Donald Trump promised us a showbiz convention, and he delivered — although perhaps not in the way he meant. The Republican nominee wanted his coronation to be a glamorous affair where everyone watching came away with the same review: Donald Trump is “very well liked.” And for those who saw a storm ahead, maybe he could convince them that the horizon was still gilded. Instead, the Republican convention reflected an idea of showbiz that you can only acquire if you happen to have had the life experience of one Donald J. Trump.
Although the event was ostensibly supposed to be about Trump and his ideas for the future of the party, his name didn’t come up as much as you’d expect — at least until the last day, when Trump himself unleashed the fury of his entire campaign via one exceptionally long and depressing speech. The first three-quarters of the convention (at least the non–Ted Cruz parts — we’ll get to that later) instead mostly revolved around how much the Republican Party hates Hillary Clinton, and how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are still clinging to the same abstractions they hoped would save the party four years ago. Trump merely seemed to be a scheduled cameo appearance, an image not helped by the fact that, unlike most nominees, he quickly appeared on stage just once each night. It’s a showbiz role he excels in, after his career-making turns in Home Alone 2, The Little Rascals, and Zoolander. After he disappeared from the stage, so did his name, too dense to float in a sea of “America Deserves Better” signs.
If you step back and look at the convention and Trump’s entire political career in widescreen, it’s obvious that the genre of entertainment blessing the spectacle most is the one responsible for making Trump a star. Reality TV is addictive because you need to watch every moment of it to catch the instant when all hell breaks loose. The same could be said of much of pro wrestling, one of Trump’s other dramatic teachers. Its very unpredictability is predictable; its near-human sheen makes the inevitable entropy that much more shocking. In the end, our surprise seems misguided.
All of these tropes apply to this convention. After the hundreds of hours of this show we’ve already binged, did we really not know that Trump’s chief antagonist was going to wait until the penultimate episode to exact his revenge?
For those who’ve gorged on Trump’s campaign to sate their daily reality TV needs over the past year, the convention was executed perfectly. No one was there to make friends — only to ensure the health of their future career prospects. The cast was populated with celebrity has-beens. One of Trump’s enemies appeared onscreen to offer a first-person confessional. Everyone was waiting for the crashes, which occurred in the most dramatically satisfying places — Melania’s charmingly bland speech that morphed into Penghazi; Chris Christie’s mock court session turned witch hunt that a day later turned into a Newt that didn’t quite get better; the screens that went glitchy and eventually blacked out; the fact that Mike Pence, picked to be the soothing vanilla Glade candle of the convention, only appeared at the very end of an episode, when all the old people watching had probably gone to bed.
Take a look at the Trump campaign and convention, and it’s hard to discern dramatic checkpoints — a climax or denouement, a cliffhanger or riveting soliloquy. It all just melds together like every season of The Apprentice until you’re unable to recall any of the specific train wrecks or fights that populated every minute of it — but are still highly conscious of the fact that when you blend all of those disparate moments together, it tastes like a milkshake that you knew you’d regret but ordered anyway. And you’re going to order it again the next time too, because you forget your sugar hangover so quickly. His speech on Thursday night, filled with dozens of disquieting moments, took more than 70 minutes to read, making it hard for anyone listening to remember the individual reasons that made them worried.
When Donald Trump is asked to describe his favorite movie, he predictably espouses a preference for only the best, the most first-class luxury pick possible: Citizen Kane. The parabolic story of a rich man’s life unsurprisingly resonated with him, but only in the most literal sense. When Trump spoke with Errol Morris about the movie in 2002, he said that “Rosebud” was great marketing, and that another word probably wouldn’t have worked as well. When asked to give advice to the businessman protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, Trump quipped, “Get yourself a different woman.” He yearns for the classy kind of drama that gets critical praise, but can’t quite appreciate any narrative that doesn’t dovetail neatly with his own experience, which narrows his options considerably.
Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is a student of another kind of drama. While Paul Ryan’s office brags about how the world seems to think that the House Speaker and Trump “neatly define the poles of the GOP in 2016,” Cruz seems content to showcase how he and Trump have differing theories of how to put on a show. He used to sing along to the Les Misérables soundtrack on the way to college debate tournaments. He probably still sings it in the car; he has mentioned the musical in speeches several times. Cruz adores finding parallels between political fights and movie plots — and will often reenact scenes with his adaptations to make sure you get the point. When he does an impression, he delights in explaining the scene from which he plucked it in great detail, perhaps just so he can relive it. His favorite movie, The Princess Bride, is not the most critically adored, but it is the most beloved among people who love quoting movies, relishing every chance to insert fictional drama into their everyday lives. Before and during his big convention speech, reporters and experts heard him reference both Shakespeare and Patton.
Instead of providing an unfiltered view into his world, letting you in so you can wait to see if it implodes, Cruz’s beloved muses have taught him to orchestrate his career as a series of Moments, giving his rise a narrative ebb and flow that could easily be transmuted into an HBO boxed set. There was the Moment when he shocked everyone by winning a Senate seat. The Moment when he filibustered Obamacare — or gave a “TED talk” — and forced C-SPAN to air a nighttime recital of Green Eggs and Ham for his kids that turned into the Moment when he helped shut down the federal government. Or the Moment when he tried to push another government shutdown, this time over Planned Parenthood. His attempts at fomenting suspense and dramatic intrigue don’t always work (you may have forgotten that he chose Carly Fiorina as his vice-presidential pick until just now). Making these Moments — and precariously stacking them up so that he can climb them to the presidency, hoping they don’t topple over before he reaches the most dramatic Moment of all — has been the propelling force of Cruz’s career. He has sponsored one bill that has been signed into law in the past four years.
Despite his adoration for importing theater into his life, Cruz is not a natural. Everything feels a little too scripted and forced, a mixture of Shakespearean asides and the personification of the West Wing soundtrack. There’s a reason he’s a senator and not an actor — although he was in The Sound of Music in the seventh grade. His brand of drama is about as charming as Trump’s when it comes to winning over the general populace; staging elaborate three-act plays that take years to unfold often makes it difficult to do things like enact policy or make friends. But, as Thursday night showed, Cruz is perfectly fine being the antihero for now. Haven’t you watched cable TV — the drama or news varieties — recently? Antiheroes are in.
And so these two schools of theater competed on Thursday night: Trump’s MSG-laced white noise vs. Cruz’s endless attempts to recreate a speech that fictional presidents would salivate over.
In the short-term, it’s already clear who won — only one of them accepted the presidential nomination. Check the Nielsen ratings; reality TV nearly always wins. But movies and musicals — the ones where a guy gives a speech that makes an entire arena boo and yell “traitor,” and yet still refuses to back down — sometimes manage to stick to our memories in the end, while the reality TV stars are forgotten, demoted to warm-up acts at a convention years later.
The question, ultimately, is whether Cruz’s crusade makes a good movie or a bad one. His party is giving him awful reviews right now, but plenty of people didn’t like Citizen Kane at first either. Maybe the GOP will realize that Rosebud was more than good marketing, and that they have to go back to the beginning to figure out what it’s all supposed to mean.