Since Trump has never held public office, the best indicator we have of what he would be like as president and how a Trump Administration would perform is this week’s Republican National Convention. And everyone should be paying attention now because it ain’t pretty.
AMMAN — If you can’t admit that what the Republican National Convention being held in Cleveland, Ohio, tells us about Donald Trump and how he would perform as president is not at all reassuring, you’re simply in denial. From beginning to end, even for some genuinely great and powerful moments, the RNC was a comedy of unforced errors and conflicting chaos.
How to Judge…
If you read me, you know I’m a proud Democrat, but don’t take my word for it as to the Trump campaign’s handling of its convention; a good number of Republican commenters have also echoed what I am about to explain below.
Republicans often make the assumption that business competence translates directly into campaign competence and governance competence. For now, we will leave the robust, ongoing debate about Donald Trump’s business management competence aside, and simply deal with the premise of the above assumption, regardless of its veracity…
The thing about Donald Trump, as I have noted before, is that he is the only candidate for a major political party in American history who has never held public office (including military experience) with the exception of Wendell Willkie, the businessman who challenged FDR in 1940. So with Trump, we have no political or government experience to look at to judge him on other than his campaign management, and so far, nothing is more important for his campaign than this week of the Republican National Convention.
Overall, the Convention has been an unprecedented, disorganized mess; the speaker order and schedule is often: counterproductive, illogical, and counterintuitive, with key speeches being delivered late, at off-times, with speakers often speaking to an emptying or unfilled arena. Furthermore, the Trump campaign’s typical lack of discipline has meant that they have ceded control of the narrative through their own incompetence.
MIA in CLE
More specifically, to begin with, most of the major speakers from the first two nights, including the two senior Republicans in Congress—Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—barely seemed to even want to mention Trump by name, and preferred to talk about the Republican Party in general, attack the Democratic Party, or attack Hillary Clinton specifically. Only his children and friends among the major highlighted speakers seemed willing to enthusiastically speak at length about Donald Trump (all his kids who spoke, even recent college graduate Tiffany, were admittedly impressive), performances in part echoes at best from an array of B-list celebrities and no-names and others whose appearance on stage was not only questionable in and of itself, but indicated just how hard a time the Trump campaign was having pulling in quality speakers in significant numbers.
In fact, so many prominent Republicans did not attend—including every living Republican president and presidential nominee with the surprising exception of 1996’s Bob Dole—in addition to many sitting senators and congressmen, that the lack of party unity on display even before the convention began was remarkable; many of Trump’s Republican primary rivals also did not attend, including Ohio’s popular governor, John Kasich (more on that in a bit).
Schedule of Screw-Up: Day 1
The first day’s advertised theme was “Make America Safe Again,” although “BE AFRAID! FEAR!! FEAAARRR!!” would have more accurately described a significant portion of the evening, which was at least as much about bashing Hillary Clinton. The keynote speaker of the evening was Trump’s wife, Melania, who did a good job delivering an impressive speech for her national debut.
The problem with the speech was that the aide most closely helping her craft it, after hearing how much Melania was inspired by Michelle Obama, simply copied almost-word-for-word, position-for-position, multiple sections from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech (the aide’s position in the Trump Organization also raises the possibility that there is some activity going on that is illegal in terms of campaign finance law, which prohibits corporate employees from using those positions to do campaign work, compounding this unforced error). This is a mind-numbingly stupid move and It truly begs the question: how the hell was someone who would make such a decision so involved in such an important, momentous speech, the most important speech given on the opening night of a presidential candidate’s party’s national convention?
Now, though this is incredibly embarrassing, it was a relatively simple problem to solve: admit what was obvious plagiarism, discipline or even fire the aide, apologize to Michelle Obama, and move on.
Instead of putting out the fire, though, Team Trump poured gasoline onto it, flat-out denying there was any plagiarism (it was obvious there was), with even Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager, repeatedly denying it, quibbling that it wasn’t that many words, among other horrible explanations. Suddenly, denying that obvious plagiarism was actually becoming its own story, with even many Republicans shocked it was not quickly admitted to, and therefore swept under the rug. The new controversy distracted attention from the GOP’s and Trump’s campaign’s messages from the previous day. In addition, open displays of disunity on the first day of the campaign also dominated the coverage during the second day, adding further distractions as the convention began its proceedings on day 2.
Day 2 was supposed to be “Make America Work Again” day. This sounds like important stuff, near and dear to the hearts of many economically distressed Americans. It would be a tragedy for the plagiarism scandal to distract from this important theme…
Except almost no discussion of jobs or the economy ensued, so there was not much to be distracted from. The second night ended up being a collection of jumbled speeches that were either unfocused, or focused on criticizing Hillary Clinton. In fact, the only major common thread through the first two days was a spirit of “F&*K HILLARY!” as the below word cloud shows.
So, rather than have a night focused on a positive message about jobs and the economy, and rather than have that be the discussion as the third day of the convention began, instead, there was no discernible message on the economy, and talk was dominated by anew scandal of the campaign and its senior staff lying/denying when it came to the plagiarism issue. If this wasn’t bad enough, a new New York Times Magazine report that Kasich was offered the Vice President slot by one of Trump’s sons—apparently even offered the power to run both domestic and foreign policy (denied by the Trump team)—escalated an already existing feud between Trump and Kasich (Kasich was called a “sore loser” at one point).
So you’d think the Trump people would want to put the plagiarism thing behind them, but they continued to double down on lying and denial, until much later that day a statement was released by a relatively-inexperienced-in-speechwriting-aide took responsibility for the plagiarism, in which she wrote that she offered her resignation, which Mr. Trump refused.
Still, own goal on Team Trump, which prolonged a story that broke late Monday night that could have been quickly quashed but which lasted until well into Wednesday, causing much anxiety among Republicans for the unnecessary drama created. And much airtime and ink space was devoted to this drama, on the third day that was supposed to belong to Mike Pence and his prime-time, extended debut at the end of the convention proceedings for the third night.
That night‘s theme was supposed to be “Make America First Again.” Instead, there was a collection of speeches that discussed so many different topics there was no discernible theme. One female astronaut spoke about the space program, and then omitted (apparently deliberately) a passage endorsing Trump that had been included in the prepared statement she had provided. Then we heard from three of Trump’s former rival. First was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (the one with the terrible record) who did give Trump a solid endorsement on stage. Marco Rubio, who really got into it with Trump during the campaign, where Trump kept calling him “Little Marco” and Rubio questioned Trump’s penis size jokingly, came next: he delivered a passionless, tepid,taped address that was sent in that did not directly endorse Trump, and this was embarrassingly delivered in prime time; the audience seemed to barely react to the video.
But following the video, and also during prime-time, second-place-Republican-primary-finisher Sen. Ted Cruz stepped onto the stage. The fight between him and Trump had gotten very ugly before Cruz finally dropped out, and his prepared text, it was reported, had not endorsed Trump. Still, a decent minority of the delegates in the arena when he stepped onto the stage were Cruz supporters, and he was warmly received overall. He gave a speech that skillfully marketed how many Republicans would describe the values of their party, and was interrupted many times for applause (which, sadly, was notably more muted on most things that paid attention to issues of concern to non-white communities).
His speech went on and on, as Cruz has habit of pausing for dramatic effect over and over throughout his addresses. As his speech went on, he paused at times where people could be tempted to think he might be about to endorse Trump; but the endorsement didn’t come and the most of the crowd began to grow restless and impatient. Some in the crowd (possibly with encouragement from Trump campaign staff, who had already previewed Cruz’s speech and knew the prepared text, at least, did not contain an endorsement) started calling on Cruz to endorse Trump; chants of “Trump!” and “Endorse Trump!” echoed and built up from the floor. Cruz looked at those chanting repeatedly, smiled repeatedly, and kept delivering his speech, with quite the twinkle in his eye; he even seemed to feed off the anxiety and negativity of the crowd, much like a Sith Lord. As he droned on, taking his sweet time, the crowd began to grow even more restless, and boos began to rise from it. When Cruz told people to vote their conscience—code word for the #NeverTrump movement and other non-Trump supporters, not at all lost on the delegates on the floor and a deliberate provocation on the part of Cruz, whatever lies he has subsequently utters/ed (such a skilled liar is Cruz that he can technically claim he didn’t mean anything by it to the general public)—the booing cascaded into a roar.
Cruz kept going and the scene turned ugly, and as the booing got louder and louder (even, apparently, from many pro-Cruz delegates!), Trump left his family box, where he and his family had been watching unamused, and made his way to the floor, when all attention turned to him and people began to cheer Trump while Cruz was delivering the final words of his speech; cameras didn’t even catch Cruz as he scurried off stage.
Such a scene was pretty unprecedented: an actual nominee coming to the floor to steal the show from his main defeated rival as that rival was being booed by the crowd for not endorsing the nominee. It was all anyone was talking about that night, or even for most of the next day. Furthermore, this might have helped Trump more or less unite the Convention floor behind him, but it might have created a larger split in the Party nationwide.
Oh, and shortly after that, Mike Pence delivered an excellent political speech, demonstrating a surprising ease, affability, and poise for someone who is so reserved and one that got the crowd solidly behind him. THAT was supposed to be the highlight of the night: Pence’s extended introduction to America.
But it sure wasn’t after Cruz.
Poor Pence: he got upstaged by Trump during the public event introducing Pence as Trump’s VP selection when Trump rambled for about half an hour and barely said a word about Pence; he got upstaged and interrupted by Trump during their first joint-interview for 60 Minutes; and he got upstaged by Cruz and by Trump again in the sense that his team allowed Cruz to pull his stunt by giving him the time slot & opportunity to speak that day and shortly before Pence’s speech, which started late.
Finally, on the final and fourth day, we are supposed to take seriously the notion that one of the most divisive political conventions in American history is somehow going to focus on unifying Americans, that Trump—who has throughout the whole election season has been a Divider-in-Chief—will somehow magically transition to a Unifier-in-Chief. The first two speakers of the night—the official theme of which was dubbed “Make America One Again”—were Jerry Falwell, Jr. who gave a divisive speech much in the vein of his late yet appalling father, whom he quotes as saying that if interviewed by Chelsea Clinton, Hillary’s daughter, he would tell her that the three greatest threats to America were “Osama, Obama, and yo momma.” He was followed by Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for making incendiary remarks about immigrants and for implementing racial profiling policies for which his office is being sued in a major class action lawsuit and in which he has been rebuked.
So right out the of the gate, once again the nominal theme was destroyed and discarded by the speakers, like every other night, so unbelievably miserable were the coordination and organization of this convention. Yes, Peter Thiel spoke later and movingly spoke for acceptance of the LGBT community, but his view is a minority in the party and his words don’t cancel out so much hate spewed from so many others.
In fact, in general, the level of hate and vitriol directed at Hillary Clinton is something I haven’t seen before at a forum like this. Yes, downright nasty political speech is as old as America itself, as the musical Hamilton can show any of us. Still, chants of “LOCK HER UP!”, at least one call to execute her from a floor delegate, and other abuse are a dark turn not seen before in at least my lifetime. Disturbingly, some Israelis say this reminds them of the hate that was directed at Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before he was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist.
Trump’s impressive, warm, and talented daughter introducing him was a bright spot, and she was eloquent like his other children.
But we are not voting for her, or her siblings, and in the end, Trump will be judged on Trump, not his wife, not his children. And Donald Trump is still horrifying, as his speech tonight showed us, which was just a rehash of the same nonsense he constantly spews, just more polished and organized and delivered with more focus, yet still full of fear, misinformation, division, and facile platitudes.
Even on the day Trump accepted his nomination, he/his campaign still managed to be fighting with fellow Republicans and inflicting self-inflicted wounds. The newest wound? Two nights ago, he gave an interview to The New York Times that came out today, an interview in which he contradicted some of Mike Pence’s points on foreign policy made just the previous night, in which Trump questions the core principles of the NATO alliance. Yes, Trump managed to upstage Pence even one more time.
See, the week of a convention, a candidate is supposed to lay low until the last night of it and control the narrative; giving an interview to a major paper without coordinating policy with his VP pick and allowing that paper to inject a major addition to the narrative the day that nominee is supposed accept the nomination and then present his narrative to the whole country is a violation of basic convention competence.
All throughout the RNC, the Trump campaign allowed their own actions and mistakes to create a jumble of contradictory narratives. There is no rational explanation for this, period, let alone an excuse.
That is not to say that there have not been specific moments of high quality. So far, all of Trump’s children who spoke were incredibly impressive: poised, sharp, at ease, presenting a practical narrative that avoids the ideological-bent, division, and extremism that is so pervasive in the Party today; we would only be far too fortunate if they represented the future of the Republican Party. Mike Pence was more impressive and at ease than I expected; and I felt myself personally very moved both by former Gov. Rick Perry’s address and ex-Navy S.E.A.L. Marcus Luttrell’s address, who was introduced by Perry and who veered away from partisanship and attacking people and focused, instead, on service and veterans.
But in general? We can learn that, outside the business world at least, Trump’s management skills, and those of the people he chooses to surround himself with, are so pitiful as to be a joke. He is still great at manipulating the media and the mob and bullying opponents, but that is not a way to govern a democracy.
And ALL of this should matter to the voters. And they SHOULD judge him on it. But will it matter? Will they? That is up to us. If it doesn’t matter, if we don’t judge, to quote the comedian Lewis Black after he began watching the RNC: “Democracy’s great, but it’s just not working.”