This past week, at its convention in Cleveland, the Republican Party officially anointed Donald J. Trump as its candidate for President of the United States of America.
For much of the past year, as Trump went from strength to strength, the Republican establishment writhed in an attempt to wriggle out from his strengthening grasp. There was even talk of a contested convention. So understanding what actually happened in Cleveland is important not just to get an idea of how Trump might be as a candidate, or even President, but to understand the deep transformation within one of the two major political parties in the US.
There were, at the very least, three components to this convention: what did happen, what didn’t happen, and the coverage. But first, let’s get this out of the way. What does Trump think of India? So far, everything seems fine. In January, he told CNN, “India is doing great. Nobody talks about it.” And that’s been about it. Nothing much in the stump speeches, and nothing at the convention. So, now, back to the convention.
WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
What didn’t happen was a successful revolt against Trump. Procedural efforts on the first day were quickly squashed. Ted Cruz’s attempt to instil doubt in Trump was booed from the floor. The party grandees who stayed away didn’t pull attention from the event. The threatened waves of violent protestors didn’t materialise. It was a largely peaceful, professional event, coalescing the vast bulk of the rank and file squarely behind their candidate. The Republican Party establishment may not have wanted Trump, but now Trump has the Republican Party.
WHAT DID HAPPEN
Some of what did happen was completely predictable. For a candidate, even Trump, to survive Republican primaries in this post-Tea Party era, they are going to have to stick close to a set checklist. Pro-guns, pro-coal, pro-drilling, pro-conservative Supreme Court justices, pro-military, pro-police, pro-faith (ideally Christian), anti-immigration (primarily Mexican), anti-Obamacare, anti-tax, anti-terror.
Pretty much any candidate standing on that stage would have to profess to hold those beliefs. And, in his speech, Trump checked all those boxes. He also, as usual, doubled down on a few of them, including calling for a suspension of immigration from countries “compromised by terrorism” until “proven vetting” procedures are put in place.
Then Trump veered off into uncharted territory for a Republican Presidential candidate. And this is where it gets interesting. As opposed to the usually cautious Washington-speak coming out of both political parties, Trump openly called out China for currency manipulation, product dumping and intellectual property theft.
While Bill Clinton’s motto was “it’s the economy, stupid”, Trump was essentially saying that the “economy” can look like it’s booming because Wall Street is doing well, but, actually, for most people it’s not the economy, it’s “jobs, stupid”. Trump was not a “trickle down” man. Trump was pitching himself as a direct job creator—and he’ll take on China to bring jobs back the US. And, as a result, he said in the speech, he expects to pick up a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters.
Even more strikingly, speaking about June’s terrorist attack on a gay club in Florida that killed 49, Trump said: “As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ [lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers] citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology, believe me.”
For a Republican candidate to make a statement in support of LGBTQ citizens during the most important speech of the convention is unheard of. Many at the convention think homosexuality is a choice, and a sin. Trump didn’t do this to get votes. And it wasn’t a passing thought. Trump also had Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal, give a prime time speech just an hour or so earlier. Thiel had said: “I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican but, most of all, I am proud to be an American.” Thiel got a standing ovation. While hewing to well trodden pathways, Trump also used the convention to carve out new paths for the Republican Party.
Also, as he did throughout the campaign so far, along the way he turned what traditional Republican politics would consider weaknesses into strengths. One of Trump’s seeming vulnerable points with “traditional values” and Evangelical Republicans is the fact he’s been married three times. Trump turned that on its head by shifting the focus to his five children, with whom he clearly has a strong bond, and who seemed to get along well with each other. More than any convention in memory, the Trump family presented as team, with all adult children making speeches. You vote for Donald, but you also get Ivanka, Donald Jr, Eric, Tiffany and, when he’s old enough, Barron.
Ewach of the children appeals to a different group. But the star is Ivanka. Ivanka made one of the most notable speeches in Republican convention history. She started off by saying to the stadium full of party faithful that she wasn’t particularly attached to any political party and votes for what is best for her family. Could you imagine Chelsea Clinton saying something similar? She then said she would fight for affordable childcare, maternity benefits and equal pay for equal work. Definitely not the usual Republican Party script. She got cheers and a standing ovation. It was an incredible, “only Trump”, moment.
So, how was all this covered? The majority of the media can’t seem to break out of the “Trump is racist/bad” narrative. As a result, the coverage gets reduced to single tone events. For example, the main news story around the world from the first day was “Melania plagiarised her speech from Michelle Obama”. Apart from giving a very narrow view of a full day of activities, what it does is make those who are following events for themselves feel increasingly disconnected from the media, and even more protective of their position. For them, for example, watching Trump’s loyalty as he stands by his wife, and even the speechwriter, in the face of the media onslaught, makes him even more popular.
This is what happened in the UK with Brexit. The majority of the media was so enmeshed with its desired outcome (remain), it became disconnected from ground realities, and possibly even pushed people into the opposing camp. It was then taken by surprise by the outcome.
The Trump platform is complex, with many facets. He is exceptionally good at identifying the concerns of voters, and neither he nor the voter seems too concerned at this stage about providing specific solutions. But for most Trump supporters, it doesn’t seem to matter. For many, just hearing their key issues voiced (especially combined with a dislike of Hillary Clinton) may be enough to get them to the voting booth. They may not support LGBTQ rights, but Trump is the only one “talking tough” on terror. They may not care about maternity benefits, but Trump speaks their despair when they walk into Walmart and see everything imported from China.
Even before the convention Trump showed he could rewrite the rules for Republican candidates. He picked a fight with Fox News. He bypassed the major party donors. He disparaged party stalwarts. And he won. Two years ago, no one in the US political scene would have thought that possible. Who knows what will be possible for Trump now? And who knows what sort of party the Republicans will have once he is done?
Cleo Paskal is the North America Special Correspondent for The Sunday Guardian