Donald Trump has been complaining that "President Obama won’t even name the enemy" for months. His party has no such qualms, as it made clear who the enemy is over and over again on Monday evening. There are many villains, and after listening to all the speeches, the delegates might have thought that all of them were lurking outside of the room about to come in, unless Trump commissioned a wall around the arena to protect the crowd from the terrifying world outside.
There's ISIS, of course. But also illegal immigrants. Perhaps everyone outside the U.S., actually; "the world outside our border is a scary place," said former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. But also all of the immigrants here. As Republican advisor Avik Roy tweeted, the enemies listed all seemed to have one thing in common.
The biggest enemy of all, however, was Hillary Clinton. The first night of the Republican National Convention wasn't designed to showcase the GOP's ideas about how to make America safe again, but rather to paint a vivid picture of the world America needed saving from, a world where everything had been touched by Hillary Clinton and King Midas–style turned into the most explosive five minutes of a Michael Bay movie. (This is not an exaggeration; two of the speakers collaborated with the author of a book about their experiences in Benghazi that became a Michael Bay movie.) Patricia Smith, whose son died at Benghazi, pointed at a sign in the audience and said, "That’s right, ‘Hillary for prison.’ She deserves to be in stripes!" Senate candidate Darryl Glenn said, "We all know she loves her pantsuits … She deserves a bright orange jumpsuit." The few delegates remaining at the end of the night started chanting "Lock her up! Lock her up!" during retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn’s speech.
It wasn't anything unfamiliar if you've been watching the primary season, which has featured dozens of "Hillary for Prison" posters and at least one instance of Trump saying that Clinton got schlonged. Donald Trump himself has uttered the words, "Hillary Clinton has to go to jail. She's guilty as hell." In fact, that's exactly what this all felt like — a concerted effort to appeal to the voters who have already signaled that they respond to the alchemy of fear and frustration that has treated Trump so well up to this point.
Insulting your presidential opponent is nothing new, of course. Thomas Jefferson supporters said that John Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." But presidential conventions, at least in their modern incarnation, often try to use the opportunity to broaden the party's appeal beyond what was said in the primary, and to introduce the faces that might grow familiar four years later.
Think of the 2004 Democratic convention, and you don't remember how it made John Kerry look. All you remember was that it gave Barack Obama a chance to shine. Offering concrete policy solutions isn't often a priority, but the parties at least try to show off all of the people they intend to have these ideas in the future, and debut the new, shiny words they'll use to talk about them. The Republican convention this year, at least so far, instead looks like a special-edition DVD extra of the past year, painstakingly unpacking every utterance and prop that helped Trump win and letting them wobble across the stage in their unscripted, unabridged finery.
There are plenty of Republicans who could have been on hand to offer a broader picture of the Republican Party, but they decided not to show up, preferring to plan for the future. Politico reported on Tuesday that many of the politicians and donors who aren’t at the event are holding a "shadow convention," and already looking forward to a repeat of 2010 during the 2018 midterms.
But maybe it was better to stay away, as the parts of the Trump campaign that everyone not present at the convention was queasy about might also be responsible for making sure that we don't remember that the Republican convention was just a "Trump Greatest Hits." Melania Trump's adaptation of Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech offered both confirmation of the more administrative foibles of the Trump organization and an opportunity to forget everything else that happened on opening day. Or maybe that was the perfect end to a day that relived the most hateful moments of the Trump campaign — a moment that turned a handful of bad stories into a tome or Proustian length that should have been ever more damning, but instead made everyone tune out and forget that half of the incidents ever happened.
Or maybe this was bound to happen regardless of who won the primary. In 2012, a ticket far better liked by the establishment was overshadowed by an empty chair. The convention can't make or break a candidate or a party, but it in the end, it does leave you with the same person and party that entered it — for better if you happen to be wearing a "Hillary for Prison" t-shirt right now, or worse if you didn't show up to see those words staring back at you as you spoke from the stage.