An unconventional summer

empty chair

Two weeks. Two conventions. Two political infomercials that had millions of Americans reaching for the remote in hopes of finding an Andy Griffith Show marathon.

Yes, they’re long, they’re boring, they’re filled with people wearing silly hats. But these conventions were for the most part Must See TV, if for no other reason than to get a solid feeling for the drastic contrasts between the two presidential hopefuls.

The Republican convention was notable for one thing: a general lack of good feelings. The message from the gathering in Cleveland was dark and dreary. Everything is bad, very bad. We used to be great, but we’re not anymore. Speaker after speaker drilled that message into our brains — much as the party’s nominee has done since Day One of his campaign — until we felt miserable. Once convinced that America had ceased to be good and powerful, we were told that only one man could fix it. That somehow only he knew all the answers to our woes, and that, through nothing more than his sheer presence, everything would magically be great again.

Side note: can somebody please tell me, when did we stop being great?

On the other hand, the Democratic Party pushed all the right buttons at its convention. The speakers each night stuck to a theme that was saturated with patriotism, pride, and unity. Sure, they may have skipped a few things — it would have been nice, for example, to bring forward a group of heroic police officers and tell their stories of hard work and community service to balance the somewhat controversial appearance by mothers whose children died in violence, some during encounters with police — but these conventions are all about putting a positive spin on the parties’ candidates and ideas.

Naturally, Hollywood made its presence known at both events. The Democrats brought out Meryl Streep. The Republicans offered Scott Baio. Both gave incredibly forgettable speeches, which is a good thing. The Democrats did have the advantage when it came to star power, offering two Obamas, three Clintons, Biden, Bloomberg, and a powerful message from the father of an American Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. The Republicans mostly relied on Mr. Trump, Mrs. Trump, and four Trump offspring. At least this year they didn’t give us a confused-looking old guy scolding an empty chair.

But it’s not just what they had to say, it’s how they said it. Well after the words themselves faded from your memory — and if you’ve got an attention span like mine, that doesn’t take very long — it’s the style and delivery that lingers in your mind. People who study the effectiveness of public speakers know that the audience is more likely to look back favorably at a speech if the person at the podium found a way to appeal to the listeners’ emotions. If what they say makes us laugh or cry, our brains make a connection.

Say you watch a comedian on stage, one who makes you laugh all the way through the show. You may remember one or two jokes, but you won’t be able to repeat most of his routine. But you will look back at that performance months, even years later. You’ll recall where you were, who you were with, maybe even how the guy in the next row snorted when he laughed. Those things stick with you because that guy doing stand-up zeroed in on your emotions, creating a lasting impression, one that made you feel really good. And that’s what political conventions try to do.

Most of them.

Donald Trump has never stopped telling us that there’s nothing worth celebrating in America anymore. He constantly criticizes our police and firemen, our teachers, even our military… calling them “weak” and “failures”. Then, once the crowd starts buying into his words, he tells them that he is their answer, as if he has superpowers and the entire world will bow down to him just because he exists.

It’s laughable to read the occasional pundit try to compare Trump to Ronald Reagan. For the Republicans, this campaign offers no “City on a Hill” and no “Morning in America”. The Trump campaign has made no effort to highlight anything positive about this nation or its future. Everything is gloom and doom… fear and hate.

And I don’t recall Reagan ever kicking a baby out of a rally.

I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton is the best choice, not by a long shot. Her flaws are numerous and her personality is far from warm. But her party for the most part managed to gloss over all that and deliver a more uplifting message.

I’m not convinced that Donald Trump really wants to be the next president. I think he only entered the race to feed his insatiable ego. Now, he has no way out except to lose, something Trump may not be able to handle.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 4, 2016.)

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