I Know What Makes Conventions So Maddening

This small revelation burst upon me as I watched the last two nights of the Republican National Convention. Like the Democratic convention the week before, the RNC was a slickly produced affair, free of techno-glitches. The speeches in both were competently written and for the most part well delivered. The “human interest” stories were both interesting and human, as they should be, if undeniably and inevitably manipulative. But as one vignette passed into another, what I found myself enjoying most of all were the transitions between them. They were seamless. They were blessedly silent.

The silence had many positive effects. For one, it helped keep things moving along at a steady clip, uninhibited by delegates ventilating their need to show their delight and approval. More important, it allowed listeners to absorb what they’d just heard. The knife edge of Nikki Haley’s much-contested assertion—“This is not a racist country”—would have been blunted, for good or bad, if delegates had been there to receive it as an applause line, as surely they would have done. One shudders to imagine the cheapening effect of traditional whoops and hollers on the almost unbearable testimony of Ann Dorn, the widow of the retired cop who was killed defending a friend’s store during the riots in St. Louis.

At the same time, those whoops and hollers rising from the convention floor might have obscured, even normalized, the bizarre, shouty performance of GOP Week’s It Couple, Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the latter of whom seemed to be doing an impression of Danny Kaye lip-synching an aria by Patti LuPone. Don Jr.’s high-decibel speech was taken by pundits as evidence that he is embarking on a political career of his own, with an emphasis on barking.

And then Melania Trump showed up, and so did an in-person audience. She appeared in the Rose Garden Wednesday night to deliver a speech to a crowd in the traditional manner. If we leave aside the grotesque deformation of the executive mansion into a campaign venue, her speech was good enough. It was also 35 percent too long. This defect I insist on putting down to the presence of real human beings arrayed before her. In the minds of some performers, an audience is an invitation not to discipline and self-control but to self-indulgence. A still better example than the first lady’s speech was that of Ivanka Trump the next night. Hers was even more indulgent, even less necessary. Ivanka is a fan of yoga, which keeps her limber enough to pat herself on the back. At moments, she displayed the grasping intensity of a speaker who might never surrender the mic, like a dark horse who’s won a surprise Oscar for best supporting actor and knows this is her one and only chance to give a speech in front of Brad Pitt.