If you just returned from 40 years (or even four) in a jungle in Borneo without television and modern communications and watched Tuesday night’s Republican convention, you’d think these were lovely people doing wondrous things. There was the former robber and the FBI guy who befriended him (needless to say, across racial lines). The New Mexico cop who adopted the heroin addict’s baby and helped her clean up. And then all that bragging about all those best-ever accomplishments. You’d turn the TV off wondering what kind of nutcase can possibly be against this?
Then your host would sit you down and say well, you see, there are a few things they left out here, like for starters the fact that 179,000 people have died from this virus that the president kept pretending was going to disappear and that was barely been mentioned tonight. And when it has been mentioned, it’s mostly been to try to peddle the lie that Donald Trump acted boldly and swiftly, or to brag about the CARES Act as if it were not an obviously necessary emergency down payment on saving people from desperation but instead something as far-sighted and visionary as Social Security. No, watching this, except for a few admittedly human sentences from Melania at the very end of the night, you’d think the virus had barely made a dent in this country and was now completely licked.
The night proved what the medium of television is capable of. The skillful use of certain images and texts can just erase viewers’ memory banks and make context go poof! It can show you things that are real, because they’re happening right there on the screen, but are also not at all what they seem to be. Republicans have been masters of this since Ronald Reagan’s time, but under Trump it’s taken a more cynical turn.
Thus the worst moment of Tuesday was the one that fans of the president would probably call the best: Trump’s surprise 10:05 pm appearance in the West Wing to oversee the citizenship ceremony for five new Americans from across the world (Lebanon, India, Bolivia, Ghana, and Sudan). If you just flew in from Borneo, it might have brought a little tear to your eye.
But if you’ve been living in Trump’s United States and know how to connect some dots, it was a total Potemkin Village performance. First of all, it’s unethical and illegal and scandalous to do a political event like that from the White House. Now you may say “but it was a citizenship ceremony,” to which I say yes, but it was a citizenship ceremony during a political convention. It’s grotesquely inappropriate. Even using those two Marine guards to open the doors—yes, way, way out of bounds. They are not to be used for political events. They serve this country. Say the magic words: “Imagine if Obama…”
Second of all, Trump was accompanied by acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, to which you might again say well, that’s appropriate; but if you know that he is serving in his position illegally, in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, and that in spite of that Trump nominated him this very day to be permanent DHS head, you might actually wonder why he’s in the job in the first place (answer: Senate Republicans).
Third, you’d think watching this that Trump must surely be a very pro-immigrant president. The, uh, truth of the matter, as we know, is a little different. We learned just last week that the separation of children from their parents at the border was not the result of bureaucratic confusion or error but was intentional, voted on by top officials at a May 2018 meeting. He’s the most anti-immigrant president in our modern history.
And fourth—and this takes us back to the desaparecido virus—the five new Americans were not standing 6 feet apart, and neither they, nor Trump, nor Wolf, were wearing masks. Again, if you connect dots and you happen to know stuff, you know that nobody gets within a mile of the president without having been tested, so it was known to White House medical staff that doing this was probably safe. But almost nobody watching at home knows that. The mask absence is meant to convey that the virus isn’t a problem.
It’s nice for those five people, nothing against them. But using them in this kind of black-is-white, reverse-reality political theater is appalling. As was, for that matter, Melania speaking from the Rose Garden, to an audience where almost no one wore masks, and of course Mike Pompeo speaking from Jerusalem. The secretary of state speaking at a political rally won’t be the scandal it deserves to be.
Will any of it work? To some extent, it probably will. People don’t remember things; they just see images and respond to them. For a few days at least, until Trump starts tweeting again, some people may forget what a vengeful and chaotic man he is.
But they won’t forget the virus, and the attempted erasure of the virus won’t work. Just this week, a poll came out showing 73 percent think Trump has handled the virus badly; 50 percent said “very badly.” That is people’s lived reality. A few hours of fake TV can’t undo that.