The Trump show and the irony of a 'showbiz' GOP convention

Trump, ever the performer, could use the Republican National Convention to set the GOP on an uncertain path. Or he could pivot and try to boost his image as a credible national leader.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Workers hang Trump-Pence campaign signs in the arena as preparations continue ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 17, 2016.

Donald Trump has promised a “showbiz” convention, but where are all the stars? On this, the opening day of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, the names of speakers revealed so far don’t seem to pack much punch.

But it doesn’t matter. This is Mr. Trump’s show, and with all things Trump in this most improbable of presidential cycles, it is already the most unconventional of political conventions in modern history. The Republican Party is bitterly divided over its presumptive nominee, who brings historically low favorability ratings to the race. Scores of top party figures – including senators, House members, and governors – aren’t coming.

Even the Ohio governor, John Kasich, is shunning Trump, all the while planning to be conspicuously on scene in Cleveland this week – talking to the media, appearing at events, monitoring security, throwing a bash at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But Trump is still the star of the show, and with Trump, ever the performer, we’re never quite sure what he will do until he does it. Which, for anyone even vaguely interested in politics, makes it must-see TV.

“He’s running as a celebrity, and celebrities don’t play by any other rules than the rules of celebrity,” says cultural historian Neal Gabler. That is, keep it interesting, keep the narrative moving, keep the audience rapt.

And therein lies the irony for the Republican Party: Ratings are likely to be higher than usual for a political convention with the nomination set – under normal circumstances a dream for a party trying to advertise its brand and expand its reach. But it’s Trump’s party, at least until November. His convention could be messy, both inside the arena and out, and it could project an image – populist, nativist, nostalgic for a time many Americans would rather not revisit – that sets the Republican Party on an uncertain path.

Or it could be a pivot point, in which Trump makes himself more broadly likable and boosts a sense that he is a credible national leader.

“Donald Trump won’t have a better opportunity other than this coming week to demonstrate to the American public that he can be the president,” says Republican media consultant Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies. “If he can execute a glitch-free four-day convention where people come away with a feeling that he’s competent, he has a message, and a vision for the future of the country that works for people, then he will have succeeded.”

The question is whether Trump can capitalize on that opportunity.

How Trump influenced party platform

Trump’s selection of low-key Indiana Gov. (and former Congressman) Mike Pence as his running mate has been reassuring to the Republican establishment and social conservatives. Governor Pence calls himself a “Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” But the selection of Pence doesn’t change the calculus of the race – or the convention. The person at the top always defines the ticket, and that will be especially so in 2016.

“Times are changing, and the ground has shifted away from my type of Republicans. It is no longer a Washington-oriented, conventional, traditional party,” says Ari Fleischer, press secretary under former President George W. Bush and co-author of the GOP’s 2013 “autopsy” report on how to widen the party’s appeal.

The report called for passage of comprehensive immigration reform and outreach to women, minorities, and young voters. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, seen by some as xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, has blown a hole in that proposition. His lineup of convention speakers – including plenty of women and a smattering of minorities – appears to be an effort to remedy that.

On substance, the draft party platform for 2016 largely ignores the autopsy.

On immigration, foreign policy, and trade, Trump’s views carried the day. The new platform calls for a border wall with Mexico, criticizes US military interventions abroad, and rejects current trade deals as job-killers. On abortion and gay rights, issues that aren’t central to Trump’s message, the party’s social conservative wing prevailed.

Trump 'borrowed the name Republican'

But even if “Trumpism” now infuses much of the GOP platform, there’s still a sense among party regulars that this may be just temporary.

“Trump is an independent who’s borrowed the name ‘Republican’ to put up on the building he's creating,” says Mr. Fleischer, who could have attended the convention as a Trump delegate but opted to stay home. “He’s much more of a populist who has no fixed ideology, unlike the conservative movement. So that’s why the party is split, and that makes for a somewhat awkward convention.

If Trump wins, it’s a new era. He will recast what it means to be a Republican. If he loses, the party will go through “a period of agonizing reappraisal,” says Tom Rath, a former Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire and a Kasich adviser and delegate.

But for now, with polls showing a tight race against Hillary Clinton, no one can rule out a Trump victory in November. In Cleveland, another big task for Trump will be to unify the party as best he can. The small “Never Trump” movement died last week in the convention’s Rules Committee, but considerable wariness within the party toward the nominee remains. Among all the Trump delegates at the Quicken Loans Arena there will be plenty of others for 2016 also-rans Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Governor Kasich – and plenty of chatter about 2020.

To GOP: 'Quit whining and support Trump'

To Trump supporters, the disunity in the party is a source of intense frustration. After all, they supported 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney four years ago, even though they weren’t in love, and now he’s not even coming to the 2016 convention. Neither are any members of the Bush family -- including the party’s two living ex-presidents – or 2008 nominee John McCain.

“I really believe that these Republican guys need to grow up and quit whining and support Trump,” says Shaun McCutcheon, a Trump delegate from Alabama. Four years ago, “I wasn’t on fire to Romney, but I supported him because Romney was the party choice.”

Mr. McCutcheon says he gave Romney the maximum contribution allowed by law, met with him at Alabama events, and attended the 2012 convention.

McCutcheon also expects the 2016 convention to be a whole lot of fun. Indeed, parties and schmoozing are a big part of any political convention, and with the larger-than-life Trump at the top of the marquee, Cleveland is buzzing.

The city is also bracing for protesters, and has put in place strict security and brought in law enforcement personnel from around the country to help keep the peace. The shooting deaths of three police officers in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday presented a sobering reminder of the climate of violence extant in the nation.

But inside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, for four nights beginning Monday, it will be the Trump show. And as the political world has learned since he jumped into the race more than a year ago, anything can happen.

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