In a normal presidency, this would be a week spent wooing that elusive band of independent voters, unspooling new policy ideas, or putting forward a message that caters to some part of the electorate beyond the loyalists hell-bent on voting for Donald Trump no matter what.
That’s the convention Trump needs, but not the one he wants. What the Republicans are delivering instead is a four-day coronation, a paean to a president who’s trailing in the polls and aggrieved that a country with a few other things on its mind—disease and economic despair—isn’t showing him sufficient gratitude. Joe Biden is “going to be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe,” Trump complained to Fox News this summer. “And, you know, all I’m doing is my job.”
Day after day, Republicans have dispensed with the notion that the convention is really about anything other than pleasing the man in the West Wing restlessly working the remote. That much was evident when party officials abandoned efforts to develop a new platform laying out what they believe and might want to accomplish. There’s no new agenda, just Trump. But if the convention is about soothing the president, rather than reintroducing him to the nation or giving swing voters a reason to take a fresh look, why not save everyone the time and expense and spend the week giving interviews to sympathetic anchors at Fox? The takeaway wouldn’t be all that different.
A common convention practice is for the nominee to be scarce and build suspense for the big, primetime speech on the final night. Trump instead is giving continual cameos. Last night, he made full use of the White House as a partisan backdrop, presiding over a pretaped naturalization ceremony for five new Americans, even as he’s choked off various forms of immigration and staked his legacy on a still-uncompleted border wall.
The approach could be self-defeating: Trump’s sheer ubiquity may devalue the acceptance speech he’ll give tomorrow, ending the convention. (Joe Biden appeared a few times at last week’s Democratic National Convention, but wasn’t as frequent a presence as Trump has been.)
Newt Gingrich, the former GOP House speaker and a Trump ally, laughed when I broached the idea that the president’s approach could fall flat. “No, because he’s Trump,” Gingrich told me. “He understands that he’s the star. He’s the reason they’re coming to the show. His first understanding is, ‘If I don’t keep you entertained, I can’t communicate with you, because you’re turning me off.’”
Heading into the convention, Trump advisers previewed the tone as upbeat and optimistic. Trouble is, Trump is neither. Soon after delegates formally voted to make him the Republican nominee in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday, he arrived to give a speech and promptly snuffed out hope for a sunny convention. The president opened with a mordant riff about staying in office for 12 more years and then talked about the evils of a mail-in voting system that has been a reliable part of the electoral process for generations. At one point, he complained to the delegates that Fox anchors had talked over their roll-call vote. (Whenever Trump goes off script, there’s always a bizarre moment like this: Here was an incumbent president giving unsolicited stage direction to a daytime cable-news show. A former senior White House official once offered me a theory explaining Trump’s obsession with television: “Trump is the Marshall McLuhan president”—the medium is the message.)
Second-guessing Trump’s political instincts can be risky. After all, he won. “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president and you’re not,” he once told a Time magazine reporter. When the Republican Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, the party commissioned a so-called autopsy report, which showed that its outreach to minority voters was weak and that it needed to embrace an immigration plan that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That was the expert advice from a panel plotting the party’s revival.
Trump ignored the autopsy when he ran four years later, and paid no price, just as he’s ignored calls over the course of his presidency to reach beyond his base. A video shown at the convention Monday mocked Biden for supporting the same immigration plan Republicans embraced in the wreckage of the 2012 defeat. “This is a different Republican Party,” Gingrich told me.
Convention stagecraft suggests as much. The last Republican president to run for reelection was George W. Bush in 2004. Looking back at Bush’s convention in New York City that year, the proceedings seem quaint. In his acceptance speech, Bush criticized his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, largely on policy grounds. The worst he’d suggest is that Kerry had flip-flopped on issues. By contrast, coming into the convention Trump made baseless claims that Biden had committed treason, a crime that carries the death penalty. (Separately, Bush allies did air ads questioning Kerry’s Vietnam War record, injecting a new kind of political attack into the lexicon: “swiftboating.”)
Speakers at the 2004 convention reflect a party that, from today’s vantage point, looks like a relic from a more ideologically inclusive era that is now extinct, among them Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a moderate Republican governor from California; John McCain, an Arizona senator known to buck his party; and Mitt Romney, at the time the Massachusetts governor who ushered in a health-care system that would later became a model for the Affordable Care Act. “Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic, still be American, and still be good Republicans,” Schwarzenegger said in his speech.
Trump’s convention is harder-edged, with no discernible political strategy behind the speakers list except to excite Trump and the viewers who are going to vote Republican anyway. There have been a few exceptions. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, gave an earnest speech in which she talked about her Indian heritage and her family’s immigration story. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina explained how his grandfather left elementary school to pick cotton. Still, the roster is sprinkled with people who are on Trump’s payroll or in his will. It includes culture warriors and Fox talking heads, aides who owe him everything and politicians looking to inherit his devoted base once he’s left office.
The cheery optimism advertised in advance by Trump’s advisers has been missing from some of the high-profile speeches. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign-finance official and the girlfriend of Trump’s eldest son, depicted California as a hellscape littered with “heroin needles in parks” and beset by “riots in streets and blackouts in homes.” (Her ex-husband Gavin Newsom is governor of the state.) Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, rehashed discredited allegations that then–Vice President Biden intervened in Ukraine to protect his son Hunter from an investigation into an energy company, Burisma Holdings.
“If you’re an undecided voter, you’re looking at this and it has the lineup of a festival concert that you just don’t want to go to, because there’s not a single band you want to see,” Douglas Heye, who was a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee from 2010 to 2011, told me. “It makes it difficult for the campaign to make a case to those voters, because they are most likely going to tune out.” Television viewership in the 10 p.m. hour on the first night of the convention amounted to 17 million, nearly 3 million below that of the Democrats’ opening night last week.
When he stands on the White House’s South Lawn tomorrow night and reads his closing speech off the teleprompter, Trump may well break from the pattern and make some overture to the political center, extend some invitation to broaden his governing coalition. But more believable than the scripted words are the ad-libbed remarks he made to the delegates in Charlotte on day one. There, he said the only way he can lose is if the election is “rigged” against him. Follow that logic and the convention’s real purpose starts to crystallize. In Trump’s mind, he doesn’t seem to need the convention to win. But he might need it to make him feel better.