Fight Night at the Republican National Convention

While a loyal group of speakers came out to support Donald Trump, dissenters tried to derail the proceedings.

Mike Segar / Reuters

CLEVELAND—What does a political convention celebrating a candidate look like when many of the conventioneers still aren’t willing to accept him as a nominee?

The first night of the Republican National Convention on Monday offered clues about how Donald Trump’s coronation this week might go. Set around the theme “Make America Safe Again,” the program was a catalog of the dark threats facing the nation: radical Islam, Black Lives Matter, illegal immigrants, and Hillary Clinton, not necessarily in that order. In short, it was an evening of red meat. The series of speakers were calibrated to appeal to a certain segment of the Republican electorate, but there were plenty of Republicans inside the Quicken Loans Arena who were still wounded from the primary, and weren’t necessarily interested in using the red meat to treat their bruises.

In many ways, it was a classic convention night: a long series of speeches, ranging from riveting to workaday to simply dull. An obstreperous, noisy Rudy Giuliani uplifted the police and lashed out at President Obama. Mark Geist and John Tiegen, two veterans of the security team in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, delivered a long narrative of their battle there. The parents of several people killed by illegal immigrants remembered their slain children. The actors Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr. stood and talked about ... well, something. As delegates filed out at the end of a long day, the retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn offered a long, shouty broadside against Obama and Clinton. Sample zinger: “War is not about bathrooms!” By the time Senator Joni Ernst, a well-loved rising GOP star, got up around 11 p.m., the Q was mostly empty.

The Republican Party is increasingly a party of white people, and given Trump’s unpopularity with women, it is increasingly a party of white men. Nevertheless, the three most electrifying speakers on Monday were two black men and one Slovenian-born woman.

The first was Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, a tough-on-crime black conservative who fits Trump’s recent adoption of “law and order” to a T—and whose dismissal of Black Lives Matter and the broad police-reform movement was perfectly timed for the aftermath of the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Clarke was the first candidate to elicit a uniformly excited response from the Q, and he started off throwing a punch: “Blue. Lives. Matter in America!”

The second was Darryl Glenn, an African American commissioner in El Paso County, Colorado, who is running against Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. Glenn is a typical convention speaker: a rising star in a tough race who could benefit from the spotlight. Any time a young African American speaks at a convention, it’s bound to draw comparisons to another Senate candidate, the one who spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Unlike Obama, Glenn is a strong underdog in November, but he made the most of his slot, and managed to get in an echo of that 2004 Obama speech.

“I am often asked, why are you Republican?” he said. (He didn’t need to explain the racial subtext. At another point, he quipped: “Somebody with a nice tan needs to say this: All lives matter.”) “It's because the Democrat Party is the party of handouts. After more than seven years the only thing we have left in our pockets is change … Mr. President, I have a message. This is not about black America, white America, brown America. This is about the United States of America.”

If Republicans hoped Melania could help to humanize and soften Donald, this wasn’t the speech to do it.

The third speaker was Melania Trump. After a surprisingly brief introduction by her husband, she strode on to the stage and delivered a strong speech. An inexperienced and reportedly uneasy public speaker, she stumbled once or twice, and her accent was occasionally thick, but she seemed to win over the room, telling of her childhood in Slovenia and her gratitude at becoming an American citizen. In a somewhat surreal moment, she was delegated the task of honoring retired Senator Bob Dole, the only previous Republican nominee attending the convention. Mostly, she spoke about her husband, a man she said was honest, driven, and kind.

“He will never, ever give up and most importantly he will never, ever let you down,” she said. Some lines sounded like they might have been written by Trump himself: “Now is the time to use [his] gifts as never before for purposes far greater than ever, and he will do this better than anyone else can, and it won’t even be close.”

Melania Trump’s speech was strong, but if Republicans hoped she could help to humanize and soften Donald, this wasn’t the speech to do it. For the most part, it emphasized traits that are already well known: determination, stubbornness, ambition. In that way, it raised the same question as so many of the evening’s speeches: Who is this meant to convince? The Benghazi narrative—which began fascinating but dragged on too long to keep delegates engaged—is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe Clinton was negligent that night. The fierce attack on “illegal aliens” won’t win over voters who weren’t already on the Trump train. The dismissal of concerns about police violence falls afoul of many conservative critics of law enforcement.

Set aside the attitudes of those watching on television; plenty of those in the hall weren’t having it. It wasn’t hard to spot the pockets of delegates who were pledged to other candidates, because they were the ones glued to their seats, sitting on their hands, while other delegates applauded energetically. Many of them were smarting from a bizarre turn in the convention hall earlier Monday afternoon. Never Trump forces—written off as dead late last week—had been suddenly resurrected, managing to almost force a roll-call vote that could have deposed Trump as nominee. As my colleague Russell Berman reported, the effort fell short, but with the help of some slick maneuvering (a secretary hid behind locked doors) and a dubious determination by the chair on the outcome of a voice vote. Making small talk with a Colorado delegate on the floor while Geist and Tiegen spoke, I suddenly realized she was Kendal Unruh, a leader of the Never Trump faction.

“They’ve got the microphone, they can railroad the meeting.” She shrugged.

“They’ve got the microphone, they can railroad the meeting,” she shrugged. Nonetheless, she said, all her faction wanted was the right to count votes. “Kind of an important thing in America. This is not a banana republic.”

Unruh was resigned but not regretful, and was keeping a sense of humor about things. “I’ve had 1,000 death threats. Steve House, our state chairman, had had 3,000. It’s not right—he’s beating me 3-to-1, and I’m very competitive,” she joked, but said other delegates had told her they supported her cause but were unwilling to subject their family to threats and intimidation that came with going public.

Where does Never Trump go from here? Mostly home, it would seem, but Unruh said if the party expected people like her to suck it up and do the essential organizing work that wins elections, they were kidding themselves. She cited a harsh ad the Clinton campaign rolled out last week, featuring children watching television clips of Trump’s most outlandish statements. “She doesn’t have to do a thing,” Unruh said; she can just let Trump hang himself.

Across the arena, Bob Orr mentioned the same ad, shaking his head sadly. Orr, a North Carolina delegate and former state supreme-court justice, was sitting away from the Old North State’s delegation in part because he was an unreconciled backer of Ohio Governor John Kasich. He doesn’t plan to vote for Trump in November.

“I think Trump is dangerous for the country. He’s singularly unqualified to be commander in chief,” Orr said. “I don’t think Donald Trump cares about the Republican Party.” Attending the convention is a bittersweet experience for him. “I just see this diminution of a party that has had a lot of historical and personal importance to me.”

Orr wasn’t exaggerating. It isn’t just that he has voted for every Republican since Richard Nixon in 1968, even casting an absentee ballot from his post in the U.S. Army. Orr’s great-grandfather, a farmer in the mountains of Western North Carolina, had refused to fight for the Confederacy, instead crossing into Tennessee and enlisting with the Union Army. He came back from the war a staunch Lincoln Republican, Orr said. Now, the party of Lincoln seemed to be slipping away for good.

It all depends on who you ask, though. George Engelbach, a Missouri delegate, was on the floor in stove-pipe hat, frock coat, and majestically Lincoln-esque beard—nearly the spitting image of Abe. Who would Lincoln back in this contest? Engelbach didn’t hesitate: “Trump Trump Trump Trump!”