Donald Trump's Republican Convention was a bilious train wreck. Which was just fine by him

Only two people stood up to Trump in Cleveland to show the world the Republican Party is not him 

David Usborne
Cleveland, Ohio
Saturday 23 July 2016 14:11
Balloons fall at the end of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech
Balloons fall at the end of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech

High inside a downtown office tower, Dane Waters was helping clear out the suite of offices he had rented for one week only as the headquarters of Delegates Unbound, a political insurgency with briefly high hopes.

He was pulling up stakes after failing in his bid to force the Republican National Convention to allow delegates to ignore how their states had voted in the primaries and choose their nominee according to their consciences. Instead, the convention had formally put Donald Trump over the top the night before; his dream of stopping the New York billionaire was dead.

It was enough for him, though, that he had disrupted things a little. It was his group that triggered the first of the many mini-dramas that were to befall the Republicans in Cleveland last week, staging a last-minute bid to force a change in the rules on the convention’s opening day, which set off five minutes of televised mayhem before the motion was dismissed in two noisy voice votes.

“We all have our personal opinions about Donald Tump,” he offered. (For his part, they are obviously not charitable.) “I think it was important for the world and for the rest of the country to see that not everyone is in lockstep with Donald Trump ... that this is not the party of Trump.”

He can, at least, sleep in the knowledge that more than almost anyone else – with one notable exception – he at least did his best to spare America from Mr Trump. He received scant help even from people he considered friends. “Courage has been in short supply,” he lamented. “But I can look my son in the eye and myself in the mirror and know that I did everything I could.”

It was hours after we spoke that someone else did show pluck. That was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who set off an even more dramatic tremor with an impassioned speech on the convention stage on Wednesday, telling delegates precisely to “vote your conscience” on 8 November and then wrapping up without offering his endorsement to Mr Trump – to a tsunami of boos.

History won’t forget the Monday melee nor the grenade detonated by Mr Cruz. As he was close to finishing his non-endorsement, Mr Trump appeared at the back of the Quicken Loans Arena, deliberately to draw the attention of delegates away from the Texan and in effect stare him down. On Thursday, a defiant Mr Cruz recalled the toxic slurs Mr Trump had unleashed on his wife and father in the primaries to explain why he refused to be his “servile puppy dog”.

Thus a convention that the party had tried so hard to make a display of party unity had turned into the opposite. Instead, the perception of barely controlled chaos was taking hold. Other incidents had helped reinforce it, notably the revelation that large portions of the speech delivered by Mr Trump’s wife, Melania, on Monday had been lifted from one Michelle Obama gave in 2008 when her husband won the nomination for the Democrats.

It was a convention, it was becoming clear, put together with spit and glue. Rather than get to the bottom of how the plagiarism occurred and squelch the story, the Trump campaign, led by Paul Manafort, let the wound ooze for two days. Other things were glaringly wrong. The TV networks were baffled by the absence of coherent stagecraft in the culminating hour of each convention night when their programming was given over to it. On Tuesday, they were televising a half-empty arena and a speech by a D-list former soap opera actress turned avocado farmer.

"Clueless" campaign manager, Paul Manafort

“Manafort is clueless,” observed Kevin Madden, communications director for the Mitt Romney campaign four years ago. “He’s a lobbyist.” He noted that a campaign for president is in effect a start-up that has to turn itself into “preferably a $2bn business” in a few short months. That’s faster that Twitter or Uber did it, he pointed out, and is hard to get right. Campaign Trump hasn’t and that’s one of the reasons that, to his mind, the convention was all over the shop.

And yet. Mr Trump this weekend is very likely of the view that his coronation in Cleveland went just fine and sent him forth a newly dangerous foe to Ms Clinton, to whom he took his verbal blowtorch in his dark and dread-inspiring acceptance speech on Thursday.

He won’t have been bothered terribly much by Mr Cruz’s brief insurrection. The Texas Senator by no means represents that part of the party that has the most to lose by his ascent, its establishment leadership in Washington DC. He is backed only by the Tea Party faction, the folk who keep a copy of the Constitution in their pockets and want the federal government gutted.

Former Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks during the third night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland

The establishment folded. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, were precisely “servile puppy dogs”, helping give respectability to a candidate that deserves none. They displayed exactly the kind of feckless, unprincipled behaviour that so many voters find so distasteful. Is it believable that they approve of Mr Trump? It is not.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Mr Trump won’t have cared much either if the convention came off as, shall we say, free-wheeling. He has flourished precisely because chaos and uncertainty befuddles his opponents. And it underscores that he is not just another regular politician.

“Part of Trump’s mastery is that it’s hard to tell where he’s going to go until he’s already headed in that direction,” noted John Burnett, a delegate from western New York who has had assorted political dealings with the billionaire over the years. “That works well in business: you never want your competition to know where you’re going until you’ve made a decision. You don’t want to be completely predictable, because then you’re boring and nobody really pays attention.”

You could almost imagine that he put Mr Cruz up to delivering that non-endorsement speech. Mr Trump enters the arena precisely at the moment that thousands on the floor are exploding in fury at the Senator. It made him look champion. Strong, resilient, even a unifier.

Ultimately, it was Mr Trump’s speech that will be remembered the longest. In it, he pursued the same strong-man theme. Only he could save the United States from its dive – as he described it – into a very dark ditch of dystopia of violence and crime. Only he could dislodge the venal, corrupt establishment in Washington DC of which Ms Clinton is the embodiment. Only he could level the playing field in foreign trade and return jobs to miners and steel workers. It was, in essence, a speech designed very deliberately to make America scared again.

Will it be effective, notably in broadening his base to include those voters still wavering about him including independents and Democrats who also find Ms Clinton an unappealing option?

“No,” insisted Bill Schneider, a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and veteran commentator on the Republican Party. “It was the angriest speech at any convention I’ve been to, and that’s 19 of them. There was nothing uplifting in it and that will turn off a lot of voters. The only way he can win is with more terror attacks like we have seen already or more incidents of violence against police in America.”

It’s a certain bet that the Democratic convention that opens in Philadelphia on Monday will be everything that the Republican one was not – smoothly run, uplifting in its messaging and disciplined. It will be the sort of convention that Americans are familiar with. There will none of the fearmongering or chants in favour of putting political opponents in jail.

The question is: will Ms Clinton seem like a reassuring option for Americans in difficult times (though surely not as apocalyptically difficult as Mr Trump would have them believe)? Or will she in fact come across as the same-old, the quintessence of what has been tried before. Will she seem, well, just a bit too boring?

That is what Mr Trump is counting on to win in November. It could happen, in which case we will be hearing from two men – Messrs Waters and Cruz – who will tell us: “We warned you.”

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