The RNC convention was, by many standards on the Left, an utter failure and a dangerous omen of things to come following Election Day. With the Qanon cult winning elections and holding marches, paramilitary gangs blending with state security forces in the streets, and Trump openly signaling that he plans to contest the results of the election, the stars are aligning for the fascist contingent of America to attempt something nefarious in November. The RNC convention added that emphasis on hyper-nationalistic imagery that Trump has been relying on all summer to this mix of elements, and for many on the Left, this was enough to confirm their alarm.
But while many on the Left prepare, as journalists like Andrea Chalupa and Sarah Kendzior recommend, for an unstable election, others still refuse to see the graffiti on the wall. The first reaction of many center left liberals is to deny that these signs really are that bad. The center-left thinks that Biden is a strong candidate, and his leadership will propel him to victory, and some tell themselves that, sure, the signs of fascism on the right are bad, but not THAT bad, not yet at least. There’s still time. For these voters, the RNC convention may have been fascistic in nature, but this notion is only a half-formed thought, the full import of which is diminished by the soothing notion that Biden can still fix everything. For many DNC liberals, the only real take away from the RNC was an aesthetic judgment. Namely, that the production came off as low budget, that the convention had an air of having been thrown together at the last minute, and at best, the simplicity of the set, with the flags and White House, was an indication of the failures of this President to stem the pandemic that prevented him from holding the convention elsewhere.
But of course, choosing to host the convention at the White House also struck many on the Left as illegal. The venue was the White House itself, which is a violation of the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act’s “main provision prohibits civil service employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and vice president, from engaging in some forms of political activity,” such as campaigning. To the Left, this meant that, insofar as the RNC Convention is a political campaign activity, and federal employees gave speeches and participated in organizing the event, they violated the Act. Flaunting laws and legal conventions is autocratic, and for many liberals, this was the main problem with the entire production. In their eyes, not only was the convention poorly done, full of lies, boring, and low budget, but it was also illegal.
What many liberals missed, however, was that the RNC convention was actually a highly effective masterpiece in American propaganda. While the DNC convention presented speakers like a series of PowerPoint lectures delivered on a dull blue backdrop interrupted by a few oversized white stars, the RNC convention presented speakers alone at a lectern against a backdrop resplendent with many American flags, each topped by a gleaming golden eagle, and flanked by large marble pillars. If the question voters had was “which party looks the most patriotic,” then the Republicans answered that question definitively.
That wasn’t the only thing that many liberals who were critical of the RNC missed, especially in comparison to the DNC convention. The DNC showcased the vast breadth and diversity of America. The message that the DNC sought to send to the public was that they are the party of all Americans, and liberals are convinced that this message is both true and broad-based enough to win a majority of the votes in November for Joe Biden. But while the RNC convention didn’t make this argument they did something else that is an effective political strategy. Instead of focussing on the (lack of) diversity within their party – they did trot out a few people of color to tick the box – the GOP sent the message that traditional, white, Christian America is the America they represent. In doing this against the backdrop of the White House, Trump and the GOP claimed “Americanness” for the Republican party and effectively communicated that if voters want an America they recognize (white, Christian, traditional) – in other words, if white voters want safety from ‘change’ as they define it – they should vote for Trump. As we learned from the Democratic primaries, in an election during a season of deep and intersecting political tensions, let alone a pandemic and economic turmoil, safety is a winning message.
Bringing all of this together, what many liberals missed about the RNC convention was this: it was an effective piece of propaganda. In fact, viewed from the perspective of the aesthetic critique of propaganda, in very concrete ways, the RNC convention was more effective at achieving its goals than the DNC convention was at achieving its goals. The RNC effectively communicated stability via the fetishization of tradition. The DNC confusingly communicated a mix of black and indigenous traditional values mixed with warnings of the need for progressive change. The RNC effectively communicated imperial statesmanship and groundedness via the use of simple lecterns and classic American locations. The DNC communicated a somewhat boomer-esque level of technological awareness via the use of CNN situation room-inspired smart screen walls which took viewers on a boring ride into basements and studies, unremarkable studio sets, and dark stages. The RNC convention was self-aware of its meme-ability and intentionally meme-able, while the DNC was simply one extended accidental meme. The RNC glorified Trump, while the DNC tried to humanize Biden at the risk of damaging his ability to project strength as Commander in Chief.
What liberals got right about the RNC convention was that it was an ominous development in the road to the election in November. While the liberal media preferred to characterize the RNC convention as communicating doomsday scenarios and darkness and hate, what they failed to acknowledge was the effectiveness that these dark messages have on the right when set against the backdrop hyper-nationalistic imagery like the White House. The RNC convention was effective in building loyalty to Trump by equating Trump with American patriotism. The RNC convention did an effective job in promoting the idea that, if push comes to shove in November and the election outcome and events surrounding it lead to a period of instability in America, Trump is the nation's true protector. As a piece of propaganda, the RNC convention communicated with skillful and precise disregard for the truth, that if Trump takes the coming election fight into extra-constitutional territory, he’s the guy "real" Americans will stick with no matter what. Sending that message was the goal of the RNC convention and from an aesthetic point of view, and they did it well.