Politics & Policy

Trump Caps Divided Convention with Uncharacteristic Discipline

Trump on the main stage, July 21, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
For an hour, at least, the GOP nominee made Cleveland normal again.

Cleveland — For the better part of four days, the Republican National Convention had been less about Donald Trump than about the flotsam of the Republican party left in his wake — and the attempts of its members to cobble together a life raft in the middle of an angry sea.

Then, for an hour and 15 minutes on Thursday night, Trump brought a modicum of normality to the proceedings with remarks that were tightly scripted and tightly focused, even if they were delivered in a shouted staccato. He took the stage wearing a gleaming red tie as the delegates on the floor broke out into a chant: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

Trump’s appearance, which followed a flawless introduction from his daughter Ivanka, brought an unfamiliar feeling of order to the convention, and on stage he promised to do the same for the country and the world. He cast President Obama’s administration as the cause of the chaos that has roiled the country for the past several years, from the murder of American citizens at the hands of illegal immigrants to the assassination of law-enforcement officers on city streets.

“The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”

As if on cue, when a protester began to disrupt his remarks, police whisked her off the floor before the crowd could figure out what was happening. Looking down on the kerfuffle, Trump ad-libbed, “How great are our police and how great is Cleveland?” The crowd went wild.

Trump also faulted the president and the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, for sowing turmoil around the world. From the nuclear deal with Iran to the non-enforcement of the “red line” in Syria to the murders of four Americans in Benghazi, the U.S. has been suckered and embarrassed on the international stage, he said. When he made mention of the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the crowd began to chant, “Lock her up!” Trump, in a remarkable display of restraint, raised an index finger to silence them. “Let’s defeat her in November,” he said. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The speech, delivered from a black-and-white teleprompter in the center of Quicken Loans Arena, dragged near the end, and included some 4,500 words. But Trump stuck almost entirely to the script. Both in substance and in style, the speech exhibited a discipline at odds with a convention otherwise characterized by disarray.

Just hours before Trump took the stage, a pro-Clinton super PAC, Correct the Record, obtained and leaked the transcript of his speech. It was the capstone to a convention that has been defined by the party’s squabbling disunity, enhanced by the Trump campaign’s disorganization and repeated political miscalculations.

There was plagiarism, there were grudge matches, and there were more than a few awkward embraces.

Janet Creighton, a longtime Ohio GOP official who formerly served in the George W. Bush administration, was attending her fifth convention as a Republican delegate. Creighton says she has always worn red, white, and blue during all four days of past conventions, but decided not to this year. “This is a different Republican convention. It doesn’t have the same Republican feel,” she says. “People are holding their breath because we’ve never done it like this before.” She smiles and shrugs her shoulders. “It’s his convention,” she says of Trump. “He can do what he wants.”

Trump, of course, has done just that. The campaign’s worst self-inflicted wound this week came the first night of the convention, when Melania Trump delivered an impressive speech that, it soon turned out, included passages lifted from first lady Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic convention in 2008. The incident dominated cable-news headlines for nearly 48 hours as the Trump campaign denied and demurred before finally issuing a mea culpa from an unknown speechwriter mid-day Wednesday. In the interim, talking heads denounced the campaign’s amateurishness and incompetence. “The highlight of tonight’s activities was Melania Trump’s speech,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt told MSNBC. “This turns this night into a catastrophe.” Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly took to the airwaves the next night to declare that the speechwriter should be fired. “There’s no excuse for plagiarism,” he said. “There’s just none. You can’t do it.”

Both in substance and in style, the speech exhibited a discipline at odds with a convention otherwise characterized by disarray.

Then, on the eve of his acceptance speech Thursday, Trump walked into another controversy of his own creation when he told the New York Times he wouldn’t automatically come to the defense of NATO allies if they were attacked by Russia. His remarks were published just as his running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, was on stage declaring that the United States will “stand with our allies.” They prompted awkward concessions from high-profile supporters who have stood with him for the sake of party unity.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell admitted that Trump had made a “rookie mistake,” and then went about attempting to correct it. “I want to reassure our NATO allies that should any of them be attacked, we’ll be there to defend them,” McConnell said.

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton spent the bulk of his speech to the convention Monday night promising that a Trump-Pence administration would reverse eight years of leading from behind on the international stage. On Thursday, he said sheepishly that while American alliances are not “business transactions,” Trump’s remarks nonetheless reflect the concerns of many Americans.

Creighton, the Ohio GOP official, says she is voting for Trump in the fall and wants desperately to see the GOP come together, but acknowledges the wounds he has inflicted, some of which were freshly opened this week. Ohio governor John Kasich’s decision to skip the convention prompted Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, to open the festivities here Monday by accusing the home-state governor of “embarrassing” his constituents. 

“I was disappointed the governor didn’t take the stage to welcome people to our state,” Creighton admits, measuring her words carefully. “But I respect his decision. He has his own reasons, and he told us he regrets nothing.”

#share#The Manafort–Kasich spat set the tone for a week of intra-party bickering that came to a head Wednesday, as Trump’s onetime rival, Ted Cruz, proved himself to still be very much a rival, refusing to endorse the party’s nominee in the primetime speaking slot he was given.

The stage in Cleveland served less as a celebration of the party or its nominee than as a high-profile venue for a parade of GOP figures who unwittingly exposed the ideological divisions in the party by putting their relationship to Trump on display before a national audience.

On the one hand, there was Cruz, booed off the stage by angry delegates after he congratulated Trump on his victory but urged Americans to “vote your conscience.” The response inside Quicken Loans Arena was so heated that Cruz’s wife, Heidi, had to be escorted off of the convention floor by security officials concerned for her safety.

On the other, there was Chris Christie, who went all-in with Trump early on. Christie called the wealthy real-estate developer “a friend for the past 14 years” and praised him as a “caring, genuine, and decent person.” He also blasted Cruz’s speech, sparking a separate feud with the Texas senator’s team. “That guy turned over his political testicles a long time ago,” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, said of Christie on a Philadelphia radio show.

Stuck between the two poles was Paul Ryan, the convention chairman and, along with Marco Rubio, a favorite of the reformicon movement. For years, Ryan has worked to soften the GOP’s image. But in Cleveland, he grudgingly played the good soldier for his party, giving a workmanlike performance on Monday during which he uttered Trump’s name only twice. While Trump’s campaign has given the grievance politics of the left to white working-class voters, Ryan talked instead of seeing people as human beings rather than members of ethnic groups, of “respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference.”

Elsewhere, the speaker’s meek attempts to unify Republicans largely fell flat. “Conventions can be pretty darn exciting sometimes,” he told members of the Texas delegation at a Tuesday-morning breakfast. “We’ve got really big problems in our country. And in our party we’ve had, let’s just say, a really big family discussion.” Then he drew an analogy to college football, asking them if, despite the rivalry between Texas and Texas A&M, they would put aside their personal allegiances under certain circumstances. In “a big bowl game, or a national championship, don’t you root for the Aggies if you’re a Longhorn?”

The crowd hissed a collective “Noooooo.”

“My entire premise has just been obliterated,” Ryan said.

On the convention floor Thursday night, prior to Trump’s speech, delegates acknowledge the ongoing sense of conflict. “I think we’re fractured. I think there’s a lot of division,” says Robert Ryggs, a South Carolina delegate attending his third convention. Ryggs, who supported Cruz in the primary, says the week has been “up and down,” with a conservative platform and Mike Pence’s selection as Trump’s running mate bringing the delegates together before a roll-call vote was denied on the rules package and Cruz was booed off the convention floor.

“We would be more unified without the bully tactics of the Trump campaign and the RNC,” Ryggs says.

#related#Yet as Trump prepared to deliver his acceptance speech Thursday night, the message from his supporters to those Republicans who remain angry, embittered or on-the-fence due to his victory, was loud and clear: The GOP is moving on —with or without you. Tony Ledbetter, a first-time delegate from Florida who volunteered for Trump during the primary campaign, argues the GOP is united “except for a small minority of people” — and says the party is better off without them.

“Rubio, Bush, all these establishment insiders, I don’t care if they’re here,” Ledbetter says of his fellow Floridians, neither of whom showed up in Cleveland. “They can stay home — Romney and Kasich too. This is not their Republican party anymore.”

Whose party is it? “It’s the American people’s Republican party now,” Ledbetter says.

As Trump’s family joined him on stage after his speech, red, white, and blue balloons fell from the ceiling and confetti danced in the air. And on the loudspeakers, the thousands of people streaming out of the arena were treated to a song: “You can’t always get what you want . . . ”

Alexis Levinson contributed to this report.

— Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor. Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.

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