By Tom Baxter
Wednesday night update
For a few minutes Wednesday night, a sort of time warp opened in Quicken Loans Arena, and we got a glimpse of how things might have been if Donald Trump had not won the Republican presidential nomination. In some ways it was not so different than how things were.
If Trump had stumbled somehow, the nominee almost certainly would have been Ted Cruz. If Cruz had been the nominee, he probably would have given an acceptance speech much like the one he gave in the time allotted to the also-rans on the third night of the convention, reaching farther toward the middle than he ever had and sounding a more personal and reflective tone.
It might very well have been that if Cruz were the nominee, he would have picked Mike Pence, a conservative governor of a Midwestern state, to be his running mate, and if he had Pence’s speech would not have sounded much different than the one he gave Wednesday night.
If Cruz were the nominee, a substantial portion of the Republican establishment would have been just as unhappy as they are this week. And if Trump had been given a chunk of time in the also-ran’s section, he might have choked on endorsing Cruz.
But from the moment it became clear Cruz was only going to congratulate, not endorse, his bitter rival, we were brought wrenchingly back to a political present of sharp differences and irrevocable choices.
Trump’s supporters booed him off the stage and it was left to the always handy Newt Gingrich to parse the Texas senator’s words and explain how they really amounted to an endorsement. Cruz in fact gave a more explicit endorsement of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom than he did to his party’s nominee.
Some pundits were agog that the freewheeling Trump team would give air time to Cruz without a guarantee of an endorsement, but maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. It did not end well for Cruz, in a hall were a lot of the delegates were his supporters. It cleared the air — and briefly appeared to have shut down the video wall behind the stage — in advance of Pence’s speech, which may have been the strongest moment of the convention so far.
Pence’s speech went 13 minutes past prime time., but we are being picky here. This wasn’t a perfectly run convention evening but it show clear signs of improvement. Now for the really big night.
Tuesday night update
With all the uproar over the sampling (to use the hip hop term) in Melania Trump’s speech Monday night, there was practically no notice in the U.S. media of the debacle surrounding the speech earlier in the evening by former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle.
But the press in Israel paid close attention.
Lingle, who’s Jewish, gave a speech slamming the Democrats for being anti-Israel and urging Jewish voters to back Donald Trump. It went over well enough in Cleveland, but within a few minutes after she began, the party was forced to shut down its live chat room on YouTube because it was being flooded with anti-Semitic comments.
There’s no way of knowing if the trolls who caused the shutdown were Trump supporters, but they are, nevertheless, potentially a much bigger problem for the now-certified Republican nominee than the flap over his wife’s speech.
You may remember that during the primary campaign earlier this year, after a certain amount of confusion that he blamed on a faulty phone connection, Trump disavowed the endorsement of white supremacist David Duke. But Duke has not disavowed Trump.
On Tuesday, Duke offered his own theory of how so much of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech got into the one Melania Trump delivered Monday night. He blamed it on the Jews.
“I would bet a gefilte fish that this was sabotage,” Duke wrote. “I would also bet a bagel it was orchestrated by an Israel Firster who wanted to damage the America Firster.”
For the persuadable, relatively moderate voters Trump has to attract to pull off the biggest deal of his life, a quote like that is more poisonous than plagiarism.
The Republican convention’s second night was a much more buttoned-down affair than the first, and for reasons that has much to do with Lingle’s speech as Mrs. Trump’s, that was a positive development for the GOP. After the Thunderdome atmosphere of Monday night, staid old Mitch McConnell and earnest Paul Ryan had a sort of palliative effect, leading up to the night’s spotlight barnburner by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But for the second night in a row, the most impressive performance came from a Trump family member, this time Donald Jr., who, just to put it on the record, would be 46 in 2024. He came off as a more articulate conservative messenger than his father, and we should expect to see more of him on the stump this fall.
Monday night update
The theme for the convention’s first night was “Making America Safe Again,” highlighted by no fewer than three bereaved mothers and a bereaved father, their children all held up as the victims of failed Democratic policies or actions. By far the rawest and most emotional of these was Pat Smith, the mother of U.S. Foreign Service employee Sean Smith, who told a cheering audience that Hillary Clinton “deserves to be in stripes.”
While the safety theme also included stories of murder by Mexican gang-bangers, the principle focus was on Benghazi, with a rambling presentation by Mark Geist and John Tiegen, the former security officers whose account of the Benghazi raid in the book and film “13 Hours” has been the subject of controversy. But it was Smith’s angry, aching accusations which cut deepest.
While Smith was speaking, Trump made a surprise call-in to Bill O’Reilly, and later he stepped on another part of the program, granting NBC an exclusive interview with himself and his wife on their private plane. Some might criticize this as another example of Trump getting in the way of his own message, but this is a candidate who is confident he understands the American attention span, and obviously intent on deconstructing the classic structure of political conventions. It was in this spirit that after a couple of hours spent evoking voters’ deepest fears, the program veered unexpectedly into what amounted to a stand-up routine by U.S. Rep, Sean Duffy and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, both reality show stars like the man they support for president.
Then, after one last blast of danger from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it was time for the big reveal.
Trump’s unprecedented first-night appearance was a masterpiece of self-reference. He walked out onto a weirdly-lit stage which immediately conjured up images of the scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when all the people ever taken up in flying saucers walk out of the mother ship along with a big spider-like thing and a bunch of little aliens. It was as if he were acknowledging that his nomination must seem just as bizarre to many of the Republicans witnessing it. And then he confounded almost all expectations by making his introduction of Melania short and sweet.
Mrs. Trump’s speech was both the most successful and, when you think of the arc of the Republican Party, the most surreal moment in what was all-in-all a pretty strange night. Four or eight or 12 years ago, you might have run into any number of forward-thinking Republicans who could envision a not-to-distant future in which a Hispanic, or Asian, or perhaps even African-American candidate might be on their party’s ticket. But a Slovenian super-model auditioning for first lady? Not many of them thought of that.
Almost immediately, Mrs. Trump was tagged for cribbing a number of lines from the speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. But the speech seemed to play well in the hall, and in any case, she wasn’t the only speaker who stole a few lines Monday night.
It may seem a minor programming note, but for only the second time, this year’s Republican and Democratic national conventions will be held back-to-back.
For millions of viewers, that will make this year’s experience the political equivalent of a Netflix binge-watch, or one of those pop-up game shows. It will be all of a piece for them, whatever the contrast between Part One and Part Two.
For all the hoopla and anxiety preceding it, Part One, the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, looked pretty, well, conventional as it gaveled to order Monday afternoon. There was the traditional parade of un-indicted local officials and party functionaries. There was Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, sitting out in the Georgia delegation singing along to the house band’s cover of “Eminence Front.” Kind of things you’d expect to see at any big elephant gathering.
Then the Never Trump movement staged its Turkish mutiny, the Colorado delegation walked out, and hours before Melania Trump’s husband planned to walk out on stage and introduce her, the whole thing started to look like a train wreck.
Luckily for Donald Trump, all this messy stuff happened before prime time on the first day of his big week. In any case, he and his newfound ally, the Republican National Committee, won. It was shaky parliamentary procedure, but the diehards failed in their quest to change the rules that would put Trump’s nomination in doubt. And it’s about winning, as we’re no doubt going to hear a lot more very shortly.
One of the great paradoxes of these two great national displays of political fervor is that the party which holds its strongest position in nearly a century, in Congress, governor’s offices and state legislatures, won’t look that way on TV this week. In fact, we loyal early viewers may have seen as many elected officials Monday afternoon as we’ll see for the rest of the week. Even those elected Republicans who have avoided offending Trump have found other things to do this week.
Next week’s gathering of Democrats in Philadelphia will seem comparatively dense with elected officials, when in fact the Democratic bench has been seriously depleted. Much of the country now resembles Georgia in that respect.
The Democrats will look more organized, although no one thinks anything about Hillary Clinton’s coronation could be as compulsively watchable as what is about to unfold in Cleveland. As much as the Clinton campaign may want to have the script for next week written in advance, the Republican convention promises to be so chaotic that the Democrats will be forced to adjust to the unexpected.
The dark shadow hanging over both conventions is the threat of more violence in a nation already drenched in it this summer. We all should hope the next couple of weeks will be nothing more than people in silly hats and American flag outfits, red-faced delegates furious over obscure rules we don’t understand, and confetti falling on the choices a lot of us didn’t make. The alternative could be a lot worse.