Trump Can't Persuade Republicans to Like Him

When he takes the floor tonight, the Republican nominee faces an impossible task.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

“What can Trump say tonight to unite this party?”

That’s the question being asked by TV and radio interviewers, and for good reason.

Even before Ted Cruz’s bold anti-endorsement of Donald Trump, only 38 percent of Republicans were satisfied with Donald Trump as their nominee, according to a recent NBC / Wall Street Journal poll. 78 percent described their party as to disunited to a greater or lesser degree.

The Cleveland convention has tried to mount a show of unity, but the show frankly has not been very convincing to put it mildly. Offstage, things are even glummer. The hall emptied fast last night. There was little of the joyous mingling on the pavements outside that normally follows a cathartic group experience. There was something desultory even in the lobbyist whisky-and-cigars parties that closed so many downtown Cleveland restaurants and hotel reception rooms: Too many of the biggest donors and most lavish corporate sponsors had stayed away. Budgets had been squeezed, and by the reports I heard hospitality had to be downgraded in proportion.

Can a speech fix that? In a word: no. The Donald Trump candidacy is suffering from two internal ills: its own accumulating self-inflicted wounds and mistakes (most recently a New York Times interview that jolted into outrage every national security conservative in the GOP); and—even more dangerously—an accelerating perception that the campaign is doomed. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s speech on Wednesday evening revealed the professionals’ deep fatalism about the November outcome: “I have good news. In 112 days, it is over.” That’s the kind of “good news” offered to convicted felons and chemotherapy patients.

Donald Trump insists he is a winner of course. He insists and insists, typically demanding afterward, “Believe me.” Fewer and fewer Republicans do, and their behavior reflects that.

Parties don’t always mind losing an election. Defeat can even sometimes unite and mobilize a party, if it feels it is losing in a good and upright cause, as Democrats felt in 2004, a year they lost, but in which they massively fundraised and broke all previous turnout records. But the only Trump cause is Trump himself. He promised to win—win so much that the party and the country would get tired of winning. Now he’s perceptibly not winning. If he’s not winning, what’s the point of him?

Trump’s challenge tonight then is doubly hard: somehow to persuade the big majority of Republicans who don’t like him that he represents something (anything!) important to them—and then to scrub the odor of failure and defeat from off his candidacy.

That challenge has been made all the harder both by this convention’s sequence of organizational and messaging debacles—and by the inability of Donald Trump’s family members to present a warm, humanizing picture of a man who is ending this convention as he began it: the most disliked person ever to win a major party nomination for president.