CLEVELAND — Republicans gathered here Monday to begin making the case to a skeptical country that celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, the most unconventional and impulsive major-party standard-bearer in modern history, could be a credible and steadfast leader at a time of terrorist threats abroad and senseless tragedies at home.
But the first night of the four-day Republican National Convention was spent largely playing to the party’s divided base. It was heavy with attacks on Hillary Clinton, who is set to accept the Democratic presidential nomination next week in Philadelphia, as well as themes of identity and anger.
A particularly emotional moment came in a speech by Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was one of four Americans who died in the 2012 attacks on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, while Clinton was secretary of state.
Although a GOP-run investigation that ended this year found no evidence of specific wrongdoing by Clinton, Republicans have made it an article of faith that she mishandled security and attempted to mislead the country about the terrorist nature of the assault.
“For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the [victims] of the tragedy Benghazi has brought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton,” Smith said. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.”
As she was speaking, Trump was doing a television interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, an unusual counter-programming move that may have drawn many viewers away from what was happening on the convention stage.
Monday’s opening defied many of the norms and expectations surrounding these quadrennial party gatherings, which in the television era have devolved into infomercials, devoid of any real suspense or intrigue but guaranteed to draw large audiences.
The convention marks a critical moment for Trump. Having built a fortune through savvy branding, he now undertakes a project more ambitious than any of the glittering buildings that bear his name: constructing a new image for himself, without extinguishing the authenticity that has drawn tens of millions of disaffected Americans to his rallying cry to “make America great again.”
That slogan encapsulates Trump’s promises to restore the economy, seal the borders and keep terrorism at bay. Among his more divisive proposals for doing so are building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and enacting a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
One celebrity speaker Monday was “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson. “If you’re an average American who feels like you’ve been forgotten,” he said, “Donald Trump will have your back.”
Also starring in the first night’s roster of speakers was Trump’s wife, Melania, an immigrant from Slovenia and a former fashion model who has been a glamorous but generally silent presence at her husband’s side.
Breaking with the tradition that a nominee usually does not appear in the convention hall until the night of his acceptance speech, Donald Trump took the stage briefly to introduce his wife. He was lit in silhouette as the sound system played the song “We Are the Champions” by the British rock band Queen.
“I have been with Donald for 18 years, and I have been aware of his love for this country since we first met,” Melania Trump said. “He never had a hidden agenda when it comes to his patriotism, because, like me, he loves this country so much.”
Her dislike of and discomfort with public speaking are well known, which made her well-received address a high moment of the night. Yet perhaps because of her relative inexperience in this role, her speech was devoid of the personal, humanizing anecdotes that candidates’ spouses usually tell in their role as validators.
Instead, she spoke in generalities. “There is a great deal of love in the Trump family. That is our bond, and that is our strength,” she said. “Yes, Donald thinks big, which is especially important when considering the presidency of the United States. No room for small thinking. No room for small results. Donald gets things done.”
Afterward, her husband returned to the stage and gave her a kiss.
Within hours, Melania Trump’s speech got a less favorable kind of attention — after Twitter user Jarrett Hill noted that some of the passages were strikingly similar to those used by first lady Michelle Obama in her address to the 2008 Democratic convention.
With their departure, the hall began emptying, even though there were more speakers. The audience’s exit did not deter retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who continued to speak for nearly half an hour.
In winning the party’s nomination, Donald Trump vanquished not only his 16 primary rivals but also the GOP’s traditionally supreme establishment. And as he rarely misses an opportunity to point out, he received more than 13 million votes — more than any Republican nominee in history.
Trump not only has refused to toe the line of GOP orthodoxy, he has aggressively repudiated it on a host of what were considered inviolable conservative principles, from his skepticism of free trade to his criticism of the Iraq War.
Many Republicans now fear that with a standard-bearer whose negative poll ratings are higher than those of any previous candidate to top a major-party ticket, they are headed for an electoral debacle in the fall.
The party is hungry to win back the White House after eight years of the activist Democratic presidency of Barack Obama, and against a Democratic opponent they consider beatable.
Clinton’s negative poll ratings, while not as high as Trump’s, are significant. In surveys, most Americans consistently say they do not consider her honest and trustworthy. Her reputation has taken an additional beating amid the controversy over her use of a private email account while she was secretary of state.
Actor Scott Baio, best remembered for his role on the late-1970s sitcom “Happy Days,” described the former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state as “a woman who somehow feels that she is entitled to the presidency.”
“Hillary Clinton wants to be president for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wants to be president for all of us,” Baio said. “Let’s make America great again, but let’s make America America again.”
One priority for Republicans is unifying a party that has been bitterly divided over Trump and his candidacy. But the convention opened with a spasm of procedural chaos in which hundreds of rebellious delegates staged one last, futile effort to stop Trump, roiling what is normally a rote procedure to approve party rules. The technical details became a proxy for their larger effort to put one final speed bump between Trump and the nomination.
Trump’s campaign argues that the disturbing events of the past few weeks at home and abroad will strengthen the candidate’s case in the general election.
With the anger and restiveness voters already feel, “you put on top of that current events, and it creates even more angst and opportunity” for a tough, blunt candidate such as Trump, campaign chairman Paul Manafort said at a breakfast with reporters hosted by Bloomberg News. The theme of the first night, “Make America Safe Again,” was selected a month and a half ago, but it carries more resonance now, Manafort added.
Speaker after speaker — including a number of people of color — sounded the theme that “blue lives matter,” in response to the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and as a rebuke to the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which rose from controversies involving police shootings of African American men.
“When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white. They just come to save you,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said of police.
“What happened to ‘There’s no black America, there’s no white America, there’s just America’? What happened to it? Where did it go?” Giuliani added, echoing a line that Obama, then an Illinois state senator, used in the 2004 Democratic convention speech that made him a political star.
“What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America,” said Giuliani, whose leadership of his city after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led him to be dubbed “America’s mayor.”
Smith, whose son died in Benghazi, was not the only speaker to frame her personal grief in political terms, as a result of failed leadership by a Democratic administration in Washington.
A trio of speakers railed against undocumented immigrants — whom they repeatedly called “illegal aliens” — for killing their loved ones and argued that only Trump could keep the country safe.
“My son’s life was stolen at the hands of an illegal alien,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, mother of fallen police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza. “It’s time we had an administration that cares more about Americans than about illegals. A vote for Hillary is putting all our children’s lives at risk.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.