Wednesday morning, after day two, and its focus on Make America Work Again, the media focus was not on the vision and leadership of Donald Trump, and his unique capacity to cure all that ails us, but instead the mangled responses to the plagiarism issue by Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and Donald Trump himself.
And as the sun rose on the fourth and final day of the convention, the headlines said little about how Trump would Make America First Again or the introduction of rock solid conservative, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as Donald Trump's running mate. Instead, the entire focus was on the prime time speech by Ted Cruz, not only refusing to endorse Trump, but giving license to conservatives across the country to not give Trump their vote.
The conventional wisdom is that conventions provide candidates with their last opportunity to send a controlled message to the voters, and, along with the debates, are one of the few chances a candidate has to shift voter perceptions. In that regard, the first three days of this convention have moved the needle in the wrong direction, as each morning the narrative coming out of the convention has been about campaign problems, not deliberately crafted campaign storylines.
Even more than allowing the plagiarism issue first to happen and then to fester, allowing Ted Cruz to reject the nominee from center state--in front of a prime time national TV audience--was an astonishing blunder. The Trump campaign has insisted that they knew what was coming, and no doubt they did. But they are damned if they knew, and damned if they didn't. If they knew the tenor of the speech Cruz was going to give, he should have been assigned a speaking role early on the first day, or even none at all. If they didn't know, they were not paying attention, perhaps a worse indictment.
Ted Cruz never endorsed Trump, and had not given any private assurance that he intended to. Perhaps as the convention approached, Donald Trump--the master of the deal, after all--believed that he could bring Cruz around, but if by Monday it was still up in the air, it was inexcusable to allow the third night speaking slot--positioned right before the introduction of the Vice President--to stand. Not since 1964--when Nelson Rockefeller refused to endorse Barry Goldwater--has a vanquished primary candidate declined to endorse a major party nominee, and Rockefeller was not allowed to make his feelings known in front of a prime time audience of twenty million people.
The third night theme was Making America First Again, though it will be best remembered for perfidy and betrayal. Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham began the evening. Ingraham is a smart, aggressive partisan who gave a red meat speech narrowly cast to her audience inside the arena, a homily simmering with anger that affirmed the collective values of the assembled masses. We worked from the time we were young children. My parents didn't believe there were any jobs Americans wouldn't do.... I asked my mom once, when I was young, why are there people burning the American flag? Because their parents didn't teach them about respect.
It is all about respect.
Who is it that those people [Democrats, protesters] respect, exactly? Many in public office don't respect the rule of law. [turning to look into the camera] Isn't that right, Mrs. Clinton.
It is sad to see this happen to the country that we love... We deserve better, and we can do better. Donald Trump understands that we have to turn this around. That we have to restore respect, on all levels of society. He is a leader who will restore respect.
This convention has been an irony-free zone. Lost on the crowd was the irony of Ingraham suggesting that Donald Trump was the man to model and restore norms of respect and decency to our politics and institutions. This, after all, is the man who built his campaign around taunts and name-calling reminiscent of a Kindergarten sandbox, who all but stood ready to bare his penis to the nation to prove his virility.
The most powerful speaker of the night was African-American pastor Darrell Scott, who preached his testimony to Trump's character. "I've known him for quite some time. I know he's not a racist. I know he's not a xenophobe. I know he's not a misogynist. And I just would love to be able to convince everyone of that." Trump, he continued, "is very image-conscious. He's very concerned about his brand and about his appearance."
As was the case last night, the strongest case for Donald Trump was made by one of his children, in this case Eric Trump. Unlike his older half-brother Donald Jr. who speech the night before was well delivered, but oddly disconnected from anything that their father has said he stands for, Eric Trump provided an articulate argument for the Trump agenda as he has represented it over the course of the past year. In contrast to the mainstream conservative speech 24 hours earlier, this speech was pretty much New York liberal, with the exception of a nod to the Second Amendment. Eric Trump called out the unemployed, teachers and single moms, as people his father would fight for. He touched on race and gender. He promised that his father would rebuild that the nation's infrastructure, bring Ford and Nabisco and other manufacturing plants back home, rebuild urban neighborhoods, make our schools the envy of the world and put the fat cats in their place.
To his family, Donald Trump is a titanic figure, good and kind, respectful and uplifting, and both Eric and Donald Junior assure us that he can do the impossible. But they, of course, are his children. Yet little or none of this comes across in his public persona, were he comes across as nasty, petty, a sociopathic narcissist, a serial liar and a con man. These are not my words, they are from those he has run against, in a campaign built around attacking his opponents, not with opposition research or reasoned arguments as one might have expected from the man described by either of his sons, but with taunts and labels and what ultimately deteriorated into twitter-enabled, high-tech lynchings, as he leveraged his millions of followers on social media to publicly shame, blame or humiliate his opponents.
Perhaps for Trump it is all strictly business, just the sticks and stones of political campaigns, but just as Darrell Scott suggested that Donald Trump is very protective of his brand, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio--and others down the line--are protective of their's, and the belittling taunts, attacks and innuendo came to be seen as deeply personal. And last night was time for payback. Trump's attacks on Cruz were perhaps the most personal. Casting tweets out to a social media audience of millions, Trump made fun of Heidi Cruz's looks and intimated in that way that only Trump can that Cruz's father--whom he reveres much as Eric and Donald Trump revere their father--had been complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to believe that Ted Cruz did not take deep, personal satisfaction at the opportunity to stand before 20 million people and exact some measure of revenge.
Monday night was the defining night at this convention so far, because Monday night is when it became clear that the Trump candidacy is not about Donald Trump at all. It is not about who he is, or his fidelity to one wife or three. It is not about whether he can fix America as his son's so fervently argue, or if he actually hit his ceiling in terms of his ability to solve public problems when he fixed the Wohlman Skating Rink in Central Park. It doesn't matter if he releases his tax returns, or if he even paid taxes. Or whether he is a Christian or a Conservative, much less a Christian Conservative who has accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. And it certainly isn't about whether or not Trump has a successful convention. This campaign is only about Hillary Clinton, now described by Ben Carson to the wild endorsement of the assembled delegates as nothing less than an accomplice of Satan himself.
For those who have gathered here in Cleveland, that apparently is enough. But last night, Ted Cruz suggested otherwise. He suggested by what he said and what he didn't say that this year, it is the GOP that has sold its soul, and for that, he is reaping the whirlwind. It may earn him the enduring hatred of the conservative movement that he still hopes to lead, and cost him the future shot at the presidency that he covets.
But it does not mean he is wrong.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.