It remains to be seen whether the Republican National Convention will generate a “bump” in polling and, if so, whether that has any long-term implications for Donald Trump’s campaign. Given how unliked both candidates are and how polarized the electorate is, it is very possible not much will change in the race. Nevertheless, judging by a whole array of factors, one cannot help but conclude this was the least successful convention since the Pat Buchanan-dominated 1992 shindig that became the staging ground for another round in the culture wars. Let’s assess the convention by a number of criteria.
The first and most important criterion is whether the candidate made the leap from candidate to someone voters could see in the Oval Office. In this, it seems, virtually no one not already under Trump’s spell could be impressed by Trump. His enraged, angry rant Thursday night seemed more indicative of a televangelist or a 1930s fascist leader than a president of the United States.
This is no coincidence, as the New York Times found in an analysis of some 95,000 words Trump spoke over the course of a week in December. (“This pattern of elevating emotional appeals over rational ones is a rhetorical style that historians, psychologists and political scientists placed in the tradition of political figures like Goldwater, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, who used fiery language to try to win favor with struggling or scared Americans. Several historians watched Mr. Trump’s speeches last week, at the request of The Times, and observed techniques — like vilifying groups of people and stoking the insecurities of his audiences — that they associate with Wallace and McCarthy.”)
And while in the past Trump has been more conversational, in Cleveland the dominant emotion he conveyed was rage. His face contorted, his face glistening with sweat and his voice bellowing for long portions of the speech, he seemed every bit the image of a dictator of another era. Only his bright-orange-ish makeup reminded us this was not a grainy black-and-while newsreel capturing a master of manipulation from Europe in the 1930s or a segregationist governor in the South in the 1960s but the high-def picture of a modern demagogue.
So no, he did not seem presidential. It did not help that one day after the convention, he was back speculating about Sen. Ted Cruz’s father’s alleged role in the JFK assassination plot. I wonder how those who shilled for Trump on the notion he could be house-trained now feel about prostrating themselves before him. (Sen. Tom Cotton? House Speaker Paul Ryan? Sen. Ted Cruz, contrary to the media meme that he committed “political suicide,” is looking pretty smart right now.) Nor did it help when Trump revealed his deep well of ignorance in dinging the NATO alliance, something from which even his VP pick distanced himself. (In a PBS interview, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence insisted that Trump “would absolutely stand by our allies and treaty obligations.”)
The next criterion for evaluating a convention is whether it demonstrated the candidate’s mastery of stagecraft and evidence of a well-oiled political operation. Here, Trump failed miserably. A nasty floor fight over rules, a plagiarism kerfuffle, open feuding with Cruz, the leaked nominee speech and a lineup of obscure pols and B-list celebrities (padded by family members) evidenced a shocking lack of competent showmanship for a guy who has made his living trying to impress others.
He did not unify the party, as Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich can attest.
He did not do much, if anything, to expand the party’s appeal. If Hillary Clinton — after his hour-long rant about illegal immigrants coming over the border (funny how he is concerned only with them and never the visa over-stayers) — does not exceed President Obama’s percentage of the Hispanic vote, she is a worse campaigner than we imagined.
Trump’s campaign did very little to humanize him, in part because his own kids couldn’t give us a vivid sense of who he is as a person. (I suspect that silence might have been the default option.)
The campaign did not induce fundraisers to pony up. Trump spent hardly any time in town. Moreover, his rank incompetence serves as a flashing red light to big money men to keep their wallets closed.
As for firing up his troops, I suppose he put out enough red meat and sheer hooey to satisfy the die-hard Trumpkins. Given all that, I’d give him a “D” for the convention — but that might be the result of the soft bigotry of low expectations.