The RNC: Fear and Puking In Cleveland

7 minute read
Jordan is a TIME columnist, an NBC News/MSNBC political analyst and a co-host of the Words Matter podcast.

The Republican California delegation brought with them to Cleveland Norovirus, a debilitating stomach bug that left unlucky traveling GOPers struggling at both ends on the toilets of overpriced motels in the outskirts of the city. Norovirus lingers in the infected for a miserable few days. You catch it from poor hygiene: you have to get poop in your mouth to contract it.

The California delegation’s experience was par for the course at one of the darkest political conventions in America’s history. And it’s an apt metaphor for the entire convention: the Trump campaign served up a load of excrement to the American public.

I try to live by the mantra that it can always be worse. The only way this year’s Republican convention could have been worse would have been if actual violence erupted. The absence of violence is the high point of the week and a testament to the hard work of law enforcement agencies who took their jobs seriously.

Donald Trump did not take his job seriously and showed no promise of doing better as President. The purpose of a political convention is to present an agenda of ideas that promise a better America. There were announced themes for each night—four riffs on “Making America Great Again”—but the campaign didn’t bother to align the program with those, so we were left with just four titles instead of themes. There was a single theme, though, every night, which was that Donald Trump cares about one thing and one thing only: Donald Trump, the answer for everything.

“I alone can fix it,” Trump promised in his address.

There’s only so much the Republican National Committee can do to make the convention a success when Trump—whose entertaining reality show is his life’s greatest achievement—can’t assemble two hours’ worth of watchable programming for four nights.

Fewer Americans tuned in to watch Donald Trump than Mitt Romney or John McCain. McCain, who Trump taunts unceasingly for being tortured as a prisoner of war, bested Trump in a big way, drawing 10 million more viewers—nearly a third larger viewership—in 2008 when he accepted the nomination. “This convention was his chance to showcase the political version of ‘The Apprentice,’ and he couldn’t do it,” a veteran Republican strategist told me.

Read: An Unhinged Republican Convention and the Nation’s Greatest Test

Needless to say, vague friends-and-family stories of Trump’s compassion and generosity failed to transform him into the Daddy Warbucks to our national little orphan Anniedom.

The first two nights, even some of the hardcore delegates who fought so hard to get there left early, streaming in and out of speeches that were widely panned. Trump’s wife Melania’s remarks were a refreshing glimmer of comfort until a journalist figured out why: she’d cribbed from First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech. Though a side by side comparison of the two passages clearly proves that over 60 words were plagiarized, top Trump advisor Paul Manafort lied about it, calling the accusations “crazy” and blaming Hillary Clinton. Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson gave the most comical justification: Melania “wanted to communicate to Americans in words they had heard before.” RNC strategist Sean Spicer went full Baghdad Bob, invoking My Little Pony to defend Melania’s honor. Newt Gingrich said it didn’t really matter what the former model said anyway because she’s so “stunningly attractive.” It’s incredibly frustrating to watch lying on full display, day after day, for almost a week.

Night three was more riveting only because Trump let rival Ted Cruz go on stage and tell delegates to “vote their conscience” in an act of defiance that makes it clear that Cruz, never a casual actor, expects Trump to lose in November. In a major miscalculation, the master negotiator failed to ensure Cruz would actually endorse him on stage at his own convention. Trump’s vice-presidential pick offered a rare moment of sanity: Mike Pence spoke forcefully, factually, and logically in an address that was actually about conservatism.

The final night’s programming was an improvement—but the tone of the week had been set. Peter Thiel bravely spoke in favor of LGBT rights to an audience containing delegates who wrote the most anti-gay platform in the GOP’s history. Ivanka Trump’s hopefulness was refreshing—but like her father, it’s hard to believe that anything she is saying is true when the history and facts of her father’s rampant misogyny belie her cheery prepared remarks. She couldn’t even bring herself to say she was a Republican, giving Democrats ample ammunition next week at their convention in Philadelphia.

Trump’s speech wasn’t a call for Americans to come together to fix our problems—it was an authoritarian plea that he alone was the savior sent to deliver us from the wretched pathetic-ness that’s Donald Trump’s America. Trump’s emphasis on the darkness of the era was met just as often by boos as it was applause and cheers, a fittingly dark coda to a dark week.

The convention audience at home was overwhelmingly older: Millennials, who make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population, accounted for only about eleven percent of viewers. The generational gap was even more striking in person. Among my peer group, many young Republicans are still angry and unsupportive of Trump; older Republicans have entered the acceptance phase. Though the party faithful seemed to fall into line this week, Republicans have likely lost a generation of younger voters for whom tolerance is an unimpeachable value they seek in their President.

That’s a problem if you believe that demography is destiny. The struggle within the Republican party in 2016 is how to respond: to welcome in, or keep out. The convention site—Cleveland’s Quicken arena—was cordoned off from the surrounding community like the Green Zone in Baghdad. Though Republican conventions have never been hotbeds of diversity, less than one percent of delegates this year were minorities–a total of 18 non-white people out of 2,472 delegates. Even the advocacy of Rachel Hoff, the first openly gay delegate on the platform committee, wasn’t enough to have the platform acknowledge that yes, ISIS targets gays in the platform, losing out to the addition of transgender bathroom melodrama and conversion therapy as official party dogma.

That’s why I can’t be too optimistic that any slight steps of progress mean absolutely anything. Trump may claim to care about LGBT rights, but he’s happy to lead a platform abhorrent to equality if that’s what keeps his supporters satiated.

This is what happens when a party really stands for nothing at all: we get to watch a rich 70-year-old demagogue bungle his political reality show and hand the White House to Hillary Clinton.

What a world when Ted Cruz is the only Republican to leave Cleveland with his dignity intact.

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