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Opinion | The Epic Shamelessness of the Republican Convention

Conventions lie. Or at least they tell extravagant fibs. That’s how they transform their nominees from mere mortals to near messiahs. That’s how they whip up the faithful and woo the agnostics.

But the Republican convention is going well beyond that. It’s less a feat of pretty storytelling than an act of pure derangement.

To turn Donald Trump into a president worthy of a second term, speakers are conjuring an entirely different person in his place. I can tell that Trump is the man they’re talking about, because he keeps popping up amid all the monumental imagery. (Did Leni Riefenstahl consult via séance?)

But I otherwise don’t recognize their version of Trump. Their Trump brims with empathy. Their Trump burns with passion to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. Their Trump heroically spared the country from the worst ravages of Covid-19, which is surely news to the relatives and friends of more than 175,000 Americans (and counting) who have died from it.

On the convention’s first two nights, you didn’t hear that figure. You didn’t hear any explanation for why the United States has the world’s highest number of recorded deaths related to the coronavirus and the highest number of reported infections.

No one examined why much of the world won’t let Americans in: because we’re too contaminated — by the virus, yes, but also by a faith misplaced in a government that doesn’t deserve it and in a president who doesn’t have the foggiest clue how to govern.

To recast Trump’s record on the coronavirus as a triumph isn’t revisionist history. It’s science fiction. It’s historical erasure: of all the times that he said or suggested that the virus was some hoax; of all the times that he or his enablers charged Democrats with hyping its threat just to hurt him; of “it is what it is”; of his ruminations about the potentially curative ingestion of bleach; of briefing after briefing in which he crowed about his ratings and bellyached about his critics, caroming from self-love to self-pity and back again.

Me, me, me, me. And the speakers at this convention dare to praise his outward focus, generosity of spirit, compassion and tenderness? They are standing — no, grandstanding — at the confluence of audacity and absurdity.

And they are scaring me, because they are demonstrating Trump’s most formidable advantage over Joe Biden, which isn’t incumbency. It’s shamelessness.

He and his loyalists will claim whatever they think they can get away with claiming. They will flout whichever rules don’t suit them. They will stage any stunt.

On Tuesday night President Trump pardoned — on live television — a former bank robber who now works with prison inmates, cheapening a big-hearted gesture by making it MAGA theater.

He emceed a naturalization ceremony — on live television — of five immigrants who belong to the sorts of ethnic groups or come from the kinds of places that he has routinely caricatured and vilified. This didn’t honor them. It reduced them to re-election props.

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, beamed into the convention from Jerusalem to gush over his boss, the kind of flamboyantly partisan act that had become unthinkable in this post. There’s no place for propriety when you’re pumping up this president.

Melania Trump spoke from the Rose Garden, never mind that the White House had never been used as a setting for a presidential nominating convention in modern times. Norms are for chumps, not for Trumps.

“Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic,” she promised Americans, hewing dutifully and without any discernible animation to the laughable Trump-as-big-beating-heart theme. She also praised his candor, saying: “Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve from our president.”

Agreed. Can she point us toward a president who’s going to give us that?

The convention crystallized and formalized the Republican Party’s journey, under Trump, into a mythical realm of unrestrained idolatry. The tone was set by one of the first speakers on the first night.

“President Trump was elected to defend the American way of life,” said Charlie Kirk, a young Republican activist with a spellbound expression. “The American way of life means you follow the law, you work hard, you honor God, you raise your kids with strong values and you work to create a civil society.”

Excuse me? Trump doesn’t bow to the law, not to go by the tax returns that journalists have gotten their hands on, by the hush money paid to a porn star, by his rescue of Roger Stone. The examples abound.

His godliness is confined to photo ops, his work ethic is impressive only if the units of measurement are hours of Fox News watched and the values he imparted to his kids are reflected in an Instagram post by Donald Jr. in May that suggested — with zero backing — that Biden was a pedophile.

As for creating a civil society, I direct you to Trump’s tweets.

Kirk at least gets credit for the phrase of the event so far. He called Trump “the bodyguard of Western civilization.” Sounds like a movie starring Kevin Costner and a bust of Aristotle.

Last week the Democrats certainly framed Biden in the most flattering light possible and Trump in the direst terms. They definitely edited the world to their liking. But they didn’t cut the cord to reality completely. There were parameters to what they would say and do.

Republicans aren’t hemming themselves in like that, and Tuesday night was a special showcase for their shamelessness.

Shameless: Tiffany Trump, the president’s younger daughter, accused his opponents of suppressing truth and pressing falsehoods. “This misinformation system keeps people mentally enslaved,” she said. Apparently she’s unacquainted with that adage about the pot and the kettle.

Shameless: Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, charged Biden’s family with rank nepotism and opportunism, focusing on Ukraine. Apparently she’s unacquainted with Donald Jr., Ivanka, Eric and Jared, and she somehow missed that sordid chapter of Trump’s presidency in which he tried to extort the president of Ukraine and was rightly impeached for it.

Bondi went further, praising Trump for donating his presidential salary to charity. She left out the part where he had to shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation because of various legal and ethical violations and was ordered to pay a $2 million settlement for misusing its funds for his own benefit.

That’s how this convention rolls. Speakers keep talking about Biden as some self-dealing, greedy insider when it’s Trump and his brood who are using the White House as a billboard for their various enterprises, their amorality a magnet for other hucksters.

In this convention’s upside-down vision, Trump’s big tax cut was for the middle class, not the rich. He loves Black people and they love him back.

He’s also a champion of women — the first lady floated that screamer. It’s as if the “Access Hollywood” tape was apocryphal. It’s as if his put-downs of Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris don’t have the barest hint of sexism in them.

It’s as if one of the world’s greatest egoists is one of its greatest altruists. Which only confirms that he’s perhaps its greatest fantasist.

I invite you to sign up for my free weekly email newsletter. You can follow me on Twitter (@FrankBruni).

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