After the shocking and unprecedented rise of Donald Trump, who overpowered 16 rivals to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican Party’s 2016 convention was destined to be quite unique. It didn’t disappoint.
Even his most ardent fans know that candidate Trump has zero political experience, and to win the White House, he will have to appeal to many Americans beyond the 45% of Republican primary voters he won in the first half of this year. For any normal candidate, the convention would be the perfect time to turn the ship around, to start looking statesmanlike and sounding serious.
Instead, the Twittersphere could hardly contain itself when it beheld The Donald’s grandiose wrestler-style entrance on Monday evening, complete with dramatic lighting and high-decibel music. Hillary Clinton aptly compared it to the Wizard of Oz: “You know, lots of sound and fury, even a fog machine. But when you pulled back the curtain it was just Donald Trump, with nothing to offer to the American people.”
Trump deviated from the traditional convention formula by speaking in person before the night of his formal nomination, popping in to introduce his wife on the first evening. His third wife Melania should be a crucial asset to a campaign that has yet to win over most female voters. She delivered her 15-minute script without incident, and for the most part, the content was fairly bland.
But almost immediately after she left the stage, the internet was awash with video clips comparing her musings on family, truth and integrity to a remarkably similar, at times identical, passage from Michelle Obama’s rather more charismatic 2008 convention turn.
The argument over how it happened took a series of bizarre turns, ending with a Trump-affiliated speechwriter owning up to the mistake. But was the plagiarism incident simply a case of carelessness, chutzpah or something else?
In any other campaign, this might simply have been a miscalculated attempt at the notorious Lynton Crosby tactic of “throwing the dead cat on the table”, deliberately creating a distraction which gets everyone so animated that they forget what it was they were originally supposed to be concentrating on.
That may be giving the chaotic and unsubtle Trump campaign rather too much strategic credit. But the plagiarism farrago did help distract from the fact that shockingly few of the Republicans’ many superstars (or even mid-ranking luminaries) had shown up to the convention at all.
The Bush family were absent, along with former nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain. The only other living Republican to have topped a presidential ticket who attended was Bob Dole, at 90-years-old too frail to make a speech (assuming he wanted to).
Even John Kasich, governor of the crucial battleground state where the convention was held, was nowhere to be seen, instead ending up in a row over whether Trump’s staff offered him a role as the “most powerful vice-president in history”.
Many others who did attend clearly haven’t quite drunk the Trump kool-Aid, but were obliged to appear regardless. A case in point is the house speaker and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a respected and very high-profile GOP figure who has vocally criticised Trump over the last year.
How to take the stage then, and fill 12 minutes of airtime, without sounding utterly hypocritical? By barely acknowledging Trump at all. Ryan made a decent enough speech, extolling the virtues of his party and its enduring ideas; he mentioned its nominee only twice.
This atmosphere of mortified avoidance was the subtext for the whole week. That the second day’s news cycle was consumed with Melania Trump’s speech meant little attention was given to her odd prominence as the keynote speaker on a night whose theme was “Make America Safe Again”, topping a bill of actors and reality television stars.
To be sure, there were a couple of war veterans on the stage; Montana Representative Ryan Zinke and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton both spoke, the latter mentioning the candidate only once. But notwithstanding Rudy Giuliani’s rant on the theme of terrorism, by the end of the evening there was still little indication of how a president Trump would make America “safe”.
In fact, the only time in the past year that the candidate has offered any information regarding his foreign policy plans was in his April 2016 speech. Even then, his “America First” theme was heavy on criticism of the current administration. It was significantly lacking in any apparent insight or comprehension of the complexities and challenges that come with the role of being America’s commander-in-chief.
Living in infamy
On day two, Trump’s children provided some vital pathos, with 22-year-old Tiffany sharing personal anecdotes about the comments her father wrote on school reports. Considering the farce of her stepmother’s appearance, the next generation of Trumps did well enough in their task to humanise the candidate as a family man.
The other speakers continued the slow drip of faint praise. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and hardly a lily-livered compromiser himself, was booed by an audience unimpressed with his earlier lack of support for the candidate.
Probably the most vocal supporter of candidate Trump was New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who infamously endorsed Trump after crashing out of the campaign himself. His convention speech was delivered in the style of a court trial against Clinton, requiring full audience participation. It took little to rouse the crowd to chants of “guilty” and “lock her up”. At best, it sounded like a raucous open-mic standup comedy night; at worst, a shameless effort at poisonous rabble-rousing.
And again, there was no hint of what a president Trump’s policies might be.
Friends and enemies
Beyond the high-profile no-shows by many Republican grandees and the early-onset loyalty of VP hopefuls such as Christie, there was a third way for those wondering how to navigate such treacherous waters. Enter Senator Ted Cruz, who delivered a speech without endorsing Trump at all.
Like Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 convention speech, which was met with jeers when he criticised the uber-conservative nominee, Barry Goldwater, the crowd vociferously heckled Cruz with shouts of “vote for Trump” and “say it!” The telling difference between then and now is that until he dropped out of the primaries, Cruz was 2016’s Barry Goldwater, and he’s been one of the Senate’s most extreme hardliners. So if he cannot endorse the nominee, then the party has run out of political road.
By the third evening, the convention was running out of time for unity pleas from the podium. In a 72-hour period, the event had lurched from farce to pantomime to something really quite dark: a threatening and belligerent crowd screaming “traitor!” at one of their own.
And then there was Trump’s chosen running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who faced the unenviable task of taking the stage after the Cruz debacle.
Certain holders of the vice-presidential role have apocryphally dismissed it as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”, but now that Trump is formally the nominee and has a real chance of winning in November, his choice of future vice-president suddenly seems genuinely meaningful.
To his credit, Pence presented himself as the not-unhinged social and fiscal conservative that he is. He eulogised candidate Trump as a tough, genuine, charismatic doer, and offered an extensive critique of the Obama administration, specifically the role that Clinton played in it.
And yet, apart from the briefest mention in his closing remarks of Trump’s plans to cut taxes, strengthen borders and grow the economy, there was once again, not a single policy specific. This went over well in the room – but it’s highly dangerous.
In a world all but consumed by violence and uncertainty, many American voters are furious, frightened, and desperate for an alternative to the status quo, and just as the Tea Party movement did, Trump has tapped into some very powerful forces that cannot be ignored. But all he offers is a megaphone for poisonous sentiments, rather than a remedy for the pain and confusion that stirs them.
Ever more akin to a bad reality TV show, the Trump campaign proved once again that it can make a truly deafening noise, but is utterly bereft of substance.