Political Conventions and Shakespearean Theater

By: Gareth Price

DURHAM, NC — The political theater that passes for convention season is over for another four years, and audiences can now sigh with relief.

For two weeks, stages have been prowled and platitudes mouthed; lines have been scripted and fourth-wall promises have been made to be broken.

If a distinction is to be drawn between the RNC and the DNC, then dark threats in the wings have been contrasted with effervescent hope front-and-center in the spotlight.

This quad-annual playbill is perhaps the singular aspect that makes America first, and makes America great. Nobody does it better.

At the RNC, Trump’s bombastic temperament, combined with his political naiveté and an ever-revolving cast of advisers, meant his board-treading was heavy-footed and amateurish. Trump played his own narcissistic Iago, motivated only by nihilism and malice, in a cameo that eclipsed vice president nominee Mike Pence’s hero Othello. Ideally, and with some admirable fidelity, Trump would play Iago only unto himself, not realizing he was playing the fool.

The DNC, on the other hand, was a magnificently orchestrated — if entirely contrived — production, as slick as winter asphalt after the first spring rain. Monday saw headliners Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren addressing President Obama’s legacy and Hillary Clinton’s promise, in a chorus with an undulating crescendo. Tuesday saw Bill Clinton deliver a rambling soliloquy that bettered Hamlet; Wednesday saw the president himself deliver a triumphant oratory worthy of Caesar.

Do I believe in Hillary more after her convention performance? Not particularly. Does she believe in the role she has cast for herself after Thursday evening? Perhaps. Like Iago, her performance seems more about ambition than a grand idealistic vision. Her greatest attribute, however, seems to be her razor-like introspection.

But then I’m not part of the audience who needs to suspend their disbelief. Since few theatrical villains are worse than Trump, she would have my vote. A moral argument can be made; I am white and male, after all. But sheer political pragmatism has equal force: As a thundering op-ed in the Washington Post has specified, even the mighty American political system may not be strong enough to cage Trump’s authoritarian and fascist tendencies, not to mention his belligerence in international affairs.

The 10 percent or so — according to polls — of Bernie supporters who refuse to back Hillary won’t be swayed either, but then nothing short of Sanders’ kingship or sainthood would. Neither will the even larger majority of Trump voters likely be convinced, because their beliefs in the resolution of their grievances, whether legitimate or otherwise, are too firmly entrenched.

But, for all her faults, Hillary seems to believe she can avert catastrophe; not alone, but by being stronger together. Who, then, is the intended audience for this carefully constructed and well-paced appeal Thursday night, a speech that hit all the right notes? And for this week-long, brilliantly-produced piece of carnival?

The short answer is the centrists — women and Latino/a voters in particular — who would never vote for Trump, but wouldn’t necessarily buy tickets to see Hillary’s coronation. It’s not that they particularly resent her; it’s just they don’t find her character compelling enough to turn out for. While Hillary might be cast as Hippolyta, a strong woman standing up to and disagreeing with her husband Theseus, it is up to her to have the hoi polloi get out of their seats. Visually, the shot of Hillary and Bill hugging was a masterstroke in terms of political optics. And it felt genuine, sincere and touching. Perhaps that will move people.

Whether Hillary has suddenly become a genuinely warm person; whether she always has been in reality, but hasn’t shown it in her public persona so far; or whether, as some believe, this is all a mask — these questions are somewhat irrelevant. What’s most important is she’s become electable and, in the face of the dire necessity of averting Trump’s all-too-realistic portrayal of megalomaniac Richard III, that has to be enough for now.

For all the convention theater, November is not a dress rehearsal.

Gareth Price is a visiting assistant professor in the linguistics program at Duke University. This article was originally published on Duke Today.