If “The Donald Trump Show,’’ a.k.a. the Republican National Convention, were a television program — and in a sense, of course, that’s exactly what it is — there would be network executives already wringing their hands.
The medium can be a ruthless X-ray machine that exposes who is ready for prime time and who is not, and the Trump forces clearly were not. This would be a problem for any candidate, but it is particularly so for Trump because his star power and his presumed mastery of the medium, as the former host of NBC’s “The Apprentice,’’ was a key part of the rationale for his candidacy. Indeed, the only thing Trump boasted about more than his poll numbers during his march to the GOP nomination were his TV ratings.
Yet now that it’s time to put on the most important TV show of his life and connect with a nationwide viewing audience, Trump hasn’t been able to deliver. Straining for Big Moment grandeur on the convention’s opening night, he descended into cheesy absurdity instead, materializing backlit in silhouette amid bluish haze, more WWE wrestler than statesman, while Queen’s “We Are the Champions’’ pounded over the sound system. Then Trump strode forward, applauding himself or perhaps the delegates, while repeating the refrain: “We’re going to win so big.’’
But winning the hearts and minds of home viewers, also known as voters, requires more narrative verve and discipline than the unfocused Trump coronation has so far been able to muster. A variety show is nothing without variety, and there has too often been a numbing sameness to the televised presentation. Wednesday night was undeniably livelier, but the picture that came through the TV screen was of a nominee struggling to maintain control of his own convention: After Trump’s campaign granted former rival Ted Cruz a hefty chunk of speaking time, Cruz pointedly withheld his endorsement, igniting boos from the crowd. (Trump entered the hall near the end of Cruz’s speech and joined his family.)
There was a sharp decline in the TV audience from the first night to the second night of the convention. On Monday, an estimated 23 million viewers across seven networks watched the GOP proceedings, according to Nielsen. That represents an increase of more than 700,000 viewers from the first night of the 2012 Republican convention.
However, on Tuesday night viewership of the GOP convention dropped more than 3 million to an estimated 19.8 million. (On the second night in 2012, 22 million viewers tuned in.)
No sooner had “The Donald Trump Show’’ hit the airwaves Monday night than it began to threaten to capsize beneath the weight of sheer rhetorical excess. Speaker after gloom-and-doom speaker seemed to be auditioning for jobs as scriptwriters on “The Walking Dead,’’ with the prize perhaps going to former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who said: “The world outside of our borders is a dark place, a scary place.’’ It was as if Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,’’ had morphed into “Make America Scared Again.’’
For all the fervent talk, though, the reaction among delegates on the convention floor in Cleveland has come across on TV as rather tepid, even when the candidate made an appearance by satellite Tuesday night.
“I have never seen a convention where everybody seems to be going through the motions,’’ former GOP congressman and “Morning Joe’’ host Joe Scarborough remarked Wednesday morning on MSNBC.
Only the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name seemed to really animate the delegates, who chanted “Lock her up!’’ at every opportunity. Despite Clinton’s unpopularity with a large segment of voters, it was perhaps not the most rational face the party could present to a nation watching at home.
Apart from Clinton animus, this convention has not been able to stay on message — Tuesday night’s theme was jobs, but you wouldn’t have known it from most of the speeches — and build momentum.
A compellingly forceful speech by Donald Trump Jr. Tuesday night was diluted by the speakers who followed him, including Dr. Ben Carson, who rambled on about “Rules for Radicals’’ author Saul Alinsky, Clinton, and . . . Lucifer. You could almost hear the “Huh?’’ emanating from homes across the nation.
Melania Trump’s poised and graceful speech on Monday night was quickly ruined by the ensuing comedy of errors, when it was revealed it had been plagiarized from an address given at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 by Michelle Obama.
Donald Trump Jr. speaks at the 2016 Republican National Convention
Even Trump couldn’t seem to stop himself from sabotaging his own show. On Monday night, cameras captured the grief and fury of Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who died in the 2012 Benghazi attack.
Smith tearfully denounced Clinton, saying “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,’’ then added: “She deserves to be in stripes!’’
It made for uncomfortable but riveting television.
As Smith was speaking, however, Trump was conducting a live telephone interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Apparently unable to summon the discipline required to stay out of the limelight, Trump was, in effect, acting as counterprogramming to the very convention whose primary purpose is to celebrate him.
Patricia Smith: ‘I blame Hillary Clinton’ for death of my son in Benghazi
It’s puzzling. Seldom has a major-party nominee been so thoroughly a creature of television, so completely shaped by reflexes developed on TV, so dependent on the medium for his understanding of the world. (When asked last year where he got military information, Trump famously replied, “Well, I watch the shows.’’)
He has long promised that his convention would be a blockbuster. But the evidence onscreen so far suggests that the star and executive producer of “The Donald Trump Show’’ doesn’t understand how to use this made-for-TV event, the ultimate prime-time showcase, to shape his story and message and energize his campaign. He has one more night to figure it out.