As I walked around the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday night I began taking a series of photos that chronicled not the frenzied excitement of a political convention — but the utter boredom of the assembled delegates.
People were talking among themselves, checking their phones or, in many cases, just staring off into the distance, utterly disconnected from the events taking place on stage. In one respect, it’s hard to completely blame them. Perhaps the most painful element of the first two days of this convention has been the consistently mediocre quality of the speeches being delivered. They have been platitudinous, meandering, incoherent, boring, and charmless. It certainly doesn’t help that the C and D list group of politicians, actors, businesspeople and, yes, female golfers who’ve spoken at the Republican National Convention lacks not only star power, but also charisma. Even Trump’s own children — like his wife Melania — seemed incapable of coming up with a single heart-warming anecdote to describe their father. Apparently, life in the Trump household is a lot like the RNC — one Hallmark-style life lesson and platitude after another.
But one thing is also clear: if you want to get Republicans excited, there’s a surefire way to do it — say something terrible about Hillary Clinton. When Chris Christie delivered his prosecutorial indictment of Clinton, blaming her for pretty much every bad thing that has happened in the world over the past eight years, he asked the crowd if she was guilty or not guilty. Shockingly, the crowd went with the former. And it was one of the few moments of the convention that got them out of their chairs and their voices raised.
“Guilty,” they feverishly shouted with fingers pointed, arms extended high in the air and furious scowls on their face. One man repeatedly yelled “off with her head,” which was met each time with guffaws from nearby delegates. I stood by the California and Georgia delegation that helped start a chant of “Lock her up.” They were egged on by a 20-something, blonde, baseball cap-wearing woman, who appeared to be a GOP staffer. She could barely contain her exhilaration as she jumped up and down, clapped her hands and enthusiastically screamed the three-word missive that has become the dominant mantra of this convention. The dominant chant, that is, along with “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
On a night that was nominally devoted to the GOP’s economic plans for the country (Make America Work Again), it was clear that what truly motivates Republican voters are not plans for fixing the economy — but rather loathing their cultural and political opponents.
The modern Republican Party is a seething mass of anger, resentment, anxiety, and hatred. It wasn’t enough for Republicans to criticize the substance of what Hillary Clinton believes; they had to make her out to be the devil itself. Former neurosurgeon, failed presidential candidate, and word salad creator Ben Carson actually said that Clinton was an acolyte of Lucifer. Not Barack Obama, mind you, but Lucifer himself.
And when Republicans weren’t attacking a cartoon image of Clinton, they were, in the case of Mitch McConnell, comparing her to Baghdad Bob, the hapless press spokesman for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War. Or, like Christie, holding her responsible for the death of 400,000 people in the Syrian civil war. But practically every speaker took turns accusing Clinton of breaking the law. I suppose one can disagree with the decision of the FBI not to prosecute Clinton for the use of a private e-mail server, but it’s simply remarkable the extent to which Republicans have completely convinced themselves that not only did Clinton commit a crime, but that she is a felon and deserves to be in prison. It’s not often you hear a political convention descend into lusty calls for imprisonment of the political opponent. But then again it’s not often you find a modern political party like the Republican Party.
Indeed, it would take hours to fact-check all the misstatements and exaggerations that have been uttered at this convention. Speakers have claimed that America is not respected in the world; that we live in dangerous times; that Americans are not safe and face innumerable threats, both from criminals at home and terrorists from overseas; that Obamacare has been a disaster; that Clinton wants to take away their Second Amendment rights; that she has plans to destroy Medicare – and the list goes on. Virtually none of this is true. Indeed, what has been most striking about the first two days of the RNC is the terrifying alternate reality in which Republican partisans reside — and the willingness of GOP leaders to reinforce their supporters’ blighted worldview.
That’s perhaps the most important story of this RNC so far — it’s hard to imagine that anyone who is not a Republican voter finding much of what is being said in Cleveland persuasive or interesting. The GOP is preaching to the choir, but I suspect that like the crowd for much of the evening at Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday night, the rest of America isn’t listening.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.