For safety, the parties are pushing much of the proceedings online. Biden won’t travel to Milwaukee, the Democratic convention’s host city, for his speech accepting the nomination. Trump still hasn’t revealed exactly where he’ll be for his own address during the Republican convention, but he’s been loath to let the virus trample his moment. His campaign anticipates a mix of videos and live events, culminating in an acceptance speech whose location has ping-ponged up and down the East Coast as his variable moods dictate.
This week, he teased that he’ll give the speech at either the White House or the old Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, both settings that raise ethical questions about the use of public resources for a partisan purpose. (I was interviewing Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and a Trump critic, at the moment the president tweeted that he might give the speech at Gettysburg. “Holy crap! Oh my God,” Shaub said when I read him the tweet. “Gettysburg is a national park! Basically, a political party is seizing control of a public park if that happens.” Shaub’s old office issued an opinion earlier this week that Trump is legally permitted to give the speech from the White House should he choose to.)
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Mary Trump, the president’s niece and the author of a new book about him, Too Much and Never Enough, told me that holding the event at a taxpayer-owned site might have to suffice for a president deprived of the thrill that comes with gazing out at a rapt audience. “He acts like a toddler,” she said. “It may not be as fun or gratifying for him, because he won’t get the energy from the crowds. But it will mean that he’s pulling rank … And that will be fun for him.”
Faulting Trump for his insistence on a camera-friendly show at the expense of long-standing norms and, possibly, federal ethics laws is easy enough. But while the scale and audacity of Trump’s plans surpass that of his predecessors, the political world has long used the conventions to maximum advantage.
Starting with their birth in the 1830s, the conventions were primarily tools for party bosses to pick the nominees. The delegates at the 1924 Democratic convention in New York City took more than 100 ballots to settle on a candidate. Reforms passed after the 1968 conventions forced delegates to vote according to their state’s primary results, democratizing the method of determining the winners. From that point on, a delegate’s main role has been to ratify a preordained nominee.
“People talk as if ‘Jeez, maybe Bernie Sanders will get the nomination after all,’ or ‘What do we do if the convention is gridlocked?’ Come on!” says Byron E. Shafer, a University of Wisconsin political-science professor who wrote about conventions in his book Bifurcated Politics. “The same people might as well believe that Ulysses S. Grant is about to return and be president.”