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Opinion The first night of the Republican convention was a brilliant act of fan service

President Trump in a prerecorded video broadcast during the Republican convention on Monday in Charlotte. (Handout/Getty Images)

The biggest question leading up to the Republican National Convention was simple: Given how late the party shifted to a socially distanced convention, what would the darn thing look like?

We could have saved the brain power we spent on speculation. The first night of the GOP convention was, inevitably, a cocktail of kitsch spiked with dystopian fiction, an outsize slice of American cheese served up to a president in desperate need of comfort food. As an act of communication with the American public, it was a dishonest travesty. But as entertainment tailored for President Trump’s hardcore base, it was a brilliant act of fan service.

The visuals for much of the evening were on-message to the point of monotonousness, Americana as ordered from a stock photo database. Most of the speakers delivered their remarks from a podium, flanked by a forest of American flags, and many drew on the same image, saying they’d fall to their knees in prayer, but stand for the banner and the national anthem. Cardinal Timothy Dolan delivered his opening invocation with the Statue of Liberty over his shoulder. Even the women who took the stage were stylistically consistent, all body-conscious red dresses and loosely waved hair. Former governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s pink suit counted as a daring diversion.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley bashed the Democratic Party for saying that America is racist during her Republican National Convention speech on Aug. 24. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The repetition sent a clear message. This was America the beautiful as the Republican Party defines it: red, white and blonde.

And the story the speakers told over and over was of that ideal of beauty under attack by violent protesters, socialism, teacher’s unions and a host of other Lovecraftian nightmares. If such warnings were intended to rile up the base, the convention was more interesting, and more revealing, when it tried to reassure Republican voters — and the president himself.

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In one of its canniest gambits, the party repeatedly argued that voting for Trump doesn’t make you racist, even as it wove dog whistles into its jarring symphony. The opening video, narrated by actor Jon Voight, used images of Black cops and peaceful Black protesters to illustrate dialogue about the value of law enforcement and free speech. Former NFL player and “Apprentice” contestant Herschel Walker spoke about his friendship with Trump and said it was hurtful that anyone would think he would have such deep ties with a racist. And Georgia state Rep. Vernon Davis, ostensibly a Democrat, was there to make the familiar argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted.

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But the convention seemed to gamble that Trump voters are less concerned about a perception that they are anti-Asian. Trump repeatedly referred to covid-19 as “the China virus.” Including that language, while deploying Haley, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India, to say “America is not a racist country” was a tell. These elements were aimed at reassuring Trump supporters about their own decency, not at encouraging skeptical Americans to swell their numbers.

That same focus on reassurance extended to the candidate. On Monday, the RNC often seemed to be selling Trump to himself.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk described the president as “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” an image in keeping with painter John McNaughton’s kitsch paintings of Trump. Natalie Harp, who spoke about the right to try experimental medical treatments for life-threatening diseases, played to the president’s self-pity by saying that she would be dead if Trump “hadn’t given up your own wonderful life so we could have a chance at one.”

In response to the Biden campaign’s pitch for the Democratic nominee as the empathetic, decent man America needs, Walker told a surreal story about Trump taking his children on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, insisted that Trump is “a good man and a great listener.”

In a segment that seemed intended to mirror Joe Biden’s video chats with supporters, Trump stood in a room with postal workers, nurses, law enforcement officers and a trucker. Ostensibly, he was there to ask them about themselves and their experiences on the front lines of the pandemic. But at times, the president couldn’t even wait for his guests to compliment him — he jumped in and praised himself. “I love the truckers. They’re on my side, almost all of them,” Trump interrupted at one point. The only speaker with whom he managed to restrain himself was a Catholic nurse who, reading the room, began by telling Trump: “I am so in awe of your leadership.”

That’s a sentiment that Donald Trump and his fans are obviously desperate to hear, and if you’re scripting television to hook a dedicated audience, it makes sense to give it to them. The tools of reality television won Trump the presidency once. November will show whether he can script a show that brings in new viewers — and fans.

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Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: If genuine friendliness were to decide the election, Joe Biden would win in a landslide

Gary Abernathy: If you wondered how the McCloskeys ended up on your screen, the message wasn’t aimed at you

Jennifer Rubin: I was promised optimism!

Dana Milbank: Republicans’ ‘uplifting’ convention becomes a festival of fear

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s convention is the ultimate gaslighting exercise

The Post’s View: The GOP is a party without principle