This week's Republican convention did an especially efficient job of encapsulating the current state of the party after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. In terms of the roster of speakers and the venues at which they spoke, the convention reflected how much the party has become a personal extension of Trump. Among the usual appearances by up-and-coming politicians and regular-citizen testimonials, a long succession of members of the reigning court—including a deputy chief of staff, press secretary, assistant to the president, counselor to the president, personal attorney of the president, and seven Trump family members—dominated the schedule, while the White House itself served as the backdrop to the addresses of both of its current adult occupants.
But the words of these speeches showed how much Trump's consolidation of power within the party has been accompanied by his adoption of its existing ideological commitments. Speaker after speaker at this week's convention reinforced standard Republican themes: small government, social traditionalism, veneration of the military and law enforcement, and attacks on "socialism," the "radical left," and the news media. Even the president's children, who might have been expected to spend their stage time sharing family anecdotes intended to create favorable personal impressions of their father, concentrated instead on delivering familiar conservative rhetoric. The occasional heterodoxies of the 2016 Trump campaign, which convinced many pundits and voters at the time that he was pulling the Republican Party to the left on economic policy, are no longer evident.
If there was something a bit redundant about the Republican convention, beyond the repetitive format forced in part by COVID-related restrictions, it stems from this presidency's unprecedented day-to-day domination of the political world over the past four years and the volume of coverage it already receives in both the mainstream and conservative media. Even enthusiastic supporters already have many other avenues of constant exposure to communication from Trump and his staff, and the campaign chose not to use their candidates' acceptance addresses, or the convention in general, to make much news.
It's hard to remember another presidential campaign in which concrete proposals and potential legislative initiatives have played such a minor role. Democrats have plenty of ideas for policy reform, as usual, but they did not make them the centerpiece of their public message in last week's convention; Biden's acceptance address mostly omitted the traditional "laundry list" of issue-specific domestic appeals in favor of a narrower focus on denouncing Trump as a threat to American values and mismanager of the COVID response. But the Republican convention was even more devoid of a vision for the next four years that centered on the actual powers and responsibilities of the president, as opposed to its frequent expression of emotionally charged but mostly symbolic opposition to the media, national anthem protests, destruction of local statuary, and "cancel culture." In the midst of an ongoing national economic and public health crisis that requires active, competent management to address effectively, it's remarkable that our national debate at this moment isn't more concerned with each candidate's specific plans and capacities to solve the immediate, life-threatening problem that the nation continues to face.