The official theme of the second night of the Trump coronation was “Make America Work Again,” but jobs programs are boring to talk about and no one really believes in them anyway. Donald Trump Jr. talked about his dad’s track record as a businessman, but few other speakers did. (Donald Jr. was also one of the few to mention immigration, the issue that did more than any other to win the nomination for his father, and even he didn’t talk about it for long.) Mitt Romney ran on his business record in 2012, and built a lot of his campaign on the idea that the U.S. needs a businessman for president, and it didn’t work.
So the real theme of a number of the speeches is that Hillary Clinton is a terrible person. Last night people were calling for her to be in jail, and the chant of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” returned in full force tonight, most prominently during Chris Christie’s speech, which was almost entirely about Clinton and hardly about Trump. Donald Jr.’s speech, though it was probably the most effective of the night, seemed to get a more enthusiastic response after he started talking about Hillary Clinton. It also turned out that some of the speakers had been specifically chosen for some kind of “insider” knowledge of her perfidy. So Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson opened his speech by recalling a time in 2013 when he seemed to get under Clinton’s skin over Benghazi. He was preceded by the governor and attorney general of Arkansas, who were there to tell America how bad the Clintons were for their state.
There are two reasons they focused on Hillary Clinton. One, obviously, is to raise or confirm the doubts people have about her. But the other is that the more a speaker is talking about Clinton, the less that person has to talk about Donald Trump. And many of tonight’s speakers were obviously wary about saying anything that could be taken as over-effusive praise of Trump. The wily Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (the guy Jon Stewart always compared to Cecil Turtle) went through a rather long speech without ever actually endorsing Trump. He said that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a disaster, and that he knows from personal experience how horrible the Clintons are. He said that Trump would be willing to sign the conservative bills his Senate passes, and Clinton wouldn’t. But he carefully avoided anything that could be taken as out-and-out praise of Trump. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was even more circumspect, barely mentioning Trump at all.
These men are career politicians who are worried that a Trump loss could wipe out their majorities, or even that he might win while doing nothing to help the down-ticket Republicans, like Nixon in 1972. They have to keep some distance from the man, even while doing nothing to stand in his way. So they crafted their speeches to talk about the importance of keeping the government Republican and keeping the Clintons out of the White House—but in the event that Trump loses, they can always claim that they never actually endorsed him.
If the point of tonight was to make people afraid of Hillary Clinton, did it work? I’m not sure if they really hurt Clinton as much as they could have, at least so far. A lot of the speakers focused on the Benghazi issue and the email scandal, implying or outright saying that in both cases, Clinton’s behaviour was not merely careless but criminal. The problem is that while there are legitimate and clear criticisms to be made of Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, the Benghazi story in particular is one of those memes that only makes complete sense to true believers. In the conservative media—talk radio and Fox News—they talk about these stories all the time, to the point that they have only to say “Benghazi” and listeners instantly know everything that’s being referred to. To people who don’t know all these details, it’s very much like wandering into a highly serialized TV drama halfway through the fourth season. We don’t know who these people are or what they’re talking about.
The references to Benghazi, and even the idea that she should be locked up over her emails, seem designed to please the faithful while leaving the undecideds scratching their heads. Chris Christie was one of the few people who tried to explain the email scandal, but he didn’t really explain why it was jail-worthy; he just assumed it was, knowing that the people in the room all assumed it was. Donald Jr. tried to explain the Benghazi story and the crowd was back to saying “lock her up!” before he’d exactly explained it. Another conservative meme was invoked by Ben Carson, who launched into a long passage about Saul Alinsky, a left-wing community organizer who died almost 45 years ago. Hardly anyone without a deep interest in politics has heard of Alinsky, but he’s constantly mentioned on Fox and talk radio as the man whose ideas underlie everything Obama and Clinton say or do, and today there was an attempt to find an Alinsky connection in Michelle Obama’s now-famous 2008 speech. Carson’s digression was a perfect example of something that makes perfect sense to the initiates, but might confuse the newbies.
There are many things they could say about Clinton that would be instantly comprehensible, and they said a few of them, but they didn’t emphasize them as much as they could have. It could be that they overrate the appeal of complicated stories like Benghazi. It didn’t do much against Obama in 2012, and I don’t think it’s likely to lose Clinton many votes, just because anyone who would even consider voting for her doesn’t understand precisely what it’s all about.
Still, the goal of the night was to focus on Hillary Clinton while taking the focus off Donald Trump, and it did that. Focusing too much on Trump would call attention to the fact that he’s Donald Trump and that this is really happening to a major party. If the comparison is between Trump and a “generic” Democrat, he probably loses. If enough people can be convinced to view the election as a generic Republican vs. the offspring of Lady Macbeth and Richard Nixon? Now that’s another story.