In 1961, the year after the media milestone that was the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event,” which he defined as an event that takes place for the sole purpose of being covered by the media.
Given Trump’s penchant for showmanship, there was every reason to believe this year’s Republican National Convention would be, in Trump-speak, the greatest pseudo-event of all time. There would be the token delegate count officially certifying his nomination, with the honor of New York, his home state, casting the deciding vote. Apart from that, it would be a four-day pageant with each prime-time broadcast tailored to a theme inspired by Trump’s red-capped campaign slogan: Make America Safe Again, Work Again, One Again, etc.
Trump’s supporters carried the themes. There was Chris Christie’s relentless attack on Hillary Clinton, heightened by the audience’s prompted chants of “Guilty! Guilty!” Rudy Giuliani seemed possessed as he screamed at America’s enemies, “You know who you are and we’re coming to get you!”
Their rhetoric wasn’t just urgent, it was apocalyptic. As he discussed the possibility of hundreds of thousands of Americans dying in a terrorist attack, Newt Gingrich sounded like the doomsday scientist in the first reel of a disaster movie, the one everyone ignores. (The scientist is never wrong.) “There is no next election,” Giuliani warned. “This is our last chance to save this great country.” When the New York Times asked Giuliani if he had any compunctions about such alarmist tactics, he responded, “I think fear is a legitimate feeling.”
And feeling is the realm where Trump excels. As he accepted the party’s nomination, Trump repeatedly conjured the specter of a country threatened at home and abroad. His greatest hits are the names of the dead, which the crowd cheered before he got to the familiar anecdote: A Dallas police officer’s last goodbye, a promising young woman cut down by a drunk driver who was also an illegal immigrant. Nationwide statistics show that crime is down, but it doesn’t matter: Americans are scared, in large part because of people like Trump. Nothing he’s proposed will make Americans safer, but it’s the sense of security he’s after, not the substance: Make America feel great again. As Giuliani said in the video that introduced Trump, “He can make us feel like what we should feel like.”
As a filmmaker, Dinesh D’Souza is also all about the feelings. He isn’t an official RNC speaker, but he’s using the convention to promote “Hillary’s America,” his latest quasi-documentary about the evils of the left. It’s easy to laugh at D’Souza’s cornpone theatrics: At one point, he depicts himself sneaking into the basement of a fake museum dedicated to the Democratic Party history, where a pair of manacles pulled from a battered banker box reveals the Democrats’ purportedly hidden history of supporting slavery.
However, D’Souza’s film is also a fascinating look inside the mind of a man who believes the fact that Abraham Lincoln was Republican is A Secret the Media Doesn’t Want You to Know. D’Souza has to know it’s preposterous to suggest that Lincoln’s party affiliation — something every American child learns in grammar school — is classified information. But what he really means is it’s not fair, darn it, that Republicans are painted as the party of racist exclusion when they took that bold stand over 150 years ago.
What’s striking about “Hillary’s America” is how few voices are in it. D’Souza interviews a small handful of subjects, including Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain and National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, but he does most of the talking; when he’s not talking, the people onscreen speak words he wrote.
D’Souza says because of conversations he had with fellow inmates — back when he was imprisoned for violating campaign finance reform — he knows that Obama and the Clintons are grifters pulling a long con on the nation at large. But those conversations, like the faked footage D’Souza uses to show that his trial was the Obama administration’s way of trying to shut him up, are staged re-enactments. Like a journalist who invents sources to back up what they already believe, D’Souza pretends to channel what he’s learned from people outside the political sphere. However, they’re not real people; they’re props, designed to repackage his own ideas
The RNC moment that haunts me came early in the convention, at the end of an emotional speech by Patricia Smith, whose son, Sean, was killed in the Benghazi attacks. From the moment Smith took the stage, her feelings seemed to place her on the verge of collapse, barely holding herself together as she blamed Hillary Clinton for his death. Her pain was real, and so was the sense that it was being exploited for political ends.
When she finished her remarks, Smith took up a refrain from the crowd suggesting Clinton ought to be jailed: “She deserves to be in stripes.” Then she turned her head to the side, and for a few agonizing seconds before the camera cut away, Smith stood there as if she didn’t know what to do next. She’d served her purpose and the party was done with her, like a tacked-up ghost on the day after Halloween.