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The Republican National Convention to install Donald Trump as the party’s presidential candidate has put on show bitter internal divisions and the rancorous tone with which his campaign will attack the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Republican National Convention green lights Donald Trump

Donald Trump on day three of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, this week.
Credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

If there is a purgatory, it must surely resemble the 2016 Republican National Convention. It is a brightly lit fever dream, populated with fight promoters, former soap stars and underwear models, each believing that the balm their injured country needs is their halting endorsement of an unstable demagogue. Among this circus is Australian ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey, and a group of half-a-dozen senior diplomats. They have sought introductions with Trump’s team in an attempt to grasp what a Trump presidency might mean for Australia and the Pacific region. Hockey’s office must anticipate both potential outcomes in November. “There’s more than 60 embassies that have a presence here and always have had a presence at both the Republican and at the Democrat conventions,” Ambassador Hockey told the ABC this week. “It is hugely important. Where we can influence platforms in the best interests of our nations and where we can form relationships in the best interests of our nations, we do.” 

Aaron Connolly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, who has previously worked with a former US National Security Adviser, tells me this is routine. “The US political conventions invite the diplomatic corps from Washington, and it would be extraordinary if countries boycotted it. There would be negative consequences,” he says. “I expect [Hockey’s team] are seeking out reasonable members of the Republican party – there are some left. People like Lindsay Graham and John McCain, people who believe in international alliances. We can’t be too confident about predictions, but I think there’s an expectation that Trump will lose – and lose by a landslide – but the GOP will exist beyond that.

“You have to accept that there’s a chance of a Trump presidency, but it’s a small chance. What I’m worried about is the long-term damage this campaign does to ideas. A primary concern is how does Trump’s rhetoric change ideas about what’s responsible – will we see more future politicians taking notes on Trump’s success with his anti-trade position? That would be damaging. And that’s not the only threat. There’s the anti-immigration stance, too.”  

A fractured party

At Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena this week, Republican delegates, C-grade celebrities and largely reluctant parts of the Republican establishment arrived to coronate their leader, Donald J. Trump. It is a stadium home to the reigning NBA champions, the Cavaliers, an outfit far more coherent and popular than the political party the arena now accommodates. 

The freshly anointed Republican nominee for president is so bereft of traditional support that, in prime time of the convention this week, space that would historically be filled by former presidents was instead occupied by a former The Bold and the Beautiful actor championing her avocado farm and the pleasures of guacamole. “Many of you know me from one of your favourite soap operas … but I decided to follow other dreams,” Kimberlin Brown said. “I’m now an avocado grower – Yes! California avocados!”

Earlier this week, I spoke to Richard Fontaine. “The effort of this convention,” he told me, “was to bring the party together. But there’s evidence it’s still fractured.” Fontaine is the president of the Centre for a New American Security, and was a senior adviser to Senator John McCain when he was the Republican’s 2008 presidential candidate. “You don’t have a living president or nominee appearing, except for Bob Dole … But remember, he’s the anti-establishment candidate and so to that extent this can play into that narrative. But this populist narrative might not be enough now to get him elected in November.”   

Not long after I spoke to Fontaine, Senator Ted Cruz – Trump’s main rival during the primaries – delivered a speech in which he studiously avoided mentioning the presidential candidate himself. “We deserve leaders who stand for principle,” Cruz said. “Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody.

“And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”

As the senator wilfully failed to explicitly endorse Trump, the floor roared with anger. Cruz’s wife was escorted from the stadium by security guards.  

Before Kimberlin Brown spoke, there was the head of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, a man whose neck seemed as wide as his lectern. As proof of Trump’s virtue, he offered the fact that the nominee had once given him a call. White was not the only fight promoter in the arena. The infamous Don King, the verbose and villainous promoter of many of Muhammad Ali’s fabled bouts, strode around the floor in bright jewellery and a garish suit. King stomped a man to death in this city 50 years ago and, having encouraged Ali to fight well beyond his time, is blamed by many for contributing to the great boxer’s sad, ultimately fatal, decline. 

King says that Trump wanted him to speak, but the Republican National Convention denied them. Even at 84, his once electrified Afro now limp, King seems an ideal complement to Trump’s rhetoric – improvised and shameless. Like Trump, King’s bombast conceals an awesome cynicism. But the force of his delivery becomes a virtue in itself. Well away from the RNC stage, King offered his endorsement of Trump: “He’s a pioneer, not a politician. He’s a non-politician. And he said the magic words that I want to hear for all the white women and the people of colour. He said, ‘We will tear apart the system.’ ” 

Speech scandal

Scandal dominated the first two days of the convention. Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, delivered a speech in which she lifted passages from Michelle Obama’s endorsement of her husband in 2008. It was an arresting moment of hypocrisy – a plagiarised ode to hard work and honesty – and it revealed the staggering absence of campaigning staff, infrastructure and formal processes that normally protect and propel a presidential candidacy. “Around this time of our [presidential] campaign in 2008, we had around 700 to 800 staff across the country,” Fontaine tells me. “Clinton at this moment, I’m told, has something north of that number. Trump probably has around 70 to 80 staff. That doesn’t give you the infrastructure that you need, and the plagiarism might be a function of that.

“Trump can hire people. He doesn’t need to have the campaign structure that he has. But he has publicly touted the lean, inexpensive nature of his campaign. There are disadvantages to that.”   

The cribbed lines have been catnip for journalists, but it is not the biggest story of this convention. The story is a party cleaved in two by Trump’s candidacy, and a convention roiled by disorganisation. It is also a convention that has found life in near-apocalyptic descriptions of the country – a nation existentially threatened by black protest, immigration, Islamic terror and religious faithlessness. Those at the convention have repeatedly called for the imprisonment – even the execution – of Hillary Clinton. So great is the hatred of Clinton that her presence has been more prominent than Trump’s. Invocations of her criminality and malfeasance have equalled tributes to their own leader. This convention is utterly bereft of irony, and so the spectre of mushroom clouds and cultural collapse were invoked against a soundtrack of Neil Diamond and Earth, Wind and Fire. Day two concluded with “Love Train”. People all over the world, join hands and join the love train. 

Meanwhile, Trump was expressing a hostile antipathy to NATO, stating that he wouldn’t “automatically” defend NATO states against Russian aggression. As far as geopolitical alliances go, NATO is a bulwark, established in the wake of World War II. Foreign policy experts were aghast. 

“Until this week, people at party conventions didn’t pander to white supremacists,” wrote former Obama speechwriter David Litt. “They didn’t call for the other party’s nominee to be thrown in prison. If a campaign is caught plagiarising the sitting first lady – to use a hypothetical example – they don’t chalk it up to coincidence, or quote My Little Pony as a defence.” 

The last line is a reference to the RNC’s chief strategist, Sean Spicer, who mounted one of several bizarre defences of Melania Trump’s speech in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“Melania Trump said, ‘The strength of your dreams and willingness to work for them.’ Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony said, ‘This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now,’ ” he told the host, before comparing other sections of the speech to lyrics from Kid Rock and John Legend.

“I mean, if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through a Google and say, ‘Hey, who else has said them’, I can do that in five minutes. And that’s what this is.”

The problem for Trump is that no one in his camp did run these phrases through Google. A family friend who wrote the speech, Meredith McIver, eventually admitted to copying out the lines from Michelle Obama’s speech as Melania read them down a phone line.

Litt described another example of quasi-plagiarism that surfaced this week. Trump’s son, Donald Trump jnr, read a speech written by F. H. Buckley – in which the author borrowed his own lines from a previously published article. “Trump jnr’s defenders insist they have nothing to defend,” wrote Litt. “They point out that any politician who hires a speechwriter uses another person’s words. They’re right, in a sense. 

“Ghostwriting is a grey area, held to standards somewhere between the strict ones of journalism and the practically non-existent ones of, say, dinner party chat. But that’s precisely the point. With no official code of conduct, or threat of being disbarred, speechwriters are governed by norms rather than bylaws. One of those norms is that writers try to come up with original ideas. If a writer has a really juicy line about the middle class, she can publish it under her own name for less money, or put in a speech for more money. Not both.”

The convention this week has lurched awkwardly between listlessness and pique. When it has found life beyond Clinton, it has been in the speeches of grieving women whose children were killed by illegal immigrants or, in the case of Pat Smith, murdered in the US embassy in Benghazi. “She deserves to be in stripes,” Smith said. “I personally blame Hillary Clinton for the death of my son.”

As Smith gave an understandably tearful speech, Trump was on the phone doing an interview with Fox News. He couldn’t even pay her the respect of listening to her testimony. 

Later, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and spurned vice-presidential nominee, staged a mock trial. “Tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold Hillary Rodham Clinton accountable for her performance and her character.” 

Christie laid out various indictments, and invited the audience to offer their verdict. At each call, they screamed, “Guilty.” By popular acclamation, Clinton was indicted for ruining Libya and creating nests for Daesh.

Clinton is high-handed and paranoid, and with the email scandal – the FBI found that she was negligently running a private server for her emails as secretary of state – has been found to be serially deceitful. But Christie’s performance had theatrical echoes of the Salem witch trials. 

On day three, former presidential hopeful, Ben Carson, tried to connect Clinton to Lucifer. “One of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors, was Saul Alinsky…” he said, referring to the activist and community organiser. “Now, interestingly enough, let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky. He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. On the dedication page, it acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. Now think about that … This is a nation where every coin in our pocket and every bill in our wallet says ‘In God We Trust’. So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.”

When I ask Richard Fontaine about the possibility of a Trump presidency, he seems sceptical but circumspect. Fontaine’s expertise is foreign policy. “There is so much that is uncertain [about Trump’s foreign policy]. What would it look like? He has said much that is incendiary, but then it changes: keep all Muslims out, then he says all Muslims but athletes and businessmen, then it’s Muslims from certain countries – how much of what he’s said goes away [should he occupy the White House]? Perhaps he will have a secretary of state and secretary of defence that can make sober decisions. Trump would inherit a couple of million public servants. And while there is a lot of discretion in the executive branch on foreign policy – he could act unilaterally on some things – he could be guided by those around him. 

“When [Jimmy] Carter was elected he was committed to removing all US troops from South Korea, but the military opposed it. Today, the troops are still there. As president, Carter could have ordered it, but he didn’t. But now, [Trump’s] foreign policy lacks coherence … There are some areas of consistency, like trade agreements, but those fly in the face of decades of established policy.”

Fontaine is not terribly confident of the various polls and predictions suggesting a Clinton victory. Not as a man who – like so many others – did not predict Trump’s success in securing the Republican nomination. “Anyone who tells you they know what will happen in November doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he says. “I know sites like FiveThirtyEight have a Trump presidency at something like a 30 per cent chance, but who knows? Swing states offer uncertainty, and who knows if there won’t be an event between now and then – an economic crisis or, God forbid, a terrorism act.” 

There is a folktale told about Winston Churchill. Looking over a speech before its delivery, he scrawled in its column: “Argument weak here – shout.” Trump has fulfilled this, and found success. And his improvisation, impoverished attention span and indifference to professional advice haven’t much damaged him so far. He has shouted back at Americans their bleakest anxieties.

But this week, those anxieties were expressed from the floor of one of the most bizarre and ill-conceived political conventions in living memory. Republican insiders are variously appalled and bemused by Trump’s approach, while others, including our senior diplomats, watch carefully. Even if Trump loses in November, many wonder how the Republican party will recover in his wake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Unbowed by Convention". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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