The last Republican National Convention was barely a day old and already Donald Trump’s campaign was knee-deep in controversy.
On the opening night, while extolling her husband as determined, tough and kind, Melania Trump also had spoken phrases exceedingly similar to parts of Michelle Obama’s remarks at the Democrats’ convention in 2008. And now Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee’s top spokesman, delivered on cable news a straight-faced defense—by calling upon a cartoon unicorn.
“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,’” Spicer told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I just quoted Twilight Sparkle from ‘My Little Pony.’ She said something similar, too, so did Mrs. Obama plagiarize her?”
I recently asked Spicer to walk me through his thinking that day. “I always love to use props to illustrate something,” he said, explaining that his staff had compiled similar-sounding snippets of comments from politicians and rock stars. “We were on set at the CNN Grill, and I thought to myself: The one thing that’s going to resonate to show the ridiculousness is ‘My Little Pony.’”
The episode registered mostly as an odd blip relative to some of the week’s other hallmarks—second-rate celebrities, one of the party’s most prominent orators getting booed off the stage, delegates chanting over and over for the imprisonment of a political opponent—but the “Pony” imbroglio, in its own head-scratching fashion, did portend bigger things to come. Spicer’s fact-flouting pushback ultimately would help make him Trump’s White House press secretary. “The beginning,” former GOP Senate aide Amanda Carpenter called it.
For the better part of a week in the summer of 2016, Donald Trump’s whirlwind wrecking ball of a campaign put on a show that had little precedent in the annals of American politics. Searching for parallels, historians went back to 1972 or 1968—or 1868. But the gathering in Cleveland at which Trump was formally nominated, based on interviews with insiders, analysts and people who helped put it together, proved to be far more than some short-lived sideshow. It predicted … everything. Those four days foretold these past four years—a dark, divisive tone, a focus on threats inside and out, the primacy of a mixture of power and fear, intraparty battles that presaged an obsession with loyalty, and a kind of nonstop, haphazard, almost out-of-control air, all shot through with the unprecedented omnipresence of Trump.
“I will never forget how Sean Spicer tried to cover for Melania,” Carpenter, who worked for Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz and is the author of a book about Trump’s gaslighting and lies, told me this month. “But look what happened, what Sean Spicer did his first day as press secretary, right? Lie about the size of the crowd” at Trump’s inauguration.
The convention as a whole, said Dane Waters, a veteran GOP consultant who served as a ringleader of recalcitrant delegates who made a last-gasp bid to halt Trump’s nomination, looks in retrospect like a “trailer” of sorts for his presidency.
“We’d never seen a convention as bizarre as 2016, and yet one that was as revealing,” said longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
“What we saw there,” added Peter Wehner, who worked in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush, “was a preview of what would come.”
“The anger, the divisiveness, the racist appeals,” Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who watched from his house some seven miles from the arena, told me this week. “There’s not much that’s happened since then that you couldn’t predict from the convention.”
Trump pledged an uptick in “showbiz,” and the on-brand stage set featured mammoth LED screens bracketed by gold-shaded panels. But he played a surprisingly limited role in the convention’s aesthetics, according to Phil Alongi, its executive producer. Trump, after all, had been the presumptive nominee for just 2½ months, and his campaign, especially as scattershot as it was, in a sense had to squeeze into an all-but-waiting template that had been imagined and built by the party, convention workers and Alongi and his staff.
The convention’s overriding message, however, was Trump through and through. Even the material he didn’t script somehow fueled the emergent narrative of the party he was seizing. The blunt force and defining ideas that have animated the ascent of the most norm-shattering political figure in American history were on display in a new way then and have endured ever since in the face of the personnel merry-go-round and the drama and chaos of this administration.
Of course, due to the unremitting scourge of the coronavirus, next week’s Republican convention, like the Democrats’ that just wrapped up, will look like no previous conventions. No bustling hall, no single manufactured stage—and Trump will speak not in Charlotte or Jacksonville but from the White House. And while the schedule still hasn’t been released, the content is sure to feel overwhelmingly and fundamentally familiar—and despite the many differences and diminishments, a lot like a cranked-up, amped-up version of the spectacle to which Americans have grown accustomed dating back to Cleveland.
“An intensification and continuation,” Jennifer Mercieca, the author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, said when I asked what she was expecting next week, “of what he did in 2016.”
A televangelist revved up the first session of the first day of Trump’s convention by talking about enemies.
“Republicans,” pastor (and subsequent failed congressional candidate) Mark Burns from South Carolina said in a cross between a growl and a yell, “we got to be united, because our enemy is not other Republicans but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party!” His benediction was blasted by liberal and conservative Christians alike as “blasphemous” and “idolatrous.” Inside the arena, however, it elicited a round of rousing cheers. “Let’s pray,” Burns said. “Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord, we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump.”
Monday’s theme, “Make America Safe Again,” really was the emotional crux of the entire affair, billboarding a roster of relatives of people who had met violent ends, from Arizona and California to Libya and Afghanistan. This was not the normal bland and generally sunny fare of conventions of yore—presenting America less as a shining city on a hill than as a bloody victim. There were a handful of low-wattage celebrities: soap opera star and Calvin Klein model Antonio Sabato, Willie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” and Scott Baio from bygone sitcoms. The speakers on the schedule who really made the pitch included a pair of Benghazi veterans, the mother of a Benghazi victim, the mother of a Navy SEAL who was killed, the brother and sister of a Border Patrol agent who was killed, and three parents of sons who were killed by undocumented immigrants.
“I blame Hillary Clinton!” said Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, one of the four Americans who died in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 when Clinton was the secretary of State. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son!”
In the evening session, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who would come to play an unexpectedly prominent and recurring role in Trump’s scandal-riddled first term, painted the nation as a hellscape beset by menaces beyond its borders as well as within.
“The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” he began. “They fear for their children. They fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers, who are being targeted.” He called the Black Lives Matter movement “inherently racist.” And he zeroed in on attacks by terrorists determined to “come here and kill us.”
“Islamic extremist terrorism!” a fist-clenching, finger-jabbing Giuliani bellowed into the microphone. “You know who you are! And we’re coming to get you!”
Giuliani wasn’t the only speaker that night who would pop up again as a key character in the Trump presidency. A half-hour later, Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general whose tenure as Trump’s first national security adviser lasted 22 days, rasped through 26 minutes in which he said that Trump “knows that the primary role of the president is to keep us safe,” and that the administration of President Barack Obama “brought continued mayhem, murder and destruction into our neighborhoods,” and that Clinton was “spineless” and “reckless” and “weak.”
Just then a chant rose from the crowd. As hard as it is to believe now, it was an utterly new refrain. At first, Flynn appeared confused by what people were saying. Then his scowl turned to a smile. “Lock her up,” he said. “That’s right. Lock her up!” The cry got louder, more organized, and Flynn clapped, short and sharp, next to the mic. He encouraged it. “Damn right!” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that!”
It would become an unofficial anthem of sorts that week, and a staple of the fall, and of the next year, and the year after that and beyond. In Cleveland, up in the box of Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Republican consultant Bob Clegg watched the chant ripple through the arena. “And I remember pulling my phone out, taking a video and sending it to my wife,” he told me. “Because I had never seen anything like that before at a convention.”
Sandwiched between Giuliani and Flynn that Monday night was Melania Trump. She, too, had said her husband knew how to keep the country “safe and secure,” but by breakfast on Tuesday there was no one talking about that anymore.
Some passages from her speech tracked practically word for word with Michelle Obama’s from eight years before. “Values: that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say,” Michelle Obama had said. “… values: that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say,” Melania Trump had said. “Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them,” Michelle Obama had said. “Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them,” Melania Trump had said.
The controversy was catnip for the political press; of all the people for Melania Trump to have plagiarized, her speechwriter picked the woman whose husband Trump had called illegitimate in order to spark his political climb. But the hubbub was an even more revealing window into Trump’s unorthodox manner of crisis management. In a precursor to his propensity to not just say, “Sorry,” clean up the mistake and move on—the hurricane Sharpie, the water and the ramp, all the angry tweets about unflattering comments or books—the candidate’s defenders dug in. For a day and a half they denied the obvious error before finally admitting it with explanations that ranged from risible to absurd to intellectually insulting.
Paul Manafort, his campaign manager at the time, was firm with his falsity. “To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy,” he said on CNN.
“Some of these things are pretty common types of themes,” Republican National Committee chair and future Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus said during a Bloomberg News breakfast.
“Phrases that many people have used, whether you’re going to a motivational speech, whether you’re reading a book by a successful entrepreneur,” campaign flack Katrina Pierson said on Sky News.
Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, offered on NBC an excuse that wouldn’t pass muster in middle school: “93 percent of the speech” was “completely different.”
Ben Carson argued that the damning resemblances were … a good thing. “If Melania’s speech is similar to Michelle Obama’s speech, that should make us all very happy,” he said, “because we should be saying, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we share the same values.”
And then there was Spicer. “I mean, if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through a Google and say, ‘Hey, who else said them?’—I can come up with a list in five minutes. And that’s what this is,” he said on CNN.
“The similarities,” said Blitzer, “were pretty stark.”
Spicer leaned on Twilight Sparkle.
“I remember it so clearly,” said Carpenter, the former Cruz staffer who wrote the book about gaslighting. “That one’s kind of burned into my brain.”
“Any client, quote unquote, that I have, or cause that I support, or person that I’m going to bat for, I’m going to go a hundred percent for ’em,” Spicer told me. He would stay six months in his position as press secretary, come to regret his comments in the wake of the inauguration and end up on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“My job at that point,” he said, “was to defend our nominee and his family.”
Wednesday underscored the party’s tenuous unity—and offered perhaps the first concentrated indication of the expectation of loyalty not to the party, or its policies, or an organizing worldview, but to Trump himself. It made its prime-time debut in the person of Ted Cruz. The senator from Texas and Trump’s most successful adversary through the primaries walked onto the stage to cheers. “I want to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination,” Cruz said at the start. It looked like the party was about to come together. But the rest of the speech was a but that revealed the depth of the unrepaired breach between the two former opponents.
This fight, recall, had been roiling for months of GOP caucuses and elections—Trump (wrongly) questioning Cruz’s eligibility to be president, (insanely) implicating Cruz’s father in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and all but calling his wife ugly, and Cruz castigating Trump as “utterly amoral,” a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” For Cruz, though, this was much more serious than a personal spat. It was about, as he would put it, “right and wrong.” It was about his legacy. “History isn’t kind,” he said, while working on his speech, according to reporting by my colleague Tim Alberta, “to the man who holds Mussolini’s jacket.”
And the group he was addressing had shown fissures and cracks in the previous two days.
Organized anti-Trump convention attendees on Monday had clamored for a way to let delegates log their preferences as individuals—as opposed to being tied to the aggregate results in their states. They had collected enough signatures to force a roll call to potentially alter these convention rules. But then the chair of vote procedures announced that enough people had removed their names from the list, squelching the effort—leading to charges of “strong-armed,” backroom tactics and causing an afternoon uproar on the floor. Ken Cuccinelli threw his convention credentials to the ground. “Disgusting,” said the former Cruz adviser and conservative leader. “It’s coercion masking as unity,” said Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Cruz’s closest pal in the Senate. “A glimpse,” said Gordon Humphrey, the former two-term senator from New Hampshire, “into the future of a Trump presidency.”
Even so, on Tuesday, the roll-call vote at the end of which Trump finally and formally became the Republican nominee had tallied 721 delegates for candidates who weren’t Trump—Cruz, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, along with Carson, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. Trump won with 1,725, but the count marked the most fractured set of GOP results since 1976.
The lingering dissent was naked. Kasich, a Republican stalwart, hadn’t even attended the convention being held in his home state; Manafort said he was being “petulant.” Also absent were the Bushes, who, with two former presidents, were in many ways the party’s first family; Newt Gingrich said they were behaving “childishly” by not supporting Trump. Paul Ryan, at the time the Republican speaker of the House, said Trump was “not my kind of conservative.”
Into this cauldron stepped Cruz—the favorite of many of those in the party who saw themselves as rock-ribbed constitutional conservatives. “We have no king or queen, we have no dictator,” he said at the outset of his speech. “We deserve leaders who stand for principle, who unite us all behind shared values, who 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,” he said, approaching the end. People began to grumble and stir, waiting for the main thing they wanted to hear: the endorsement of the nominee.
“If you love our country and love your children as much as I know that you do, stand and speak and vote your conscience,” Cruz said instead. The crowd, now boiling with impatience, realized Cruz wasn’t going to endorse Trump after all—and made it abundantly clear how they felt. Cruz left the stage to a cascade of boos, catcalls and chants—for Trump, who stepped forward from his box and out into full view, waving, flashing thumbs-up, ensuring attention snapped back to him.
The blowback directed at Cruz was immediate and across the board. Pro-Trump provocateur Roger Stone called Cruz “a treacherous prick.” Giuliani said Cruz was “disloyal.” But more telling? A major Cruz donor said he was “disappointed” in him. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson turned away Cruz from his suite. He wasn’t the only one who repudiated Cruz. “Traitor!” a woman yelled as he walked down a corridor that night. Cruz received an angry earful at a breakfast meeting of Texas delegates the next morning. “Get over it!” a man hollered.
“That was the last opportunity for people to stand up and say, ‘Let’s stop this charade,’” Waters, who headed the group called Delegates Unbound, told me last week. “You’re only a successful bully if people are willing to follow you,” he said of Trump. “And if people had not followed him in Cleveland, he would not be where he is today.”
“It was an important inflection point for Republicans, and it’s always a process. I mean, any primary is a family discussion, and some of them are louder than others, and the question is, ‘Does the family come together?’” said Brian Reisinger, a Wisconsin Republican strategist and former adviser to Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ron Johnson. “And this was an important moment where everybody kind of looked around at each other at the dinner table and said, you know, this is how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a family.”
“It signaled the unwinding of the party, because the party really doesn’t have an ideological core under Donald Trump,” said Mike Madrid, the longtime California GOP consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. “There was no more room for debate, not on ideas, which is the most fascinating thing of what happened here. There’ve always been pro-life, pro-choice fights. There’s always been fights about tax policy. Always. That’s just part of the boring stuff that party folks do, but they’re very important. None of that mattered anymore.”
“Fealty,” said Madrid, “became the only inviolate requirement.”
What had started at the convention with Melania Trump on Monday continued on Tuesday with Tiffany Trump, and Donald Trump Jr., and even the general manager of the Trump winery, who called Donald Trump “a man of vision.” On Wednesday’s lineup was Eric Trump. “It was turning,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato recalled, “into a Glamour magazine of the Trump family, night after night after night.” The convention had no designated keynote, a slot that frequently shines a spotlight on a rising party star, but 19 “headliners”—six of whom were Trumps. Thursday ushered onto the stage Ivanka Trump. She introduced her father.
It wasn’t technically an introduction—at least not to the convention audience. Trump had made himself a staple throughout the week’s proceedings. On Monday, he arrived to introduce his wife, his shape silhouetted against a bright white background, the suit, the hair, the gait, the scene soundtracked by “We Are the Champions” by Queen. On Tuesday, he beamed in from Trump Tower, calling his campaign “a movement.” And on Wednesday, he helicoptered into Cleveland, landing by Lake Erie to greet Mike Pence before that night’s remarks by his vice presidential nominee.
Even when he wasn’t there, he was never not there. He called, for instance, into Fox News on Monday during Patricia Smith’s speech, effectively stealing the spotlight from what she was saying about her slain son. “I’m probably the least racist person there is,” Trump professed to Bill O’Reilly. “Ted Cruz got booed off the stage,” he tweeted in the wake of that ruckus. “No big deal!” At a luncheon on Thursday for big-time GOP donors he dinged Cruz and also Kasich and all but taunted the party, suggesting he could have won as an independent. “I promise you,” he said, “the Republicans would have had zero chance, OK?”
That night, of course, he was officially center stage to accept their nomination. The set was apt. It looked like Trump. It was not a complicated image to convey, and Alongi, the executive producer, hardly even needed to be told—unsubtle, big, bright block letters flanked by gold. “There’s no reason not to do something that we know that he’s going to like, and that was how the gold came up,” Alongi told me. “It was like, we all know that gold is his color, so let’s just embrace it.”
And hammering home the thrust of what the parade of speakers so ceaselessly had established on Monday, and in the longest acceptance speech in almost half a century, Trump presaged his “American Carnage” inaugural address and a rhetorical through-line of his reign to this point by describing the United States as debilitated by “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” “chaos in our communities,” “poverty and violence at home,” “war and destruction abroad,” “third world” airports and “immigrants with criminal records … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
“Law and order,” he said four times.
“I am your voice,” he said.
“I alone can fix it,” he said.
“A tremendous speech. Very underrated,” former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg told me.
“Pure distilled demagoguery,” said Shrum, the longtime Democratic consultant and veteran of a fistful of presidential campaigns.
“Just a sustained, authoritarian fear appeal,” said Mercieca, author of Demagogue for President.
“There was a kind of bloodlust in the audience,” said Wehner, the aide to Reagan and both Bushes. But he credited Trump with this much: “One of the reasons why he was there to accept the nomination in Cleveland was because he understood the base of the party in a way that a lot of other people did not,” he explained. “He was right in the sense that he was tapping into feelings of fear, anger, resentment, grievances.”
“There is a persistent theme of a nation under siege, in his acceptance address, in his inaugural address, and you go to Mount Rushmore,” said presidential historian Russell Riley, referring to Trump’s address this past July 4 in South Dakota in which he decried “violent mayhem” and “angry mobs” whose “goal is the end of America.”
“It’s the same thing,” Riley told me. “He does not have a register beyond that.”
The convention back in 2016, it turns out, packed in all anybody needed to know about Trump and the kind of president he would be.
“Trump gave a simple message and expanded the Republican Party: law and order, economic populism and defeat the rigged system,” an Iowa Republican who was part of the anonymous “POLITICO Caucus” said as the crowd was still filing out of the arena and people were heading to the airport to catch flights home. He “struck on issues and policies that people wanted to hear about,” added a Republican from Colorado.
Another Republican also from Colorado, meanwhile, had a totally different take. “It’s not morning in America; it’s midnight in America, according to Trump,” this one said. “This was a long, depressing speech that did not focus on issues that most Americans are concerned about.” And a Republican from New Hampshire saw in Trump somebody who was “feckless” and “classless.”
And Democrats? Don’t even get them started. “I heard Trump describe a post-apocalyptic country that I don’t live in—full of fear, terror, and pending economic collapse,” said one from Colorado. “It seemed like a speech to white America, or those in white America, who fear the social, cultural and economic change in our country.”
The diametric responses brought to the fore one of the abiding realities of life under Trump: Different people—then and now—look at and listen to the same man and see and hear such different things. The polarity has only hardened with time. At no point in his presidency has Trump ever had the approval of more than half the country. It speaks to what is, for him, such a slim line between electoral success and failure. There’s just so little middle ground, at least no one standing in it. It’s of course an open question whether what worked four years ago will work this fall. Especially considering the circumstances couldn’t be more altered: He’s an incumbent, for one thing, and an incumbent with a record at the heart of which is his performance over the course of the past five months, defined by the worst public health crisis in more than 100 years and an ongoing financial trauma.
Stripped by the devastating consequences of the pandemic of big, crowded venues for his convention, first in North Carolina, then in Florida, visually he can’t replicate his speech in Cleveland. As the president, though, rather than a newly minted nominee, he has way more agency than he did the last time around. And on the heels of the Democrats’ almost wholly virtual convention, a convention unlike any in the entirety of political history, Trump, too, has an unusually open canvas, ready and waiting for his heavy, unmistakable thumbprints.
One thing’s for sure. In 2016, Trump was Trump. Next week, Trump will still be Trump.
His 2020 campaign is “Make America Great Again” again. And his 2020 convention stands to be “Make America Safe Again” … again. “Part of our message will focus on how the suburbs are becoming unsafe because inner cities are unsafe,” an outside Trump adviser told POLITICO the other day. “People who have been impacted by the lawlessness will speak.” Bloody Monday redux.
“He’s not going to become the great unifier,” Brown, the Democratic Ohio senator, told me. “He’s not going to start manning the barricades for racial justice. He thinks the only way he wins is to suppress the vote on the one side and to whip up his base on the other, and the best way he has seen to whip up his base is by making divisive appeals and racial appeals and racist attacks. I just don’t see him doing anything different.”
“You don’t know exactly what he’s going to do, but you know roughly the contours of what’s going to happen and what his instinctive response is going to be to various issues,” Wehner told me. “He’s easy to predict because it’s the same pattern.”
“People who thought he was going to change were living in a fantasy world,” Waters said.
“If he made a ‘Morning in America’ speech, M-O-R-N-I-N-G rather than M-O-U-R, I think people would fall off their chairs,” Riley said.
“I think it’s going to be a reaffirmation,” Clegg said.
“I think,” said Spicer, “it’s going to be very Trump.”
It will look so different but sound so much the same.
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