An American political convention makes a British party conference look rather like a village fete. This year’s Republican National Convention is taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, in the twenty-thousand seat arena that is home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the city’s world championship-winning basketball team. I am among the fifty thousand people visiting for the event, along with 2,472 delegates, many of the stars of American politics (including Karl Rove, architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, whom I caught up with yesterday), and the fifteen thousand members of the media, who comprise the biggest international press corps outside that of the Rio Olympics.
Cleveland itself inspires mixed views. Some like to refer to it as “The Mistake On The Lake”, or to remind you that the Cuyahoga River which runs through it was once so polluted that it caught fire. This is unsporting, since the city has plenty of merits, not the least of which is the world-class Cleveland Clinic, of which I am both a proud trustee and a grateful former patient. I spent a total of twenty-nine days in its intensive care unit last year recovering from septic shock. At one point I found myself surrounded by fifteen doctors. This was a new experience for me – fifteen lawyers in a room, yes, but never doctors. I had to tell them I preferred the lawyers.
As the reader will know, the Republican Convention was last held in Cleveland eighty years ago, when the party nominated Alfred M. Landon, who went on to be trounced by the incumbent president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Landon lost Ohio, his home state of Kansas, and indeed every other state apart from Vermont and Maine.
But if there is one thing we know about Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee, it is that he is not troubled by precedent, either in the way he has conducted his campaign or in the results he anticipates. Trump has confidently declared that he is going to win the states of Michigan (“by a lot”), Pennsylvania (“easily”) and New Jersey – none of which have been won by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 – and that he will campaign heavily in California and New York. The commentators we speak to here assume he is kidding; the GOP operatives hope he is.
After a more than usually bruising primary campaign, one of the Trump team’s challenges will be to unite their party behind their candidate. The party’s two most recent nominees, Mitt Romney (who tweeted “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University”) and John McCain, and its two most recent presidents, George W. and George H. W. Bush, will be staying away, as will many other prominent figures in the party. Some like Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, are not bothering to conceal their disdain for the spectacle (“I’ve got to mow my lawn,” he told a reporter).
In an interview last week, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush lamented: “I can’t vote for Donald Trump and I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton. It breaks my heart.” Trump, he said, was “barely a Republican,” let alone a conservative.” In an article for the Washington Post on Saturday, Bush wrote: “I do not believe Donald Trump reflects the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party. And I sincerely hope he doesn’t represent its future.”
After some of the things Trump has said about his fellow candidates, none of this is very surprising. Jeb Bush: “an embarrassment to his family”. Ted Cruz: “I have watched Lyin’ Ted become more and more unhinged.” Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is leading the reconciliation effort. “The convention’s coming at a good time for us to turn the page”, he said in an interview last week, while the Trump campaign Paul Manafort predicted “a unifying convention” – we would see over the next five days “the party coming together”.
After day one, that seems a forlorn hope. Yesterday afternoon a procedural motion brought by anti-Trump delegates was defeated, prompting a chaotic shouting match between the two factions on the convention floor.
Meanwhile, Trump called into the Bill O’Reilly Show on Fox News to remind the nation that John Kasich, and the last man standing among Trump’s primary rivals (and of whom Trump once said “I have never seen a human being eat in such a disgusting fashion”) had “got beaten very, very badly” and “just hung around” rather than pulling out of the campaign when he should have done – thereby torpedoing weeks of careful diplomacy aimed at getting the popular Ohio Governor to endorse the presumptive nominee or at least set foot in the Convention hall.
Still, Priebus is doing a valiant job of insisting that everything is going according to plan. As well as a likeable, intriguing, interesting candidate, the party had “a good field operation, with all the technical requirements we’re going to need and with a candidate that is the epitome of change in a year of change.” That last part is certainly true.