The first night of the Republican National Convention was a nearly perfect encapsulation of Donald Trump's presidential campaign to date: It was amateurish, outrageous, badly managed, more than a little cheesy, and almost entirely devoid of policy substance.
The night started with a speech from Willie Robertson, one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, the reality television series and occasional magnet for stupid political controversy. Robertson's speech consisted almost entirely of pro-Trump banalities followed by the promise that Trump will "have your back," which, in the prepared excerpts sent around to the press was always rendered in all caps: DONALD TRUMP WILL HAVE YOUR BACK.
But the shaggy Robertson, wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt and an American flag bandana, didn't even bother to shout his lines. Instead, he delivered them with the conviction of a fast-food worker trying to upsell a value meal. It didn't matter. He wasn't there to say anything in particular, or to say it well. His purpose on stage was as a culture-war signifier.
Shortly after Robertson spoke, D-list actor Scott Baio appeared to deliver his own vapid remarks. Again, he wasn't there to say anything particular. In an interview with CNN following his speech, he seemed as baffled as anyone about his presence at the convention, saying that Trump only asked him to speak last Thursday, in an out-of-the-blue request during a Los Angeles fundraiser. Baio's main contribution to the evening was to defend a tweet he sent out picturing Hillary Clinton standing in front of letters spelling out a derogatory term used for women's anatomy.
Not long afterwards, soap opera star and former underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr. delivered his remarks—after which he told ABC News that he is "absolutely" certain that President Obama is actually a Muslim.
These pseudo-celebrities weren't there because they had something insightful to say, or even because they are particularly recognizable faces. Instead, they were there to normalize the shallow, stupid, vulgar style of Trump's campaign. Trump has conducted his entire presidential run like a pandering low-brow entertainment, and he has brought the same approach to the convention.
Similarly, Trump's campaign has been fueled by terror of immigrants and outsiders, and that too was on display last night. The theme of the evening was "Make America Safe Again," and it featured speeches by parents of children killed by illegal immigrants. Their sharpness of their grief and pain is real. But placed on stage in rapid succession at the Republican party convention, the message it sent was one that played to the unfounded fears about immigrant crime that Trump has stoked throughout his campaign. Immigrants are less criminal than native born Americans, and yet while running for office, Trump has consistently portrayed them as rapists and murderers, as violent invaders who have come to wreck the country, transforming it into a place that is fundamentally un-American. A more accurate theme for the night would have been "Make America Afraid Again."
That's certainly what former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's thunderous speech seemed designed to do. In remarks that veered heavily off the prepared text, he shouted about about terrorism and at terrorists, ending with a threat: "You know who you are, and we are coming to get you." He also spoke about having known Donald Trump for years, and coming to understand that Trump was a "good man."
The matter of Trump's essential goodness was also taken up by his current wife, Melania Trump, who pitched him as a loyal and devoted leader who will look out for the country. Before the convention started, Trump campaign director Paul Manafort said that the chief goal of the week would be to humanize the candidate, presenting him as the "father, businessman and compassionate individual he is when the spotlights aren't turned on."
Melania Trump's speech was the night's chief effort to do so, and yet it was curiously lacking in even the smallest bit of evidence that Trump is the kind and compassionate human his campaign insists he really is. There was not one personal story about Trump's decency in Melania's speech last night, not a single anecdote from all their years together about what a good person he is. That isn't meant as a criticism of Melania, who did a fine job in the unenviable task of delivering a primetime address at badly managed political convention. But it does suggest the difficulty of humanizing a man like Trump, who appears devoted exclusively to the management of his own ego.
Indeed, the revelation later in the evening that parts of Melania's speech had been plagiarized from a convention speech by Michelle Obama in 2008 spoke far louder than any of the hollow testaments to Trump's character and business acumen we heard on stage. This is how Trump and his flunkies manage their affairs. This is the level of professionalism and attention to detail that Trump and his team put into major political events.
More to the point: This is how Trump treats his wife, or allows her to be treated. The message sent by the incident was louder than Giuliani's shouts: Donald Trump doesn't have anyone's back except his own.