It's a "bleak electoral map" for Trump, declared The New York Times, joining the rest of respectable media in quite a daily drum beat against Trump. Every Democrat seems to know the swing states at issue and knows too that, in any conventional understanding of political resources, it is, at best, implausible, if not impossible, that Trump can pull this off.
Unless he continues to tactically mobilize the anger and bitterness of his supporters — that Duck Dynasty contempt and, for the rest of us, unfathomable humor — toward that self-regard and certainty that he cannot win. Or if the Democrats, as they often seem determined to do, overplay their Lena Dunham hand — actually not realizing how distasteful the Lena Dunham world is to possibly more than half of America. Trump's message is clear: The other side's virtue always is at the expense of the interests of Trump voters. The other side's advantage exists because the system is rigged against Trump and his supporters.
In this next stage of the campaign, the debates are, of course, in the Trumpian world view, rigged. He will challenge their legitimacy, making his ultimate appearance there his personal drama and powerful counterattack against the rigged system. His language will escalate, turning Democrats and the rest of the establishment into scolds and prudish schoolmarms, ever more certain that his campaign is self-destructing. And yet, each day of the 100 or so left, he will raise the stakes more. Hillary, with pursed lips and long-suffering disapproval, will end up representing prim virtue and stoic composure. Hence, it's a stage that is set for just one Trumpian moment of outrageous clarity during the debates, one mock-innocent goof on the system and its self-regard, one break in her self-control, for him to win. Let's hope she is in fact made of steel.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.