Donald Trump, a multi-billionaire businessman and reality TV star, has been officially nominated as the Republican candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. His coronation came Thursday night at the end of the Republican National Convention, a program that Trump promised would be an unforgettable spectacular. He got that half right: The four days of the convention will certainly be unforgettable; spectacular is another matter, however. The official program was marked more by who was not present than who was: leading lights in the GOP, such as all former presidents and presidential nominees, took a pass, save for former Sen. Robert Dole. Many congressional representatives in tight races were elsewhere. Speakers included B-list celebrities, Trump friends and family members, and some individuals whose presence defied explanation.
But if many of these speakers’ messages will prove evanescent, the themes and images that are likely to endure will prove troubling for Trump and the GOP. Therein lies the grand failure of this week’s Republican National Convention: The gathering of the faithful is supposed to demonstrate party unity and present ideas that will convince other voters that Trump and the GOP should occupy the White House. This week’s convention was marked by disunity and an absence of ideas that could rally the country.
The problems began on the first day, when Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, gave a well-received speech — until it was discovered that two paragraphs had been lifted from a 2008 speech by first lady Michelle Obama. After a day denying any plagiarism, a staffer admitted to having borrowed the language. The incident should not be too important, but it hints at two troubling tendencies. First, the refusal to admit there was a problem feeds the image of an embattled and stubborn team that does not know how to deal with crisis. Second, the failure to catch the plagiarism ahead of time indicates a lack of attention to detail, a damning indicator when the entire convention is supposed to unfold in ways that focus all attention on the candidate in a positive sense.
The second and truly important glitch occurred Wednesday night when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a contender for the nomination who was bested by Trump, failed to endorse the candidate in his prime-time speech. It was a fiery, passionate oration that brought the partisan crowd to its feet several times. But when it became clear that Cruz would not utter the magic phrase, “Vote for Donald Trump,” the crowd turned against him and he left the stage, smirking, to a percussive blast of boos. It was a singular performance, defiant yet oddly in keeping with the Cruz persona: He is an unyielding ideologue who is more committed to his ideals — some say his own interests — than those of his party. Famously self-centered, another U.S. senator once said that “if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
The Trump team should not have been surprised when Cruz defied the call to rally around the nominee — Cruz had provided an advance copy of the speech and it was delivered as written. In other words, the Trump team and the GOP knew what Cruz would — and would not — say ahead of time and still let him go ahead. Trump’s opponents say that raises questions of competence and put a stake through the heart of the notion of GOP unity, while his supporters claim that the move was courageous and made Trump look like the bigger man.
Another point of concern was the absence of policy throughout the four days. Trump fashioned himself “the law and order candidate,” but the only nominal idea heard throughout the week was to throw Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in jail. That makes for a good bumper sticker, but it is not policy. That sentiment appeals to those at the convention, but such gatherings must invite others into the tent. That means smoothing the sharp edges of partisan appeals to attract independent voters. Those voters heard little that is likely to win their support. In fact, just after the Cruz controversy The New York Times published an interview with Trump in which he undercut U.S. commitments to NATO by saying that the U.S. would only come to the aid of allies if they have “fulfilled their obligations to us” — words that were immediately disavowed by senior members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including those from the GOP.
In remarks accepting the nomination, Trump doubled down on the convention themes. He painted the picture of a country in decline and trouble, suggesting that only he can fix it. He emphasized law and order, called for a ban on immigrants from countries “compromised by terrorism,” promised to punish companies who took jobs from the U.S. as well as renewed scrutiny and negotiation of trade deals. It is a speech designed to appeal to the faithful, many of whom genuinely believe the U.S. is in decline. This dark vision will have great difficulty finding an audience among those who have not already accepted Trump’s doom and gloom.
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