In an election year when what is unusual is normal, the Republican National Convention achieved peak normality.
Of course, with delegates unable to gather in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the Republican and Democratic conventions were bound to be different.
But the GOP cranked up the strange to 11.
The weirdness began last weekend, when the Republican National Committee announced there would be no party platform. Instead, Republicans will follow the lead of President Donald Trump, whose second-term agenda thus far consists of bullet points with few details.
Next, Americans heard the president speak during the first two days of the convention, rather than wait until the final day to give a nomination acceptance address.
Interspersed with tirades against the Democrats and the news media, Trump manufactured reality show surprises from the White House, granting a pardon to a reformed felon and presiding over a naturalization ceremony for a diverse group of immigrants.
Contrary to tradition, Trump delivered his acceptance speech from the White House, where the crowd of 1,500 was mostly unmasked and packed closely together. The spectacle far outstripped the hour-plus string of platitudes and falsehoods uttered by the Republican nominee.
Certainly, using the trappings of the presidency to frame a reelection campaign is not unique to this president. However, federal officials are not supposed to use their offices while on the clock to engage in political activity.
Holding convention-related events in the White House complex or, in the case of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, making blatantly political speeches in Jerusalem, appeared to be violations of the federal Hatch Act.
Apart from that, the Republican National Convention set out to accomplish a difficult task: present the president as a caring and competent leader. Burnishing the president’s image were photos of Trump listening to regular people, endorsements from notable figures such as football great Herschel Walker and testimonials from members of the Trump family and presidential advisers.
Videos showed Trump decisively responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and proclaimed that his actions have saved countless lives.
But some of these efforts seemed strained, to put it mildly. First lady Melania Trump described the president as honest, hardworking and interested solely in the welfare of the nation. Her thoughtful speech from the newly remodeled Rose Garden did offer condolences to the families of 180,000-plus COVID-19 victims — something her husband has been criticized for failing to do strongly enough.
Especially jarring was the naturalization ceremony, a bizarre event that attempted to show viewers Trump’s comfort with diversity and inclusivity.
The other main objective of the Republican National Convention was to bring Democratic presidential nominee and front-runner Joe Biden down to size. This produced questionable results.
A host of speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr., predicted a Biden presidency would bring anarchy to America’s streets, impose a radical socialist agenda and essentially end Western civilization.
Pro-life figures, including former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, questioned Biden’s faith, calling him a Catholic “in name only.”
The wildness of the allegations levied against Biden and his family — including familiar refrains about Ukraine by former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and narratives generated by those in the Fox News cocoon — revealed the seeming difficulty Trump has had in landing a solid punch on his opponent.
For example, Trump and some of his supporters have implied that Biden is senile. Biden was able to dispose of the claim by giving a lucid, forceful nomination acceptance speech.
It is true that Biden has not undertaken an active campaign schedule. This is likely because of fear that the 77-year old may contract the novel coronavirus. The other reason is that the Trump campaign is often doing a good job of opposing itself. Several speakers at the Republican National Convention were either removed from the schedule or had serious credibility issues.
It was a bad week for key Trump supporters. Former political adviser Steve Bannon was arrested for allegedly siphoning contributions from the We Build the Wall fund. Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned from the presidency of Liberty University because of a scandal involving his wife’s extramarital affair. Congressional hearings went badly for Louis DeJoy, who was installed as the new postmaster general by the Trump administration earlier this year.
Furthermore, the list of Republicans and former Trump administration officials pledging to support Biden is growing. And there is now an industry of tell-all books from Trump family members and associates.
For Trump, a fundamental problem is that the world described in the Republican National Convention bubble has little relation to the world in which the rest of us are living.
Despite the president’s claims, COVID-19 is not going away. With the virus still widespread in parts of the United States, a quick economic recovery is unlikely. Millions of families are facing permanent job loss, hunger, loss of health insurance and/or eviction.
Many families are uncertain about whether it is safe to send their children to school or college.
The Aug. 23 police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin, followed by protests and deadly violence, reminded us of the current administration’s seeming disdain for bridging the racial divide in America.
Anyone watching the Republican National Convention to learn about the party’s plans for dealing with our present crises was likely to come away disappointed. Trump’s appeal to voters, which boils down to “reelect me to clean up the mess I made,” does not sound like a winning message.
The major takeaways from the Republicans’ big week were how deeply isolated and out of touch Trump is from reality, and how closely the Republican Party has tied its fortunes to Trump.
E. Fletcher McClellan, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.