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Reality TV in Cleveland

Delegates at the Republican National Convention after the announcement that there would not be a roll-call vote on the Convention Rules Committee's report and proposed rules changes, Cleveland, Ohio, July 18, 2016
Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Delegates at the Republican National Convention after the announcement that there would not be a roll-call vote on the Convention Rules Committee’s report and proposed rules changes, Cleveland, Ohio, July 18, 2016

From the moment he rode that downward escalator and announced he was running for president, Donald Trump’s willingness to defy the accepted rules of political practice has made his campaign compulsive viewing. Presidential candidates are not supposed to mock the disabled, insult whole ethnic groups, or disparage a Vietnam war hero. But Trump did all of those things and watched the votes pile up. Indeed, his multiple victories in the primaries suggested that his success came not in spite of his departures from political orthodoxy, but because of them. To those who had lost all faith in the system his defiance signaled that he was entirely outside it—indeed, that he was ready to smash the system into tiny pieces.

But at the Republican convention in Cleveland, Trump has taken this defiance to a new level. Not content with demonstrating that he is unbound by the strictures of “political correctness,” he has seemed determined to show that he is unbound by the standards of basic political competence.

The errors have come in such quick succession it’s been hard to keep up. Opening the first day, Paul Manafort, who is Trump’s campaign chairman—and recall that Trump has no campaign manager, the post left vacant after the departure of Carey Lewandowski—decided to declare declare war on his host state, and its popular governor, John Kasich. Manafort said Kasich’s failure to endorse Trump and appear at the convention was “embarrassing his state.” (A few hours earlier, at 3:43 am, the eccentric but longtime Trump backer, Roger Stone, tweeted that “@JohnKasich is a jerk-off stoner who will never be president.”)

That had the predictable effect of closing ranks in the Ohio Republican party, the keepers of the keys to an electoral machine that you might think Team Trump would regard as rather important in November. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, yet the Trump campaign went out of its way to alienate those whose help will be essential.

A few hours later and there was a ripple of excitement as a fight broke out on the convention floor over the rules. Such scenes are not what any convention planner wants for a party’s four-day TV showcase—let alone on its tone-setting opening day. Though the skirmish ended in victory for Manafort as he crushed a last, procedural attempt by the Never Trump camp to derail the soon-to-be nominee, what people saw was chaos rather than brutal efficiency, not least because the Trump campaign—with a notoriously thin press operation—communicated little to reporters, leaving their opponents to fill the void.

Come evening, things only got worse. With a theme easily parodied as “Make America Scared Again,” a procession of speakers—including Pat Smith, whose son Sean was one of the Americans killed in Benghazi in 2012—spoke of the terrible losses and bereavements they had endured. This was crudely exploitative, but could have been very effective on TV. Except that, as Smith spoke—from the convention floor you could hear her repeating the slogan chanted by delegates: “Hillary for Prison!”—she had a rival for the attention of potential Republican voters. Over on Fox News, giving an interview, was Trump himself, looking ahead to the speech of his wife, Melania. The Trump campaign had just trodden all over its own story.

Scheduling, a central part of the campaigner’s art, was a disaster. Conventions are all about the primetime hour between 10pm and 11pm, when the networks tune in. What viewers would have heard Monday night at that hour, besides Melania Trump, was Scott Baio, child star of a 1970s sitcom, who had earlier tweeted a message that attached the c-word to Hillary Clinton, and Antonio Sabàto, an underwear model who believes Barack Obama is a Muslim. In April, Trump spoke of his determination to “put some showbiz into [the] convention, otherwise people are going to fall asleep.” Initial TV ratings, which were tepid, suggested viewers had not exactly thrilled to the first episode of Cleveland’s Trump show.

Forced to wait until the end of the program, outside the golden hour, was Joni Ernst, the Iowa senator and veteran who may well have appealed to the much sought-after “security moms,” women concerned about safety but who are currently wary of Trump. Instead, Ernst was forced to address an emptying hall after Melania Trump’s star turn, the energy steadily draining from her performance as she saw the audience dwindle. Trump aides left reporters with the clear impression that Ernst had been denied an earlier slot as punishment for the choice Iowa made during the primaries, preferring Ted Cruz to Trump. If that is true, then the Trump campaign punished itself.

There were other minor mess-ups, of course. Trump entered Las Vegas-style in a cloud of dry ice to the sound of Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” even though the band’s guitarist, Brian May, said the campaign never sought or obtained permission. That of course prompted much social media chatter at what kind of welcome the convention would have given Queen’s singer, the late Freddie Mercury—who was a gay man of Persian heritage. Earlier Twitter became similarly excited by the appearance of Chris Christie on the convention floor, who chose to divert attention from his own injured pride at not being selected as Trump’s running mate by attempting to flirt, creepily, with TV reporter Dana Bash.

But these slips were as nothing compared to the plagiarism of key passages in Melania Trump’s speech from the equivalent address delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. Comically, the stolen words spoke of the importance of integrity, truthfulness, and hard work. What has appalled Republican operatives even more—what offends their sense of professionalism—is the failure to clear up the mess. There was only one option: to admit the offence and have someone take immediate responsibility, with a swift sacking or resignation. Instead, Manafort and others sought to deny what was obvious, to tough it out—thereby allowing the story to dominate the news cycle into the convention’s second day. (Chris Christie, on the Today show, said her speech was “93 percent” original.) 

Trump may ride this storm like every other. Perhaps he will persuade people that a shambolic convention proves what an unconventional, and therefore appealing, candidate he is. But Trump’s candidacy rests on his experience as a business leader, on the notion that he is the CEO ready to run America, Inc. What he has demonstrated so far in Cleveland is not deviation from an ideological norm, but simple ineptitude. And for a would-be chief executive to the nation, that’s not a good look.