CLEVELAND — Donald Trump and his people were trying to make something here in Cleveland this week, but precisely what seemed unclear, despite the themes they laid out for the four nights of the Republican National Convention. Make. Make. Make. Make. America. America. America. America. Safe on Monday. Work on Tuesday. First on Wednesday. One on Thursday. And Trump himself every single night.
A great American concept, perhaps, but how was it going over as the party’s reality — or unreality — show was being televised nationally from the Q? A lot of contradictions, mostly.
More talk about who and what they wanted to undo, dismantle, destroy, obliterate or send off to the clink than create and build and empower. More boilerplate speeches in a half-empty hall by third-rate celebs and second-tier pols than the showbiz glitz and glam promised by the man who hates to be bored. Was he watching except when his kids were on? Much rhetoric that in both style and substance appeared more aimed at the base than at whatever undecided voters there might be out there still trying to make a choice.
And most noticeable of all, more disharmony than unity. Rather than making America one again, the convention could not even make itself one again. The top story on two of the four nights of the convention was the still-flaring civil war between Ted Cruz and his rebels and Trump and his triumphant followers, with raucous jeers echoing through the arena at dramatic moments on both nights. First when Trump’s power players shut down a Cruz delegate rebellion on the rules, and then when Cruz in return declined to keep the pledge and endorse the nominee during his prime-time speech, a pledge Cruz had taken before Trump gave him the new first name “Lyin’,” insulted his wife and implicated his dad in the John F. Kennedy assassination.
In this bizarre year, with this unusual candidate, to be concerned about such things apparently was to be too politically correct or sensitive for the times. It was left to the thousands of pundits and operators in Cleveland to argue over whether Trump and his crew manipulated the Cruz beat-down and used it in jujitsu style to his tactical advantage, as he has done so often over the past year.
Aside from that gobsmacking spat, the overriding messages from the podium were centered not so much on the four delineated topics as other themes: Be afraid, very afraid, of this dangerous world. Direct your hatred at the weak, evil, corrupt Hillary Clinton. And love Donald Sr., who must be a good man and therefore a good president because his wife said so — in her own prosaic if unwittingly provocative and unoriginal fashion — and Don Jr., Ivanka (the most polished speaker of the brood) and the other children seconded that opinion in their neat and clean and utterly normal offspring-of-a-billionaire way.
It was the speech delivered by Don Jr. on Tuesday night that made Adam Gilbertson, a delegate from Minnesota, envision a Trump presidency in a new way. As a farm and implement dealer and original Marco Rubio delegate from Lakeside, a Twin Cities suburb, the 39-year-old Gilbertson “wasn’t a huge Trump supporter” during the primaries. But when Junior described how the old man taught the children the construction-biz ropes and introduced them to hard hats and other workers below the upper class, Gilbertson said he started to feel more optimistic about a Trump White House.
Gilbertson was in his seat in the farthest backstage-left reaches of the arena floor (his state preferred Rubio, after all), when Jersey boy Chris Christie undertook his kangaroo court prosecution of Clinton. Asked if he was part of the unangelic chorus that hooted at Ben Carson’s evocation of Clinton as a follower of Lucifer, or who later responded to Christie’s case against her by chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!” he smiled and equivocated. “No. Yeah. No,” he said. “There was some political theater going on. I’m not sure I want to lock her up, but I don’t want to give her a promotion.”
Gilbertson had served 10 years as a National Guard officer, including five years of duty in Iraq, and, like many of the speakers with military backgrounds, said that he would have been disciplined or jailed himself if he had been electronically careless with classified information.
A catalogue of the most popular words and phrases uttered by the nightly retinue of speakers could have been lifted from old horror or Armageddon movies and pulp crime fiction. Mix and match these from the first 40 or so speakers:
Dangerous. Danger. Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear. In the crosshairs. Never bow down. Destroy evil. Deteriorate. Trampled. Threatened. Weaker. Socialism. Benghazi. Failed to protect. Have our backs. Unparalleled threats. Unconditional victory. Obama. Weakness. Do not feel safe. Shattered. No longer leading. Shrinking. Wake up, America! Proud patriots. American exceptionalism. Destructive pattern. Bumbling indecisiveness. Led us to a cliff. Lives at stake. Evil exists. Crooked Hillary. Weak. Spineless president. Something wrong. Economic disaster. Elites. Disdain. Dismissal. Scorn. Hunt. Fish. Pray. God called us. Cold, calculated lying. Falsely. Falsely. Failed. Guilty. Guilty. You’re fired.
The speeches did not necessarily follow the intended themes. Aside from Don Jr. talking about his interactions with construction workers, and the experiences of a California avocado grower, there was not much detailed discussion of working on Make America Work night. As Jesse Ferguson, one of Clinton’s Twitter-happy press people, pointed out with a certain delight, there were only two mentions of education, four of the middle class, five of trade, one of college affordability, one of investment, and, as might be expected, a big zilch for family and medical leave. Perhaps the shouts of “Lock her up!” that night amounted to an indirect call for the employment of more prison guards.
What symbols did this convention use to illuminate its concept of Make America One point? Open that final night with a few figures not renowned for their tolerance. Out came Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, who has no use for same-sex marriage or full LGBT rights. Then out ambled Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, who made his name as an original birther, insisting for years that he was gathering information to prove that President Obama was not born in America, and whose obsession now is to build a wall in an effort to keep people out of America. Falwell attempted to rouse the crowd by calling colleges left-wing indoctrination camps. Shouts of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” and “Build the wall! Build the wall!” echoed during parts of Sheriff Joe’s speech.
On Make America First night, the most eclectic night of all, syndicated talk show host Laura Ingraham sent the audience into a certain kind of rapture with her cocky attacks, including a reference to “man buns.” Ted Cruz sent much of the crowd into a loud and stunning round of boos by saying everything but the words they wanted to hear — that he was endorsing Trump, a scene not seen at a Republican convention since Nelson Rockefeller was jeered when he called Goldwaterites extremists at the Cow Palace in San Francisco 52 years ago.
And some guy wearing sunglasses named Ruffin, who owns a Vegas casino, talked to the delegates as though he was letting them in on a backroom condo deal. “The state of Chicago. Where’s Chicago? Miami. Where the hell’s Miami,” he muttered at one point, peering out from the teleprompter to look around the convention floor for recognition of places where Trump made some money.
No way Mike Pence, the vice presidential wannabe, could match any of those performances, and his generally sober, aw-shucks Indiana-style speech was unavoidably overshadowed, remembered mostly for the on-stage air kiss he received from Trump afterward, a new boss whose peculiarities he had described, aptly, as “distinctly American.”
And the candidate himself seemed to be writing his own script, or at least throwing out all convention conventions. Never known for false modesty, he made sure that he was somehow present, in person or by remote camera, every night of the affair, bouncing between Cleveland and New York on his Trump jet. Once he even went head to head with his own show, appearing on Fox at the same time that one of his designated speakers was gesticulating from the Q podium. As a master of the stream-of-consciousness ad-lib speech, he seemed almost angry on those occasions when his inner circle forced him hostage-like to read from a teleprompter. In the dark and closely scripted acceptance speech closing the convention, Trump opened with a law-and-order riff, described a world and country in decline and the ills of political correctness, and near the end employed a phrase that captured his notion of American unity while at the same time satisfying his large sense of self. It was about everyone, but it also pointedly was about him. He was with the American people, he said. “I am your voice.”
There seemed to be a jarring contrast between the gloom and doom emanating from the podium and the general demeanor of delegates on the convention floor and out and about in the hotels and streets of Cleveland. No matter how dire the rhetoric, the reality was something else. Delegates come to conventions to enjoy themselves, and they have the financial wherewithal to do so.
One minute the Texans in their red-white-and-blue cowpoke uniforms were smiling and boogieing and rhythmically swaying their arms to the pop music blaring over the arena loudspeakers, the next they were huzzah-huzzahing to speeches denouncing Democrats for inducing the decline and fall of Western civilization. Here the delegates from North Dakota were having the time of their lives amid the buzzing throngs crowding the Fourth Street alley leading to the Q; there they were clapping and cheering their way through Rudy Giuliani’s chronicle of fear and loathing.
“Oh, my God, he was amazing!” Sandy Boehler, the national committeewoman from North Dakota, said of the former New York mayor, whose speech was a nostril-flaring attack on the weaknesses of Clinton and Obama. “He just put it all in perspective.” Yet Boehler, a member of the RNC site selection committee, was more interested in praising the ambiance in Cleveland outside the arena than inside it. She blanched at the “Lock her up!” chants during Christie’s prosecution of Clinton. “That’s not how I do things, but . . . it’s just a rally.”
As for the electric charge that seemed to juice the convention hall at every mention of the Democratic candidate’s name, Boehler made an uncommon concession to the difference between politics and real life. “Of course not,” she said, when asked if she hated Clinton. “I don’t hate anybody. No. She’s a mother and a grandmother. We just have different perspectives.”
Not exactly the message of this year, or of this convention.