The 2020 Party Conventions Gave New Meaning to Political Theater

The largely virtual format of the Republican and Democratic national conventions meant that even more than usual, the messages were embedded within the visual presentation. Here Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and James Poniewozik, the chief television critic, discuss what they saw and what it all meant.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN Hi James! So the first mostly virtual party conventions are a wrap. I know the situation was foisted on us all by the pandemic, but it did make for some interesting viewing, and a reframing of the actual events in a way that was — maybe? — more honest about what they actually are.

I’ve got to say: The contrast could not have been more graphic by the end. On the one hand, you had the D.N.C., which took place almost entirely remotely, with Zoom panels with “real” (impossible word) voters, and speeches recorded in people’s homes (Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton), schools (Jill Biden), and empty auditoriums (Kamala Harris, Joe Biden). You had some of that with the R.N.C. But Trump’s final speech — live! With audience! At the White House! — completely changed the equation.

For me, the first was smaller in scale, more human, and reflected the emptiness and weirdness of the current pandemic age. The second was all about triumphalism, pomp and circumstance. But both were also highly-produced shows, complete with set, soundtrack, costumes and script. My question for you is: Were they the ultimate reality-TV show — sort of a cross between “America’s Got Politics” and “Survivor,” with some “Bachelor” thrown in? Or more like “Masterpiece Theater”?

JAMES PONIEWOZIK They were more like the commercials. This is not an insult: A commercial can be good or bad, useful or deceptive. Without the pretense of a physical news event in a convention center, they were more purely TV. That means, more than usual, the messages were encoded in the form. So much of the D.N.C. virtual production, alternately inventive and uncanny, leaned into the party’s critique that we couldn’t be together because of the administration’s handling of Covid.

The R.N.C., meanwhile, tried in Seinfeldian terms to yada yada yada the virus — verbally, by repeatedly talking about it in the past tense, and visually, by showing us as few masks as possible. (Even at the speech by Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force!) That sea of bare faces at Donald Trump’s White House on Thursday night was basically staging an alternative history in which the virus really did disappear, “like a miracle,” the way he once said it would.

Masks, or lack thereof, are a message now, but as you’ve written wonderfully, all clothing is language. What was fashion saying loudest to you? And can you give people your best case why they should listen?

FRIEDMAN The short(ish) answer: There’s so much noise at these events (literally, in Kimberly Guilfoyle’s case on Day 1 of the R.N.C.), so many voices and, because of the new format, so many soft-focus interstitial “moments” (at least with the D.N.C. and its John Legend musical interludes, Biden fireside Zoom chats, and celebrity M.C.s). So what do you really remember? A few choice words and the images that remain in your head. And when it comes to those images, clothes play a crucial role. It’s not the starring role — that went to Donald J. Trump, hands-down — but it’s an important supporting part.

I mean: Who will forget General — oops, sorry, first lady — Melania Trump in her military skirt suit? That will go down as one of the more unusual spousal choices of any political convention, ever. Or her green-screen royal robes for her husband’s speech (and what the internet did with them)? Or the red-tie-white-shirt-blue-dress flag visual presented by Mike and Karen Pence on Day 3 of the R.N.C.? Indeed, Old Glory was pretty much the uncredited costume designer of the R.N.C. The main speakers of the D.N.C., on the other hand, were much less heavy-handed with the fashion imagery. Which is not to say it wasn’t considered.

I am thinking of Michelle Obama and her viral V-O-T-E necklace. That choice seemed to indicate a pretty keen understanding of the difference between a physical convention, where you are a tiny person on a very big stage and you need your clothes to telegraph your message to the rooftops, and a virtual convention, where the camera can pull viewers in. What do you think?

PONIEWOZIK A convention changed by a pandemic is like the pandemic itself. You can adapt to it or deny it. And we’ve seen how much good denying does you.

Likewise with TV. Both conventions worked best when they accepted that they were not producing convention-hall speeches; they were producing direct-to-camera TV, more like a talk show or fireside chat. That Guilfoyle speech — yes, my ears are still ringing, but I could imagine it having been delivered to a passionate crowd in a hall. But in the world that actually existed … well, you saw it. (And she’s a former cable-news host! How could she not realize?) Whereas Donald Trump’s game-show segments using the White House as an “Apprentice” set and official acts as fabulous prizes — you could call them exploitative and cynical, and I did, but they were television, the atmosphere he’s most comfortable in.

The D.N.C. set up Kamala Harris — a dynamic speaker in front of a crowd — at a podium, with long shots showing the near-empty hall, as if she were rallying ghosts. The next night, the producers put the nominee in the same room and had him speak straight to camera, shot close-up as in a presidential address, using hushed tones and pauses to convey gravity. It better fit both the medium and the moment.

But what I most remember was that virtual roll call: diverse patriotism with a side of calamari. Because conventions on TV aren’t just arguing an idea of the candidates; they’re arguing for competing ideas of America.

FRIEDMAN Oh, that calamari! One of the best moments of the eight days. Also, I’ll give Trump this: He has his soundtrack down. “Hail to the Chief” has become his theme song. Trump’s imagery, and by association, that of all the junior Trumps, has always been that of aspiration and illusion, from the hair to the fake tan to the carefully manicured he-man beards of the boys (they are going to save the suburbs!) and the prom-queen hair of the women, from Ivanka to Lara, Tiffany, Kimberly, Kayleigh and so on. And that’s before we even get to the use of the White House as a prop.

It is striking, though, that while the D.N.C. was at pains to show the American mosaic of skin color and wear-what-you-want fashion — I liked that Kamala Harris didn’t cave in to patriotic or historical cliché and wore a burgundy trouser suit, Jill Biden wore green and Joe just wore what he always wears — the R.N.C. was, at least initially, very, very white and very, very “90210” in its self-presentation. Admittedly, that changed toward the end in a pretty heavy-handed way. But you are right: They were presenting two different pictures of the American dream. For the Trump camp, it’s a big, fancy house (the fanciest!), with high-fashion designer clothes, high heels and the perfect blowout: the visual semiotics of the power money can buy when you have enough. For the Biden gang, it’s more abstract, and has to do with the mythology of civic debate, hard work, the melting pot and transcending difference. Though to be fair, both conventions went a little overboard on the flag sets. Between Trump and Bloomberg, who had the most?

PONIEWOZIK Vanessa, someone could do an interesting analysis someday of the overlap between the visual/cultural/grooming aesthetic of the Trump orbit and that of Fox News. Not that I’m trying to give you more work!

Thinking of the ideas of America that the parties visualized: We saw a lot more stories and testimonials from non-politicians. I wanted to say “ordinary Americans,” but there was not much ordinary about Brayden Harrington, the brave and poised 13-year-old who bonded with Mr. Biden over having a stutter. And though it didn’t strike me as that momentous when it happened, the segment that best captures, for history, this everything-falling-apart moment might turn out to be when Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple celebrated by conservatives (and charged by authorities) for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters passing by their house, appeared on the R.N.C. on Monday night.

Posed in their wood-paneled parlor, warning viewers of dark forces coming to prey on the suburbs — it was like a dystopian attack ad filtered through a Bravo reality show. Later this week, when protests erupted in Kenosha after a policeman shot a Black man in the back, then a 17-year-old self-styled vigilante was arrested on charges of killing two protesters with an assault rifle, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It said so much about who is permitted and denied force in this convention’s imagined America, who is seen as a threat and who as a hero.

FRIEDMAN I agree that, maybe because the politicians seemed even more like they were playing to type, or even caricature, and despite the overwhelming force of that final Trump evening, it was the beamed-in “regular” individuals who still stick out in my mind. They had much more power than the celebrities, both good and bad. Though it probably says something more about the culture wars that the R.N.C. couldn’t even come up with Scott Baio. What I am really curious about is whether both parties will see this as a learning experience that could reshape the next round of conventions, or whether they will revert to type as soon as social-distancing guidelines are lifted.

Will the takeaway be: Use the White House! Live is better! And forget the Hatch Act because in the visual age, we need to exploit every tool at our disposal!? Or will it be that tapping into the testimony of private citizens and the intimacy of going into a living room has its own power, given the way we are isolated by the digital world? Will the clothes our candidates wear be used to pull you in, to emphasize the telling detail? Or will they be reduced even more to — well, primary colors? What do you think?

PONIEWOZIK All of the above, probably. Certain spectacles play well on a big-screen TV. Thus the president’s “l’etat, c’est MAGA” show at the White House, which presented him to the broad viewership as an executive in charge and, to his fervent base, showed off the people’s mansion like a captured trophy. Other images work in an age of shared online video. (I’m thinking the letters slyly spelling “BLM” behind Elizabeth Warren, an Easter egg that encouraged the spread of the image.)

Which, to plug our own jobs, makes it ever more important for viewers to think visually and critically. There was a lot of aggressive fact-checking on TV this year, especially of a president who brings both his own props and his own facts. But you can communicate — and even lie — with visuals as much as you can with text; as you have laid out, clothing doesn’t have to carrying a copyrighted slogan to have a message and even an ideology. Better to process those signals consciously, because as a voter, you’re soaking in them. One way or another.

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