Cleveland didn’t sign up for this. Two years ago, when the city agreed to host the Republican Party for a week, everyone expected a conventional convention, with a conventional presidential candidate. Jeb Bush, maybe, or the return of Mitt Romney.
Now, the Republican National Convention has become something no one anticipated when Cleveland won the bid: the culmination of Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The Grand Old Party gathering at Quicken Loans Arena July 18-21 won’t just be the usual four-day TV commercial for Republican candidates and ideas.
It expects to be a reality-TV spectacle starring the most unusual Republican presidential candidate in history: Trump, a billionaire-mogul-turned-TV-celebrity-turned-authoritarian-nationalist who supports torture, winks at political violence, rejects Republicans’ longtime support of free trade and wants to bar the people of an entire religion from entering the country.
So a strange bipolar mood has settled over Cleveland and Ohio’s Republican establishment. On one hand, the city’s boosters keep chirping away about how great the RNC will be for Cleveland’s reputation, how we’ll surprise everyone with our friendliness, our beautification projects and our new prowess as a convention city.
The state Republican Party is still prepping for a prominent role in the GOP’s ultimate celebration, still busy organizing breakfasts and bashes to honor statewide officeholders, including Trump’s last vanquished primary-season rival, Gov. John Kasich.
Meanwhile, the stakes have gotten much higher — for the Republican Party and the city alike. City Hall and the Secret Service continue their security plans, bracing for street protests outside what’s likely to be the most divisive American political convention in modern times. And many of Ohio’s convention delegates are in mourning, aghast at how Trump is changing their party, girding themselves for the distasteful compromises looming in Cleveland.
For months, Ohio’s establishment Republicans, rallying around Kasich, told us Trump was unfit for the White House, an unacceptable nominee.
“Our candidates are not characters on some coarse reality show seeking ratings at the expense of truth and civility,” former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery said in a November release from the Kasich campaign. “As an American, Donald Trump embarrasses me; as an Ohioan, I do not believe he can — nor should — win an election in the must-win state of Ohio against Hillary Clinton.”
In February, state auditor Dave Yost posted on Facebook: “I cannot support a man who will change any belief and associate with any evil in order to gain power.”
In late April, former Ohio Gov. and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, who died June 12, said in our interview that Trump would be “a disaster for our party.” Voinovich continued: “If he were elected president, it would be a disaster for the country.”
Now, Ohio’s establishment Republicans are stuck hosting their rival’s gaudy victory parade.
“People are going through their stages of grief,” said Rob Frost, Cuyahoga County GOP chair and a Kasich delegate, in our mid-May interview. “None of those delegates got their first choice. [But] to a person, people are coming together behind our nominee and slate. We’re going to be unified in working to get Donald Trump elected president.”
Frost, as a party official, is expected to say that. Party unity is the goal of every political convention, the place for peacemaking among warring factions and the salving of primary-season wounds, just in time for the general election.
But this year is different. Across the country, from Arizona to New Hampshire, prominent Republicans are mumbling excuses for skipping Cleveland. That’s because Trump beat 16 conventional Republican candidates with a mix of personal insults, hostility to Muslims and Mexicans, and challenges to decades-old GOP doctrine on international alliances, budget cuts and free trade.
His nomination is a direct challenge to the party establishment, an attempt to remake it along more nationalist, populist and working-class lines.
Ohio’s 66 delegates represent the opposite. They’re an especially pure sample of the party’s establishment wing, chosen by Kasich as the winner of Ohio’s primary. Many of them — including state Sen. Shannon Jones, who dropped out in early June — are loath to join Trump’s scorched-earth campaign.
“I am very troubled by this potential nominee,” Montgomery reiterated in our mid-May interview. “I’m very troubled by the way in which he conducts himself, what knowledge he has or hasn’t in government and foreign relations and how one solves problems.”
Montgomery said she won’t vote for the Democrats (or the Libertarians), but she was still weighing whether to support Trump in the general election, write in another candidate or leave the presidential race blank.
Montgomery is also worried for Cleveland, and her concerns go far beyond boosters’ two-year campaign to improve the city’s reputation and maximize its tourist appeal. “Obviously, I have great concern for the city of Cleveland, which wants to run a quality convention,” she says, “that we allow appropriate dissent without it devolving into chaos and riot or violence.”
Recent history says Republicans will make a reluctant peace with Trump in Cleveland over their common desire to beat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
But Trump’s candidacy is already a black-swan event, the surprise that scrambles the old rules. The Republican convention in Cleveland could be different — a rare modern convention where the party’s tensions won’t be papered over but will play out inside the arena and in the streets with the whole world watching.
Now that Donald Trump has overthrown the Republican establishment, he wants to fire its TV producers.
“It’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention,” Trump told The Washington Post in April. “Otherwise, people are going to fall asleep.” Trump, who called the GOP’s 2012 convention in Tampa “the single most boring convention I’ve ever seen,” wants to make the Cleveland convention an entertainment spectacle.
“He wants to control it 100 percent,” an anonymous Trump aide told Politico in May. “This is a massive television production, and he is a television star.” Trump wants to add a second stage at Quicken Loans Arena for entertainment, the story reported, and he’s even toyed with speaking on all four nights and announcing his running mate and would-be Cabinet members live onstage.
Trump’s campaign was even reportedly considering holding his acceptance speech in FirstEnergy Stadium, like Barack Obama did in Denver’s football stadium eight years ago.
What message will Trump communicate from Cleveland? Will America get a full dose of Trump’s primary-season promises and anti-establishment bravado, or will he attempt the traditional presidential nominee’s pivot to the center to appeal to general-election voters?
Ralph King, co-chair of the Trump campaign in Cuyahoga County, expects a more careful Trump. “Have you seen after some of his victories? He speaks and it’s, What the hell Donald Trump is this?” says King. “He’s calm, measured, humble. I think that’s what you’re going to see.”
It won’t be “the bombastic stuff, pompous stuff” of the primaries, says King. “I think you’ll see the Donald Trump that made his business successful. I think he’s still going to be Donald Trump — that’s the draw of him — but I think you’re going to see, ‘Now, guys, it’s time to get to work, time to roll our sleeves up, take back the White House and put our country back on track.’ ”
King, a highway construction worker from Bedford, is co-organizing the America First Unity Rally, planned for the convention’s opening Monday. Groups expected to attend include Truckers for Trump and Bikers for Trump. It’ll also include the Rev. Darrell Scott, the Cleveland Heights minister who’s one of Trump’s most prominent African-American supporters, and Diamond and Silk, video-blogging sisters from North Carolina who diss Trump’s opponents in snappy YouTube clips.
King expects Trump’s message to resonate in Cleveland as well as inside the convention. “He’s going to be point-blank,” King predicts. “[Cleveland] being a beer-and-a-shot-type town, that’s going to resonate with Cleveland voters.”
Trump’s rise means the GOP has become the party of the white working class, and the convention may be their coming-out bash.
Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the book Primary Politics, says the culture clash at the Cleveland convention may be the biggest since the Democrats’ 1972 convention in Miami Beach, Florida, where nominee George McGovern’s delegates, many of them antiwar, women’s rights and civil-rights activists, took over the party from union leaders and big-city bosses.
“The ’72 convention was a bunch of hippies, basically,” Kamarck says. “The Trump delegates are probably going to be culturally different too. They may be working class and may not be the same country club set and religious right-to-life types that have dominated Republican conventions.”
Ginny Greiman, a Massachusetts delegate for Kasich who’s attended every Republican convention since 1988, agrees. Fundraisers and campaign events are different now. “They were always at a country club, and you had to pay $400 to go,” she recalls. “Now there are people there that are poor, that have served their country and a lot of people in business for themselves: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.”
The Republican Party’s embrace of the working class has been a long time coming, dating back to the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s. But Cleveland’s convention could be the moment when Trump truly remakes the GOP as a party of working-class nationalists.
“It’s not progressive, not conservative, it’s about America,” says King. “It’s not about isolationism, it’s about America first.”
Polls show a majority of Republican voters, like Trump, now oppose free trade and cuts to Social Security — challenges to decades of Republican orthodoxy. A hard line on illegal immigration has become an absolute must for many Republican voters, because the issue feeds into their broader feeling that Republican politicians don’t deliver on promises.
“I see the mood of Republican voters as what Charlie Brown would eventually get to when Lucy keeps pulling the football away from them,” says Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.
So Trump’s acceptance speech will likely be aimed at building on his blue-collar appeal, says David B. Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor. “He’ll talk about a lot of issues working-class people like to hear about: a lot about jobs and the economy,” he says. “He’ll also be taking a very hard line on foreign policy, national security issues and terrorism.”
But even if Trump tones down his rhetoric to appeal to the center, the country knows he won conservative votes with issues that weren’t considered part of civil debate until he came along. Polls show most Republican primary voters agree with his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. So the convention may also be about a major party trying to make a candidate with an explosive temperament and a hostility toward Muslims and Mexicans more palatable to the American public.
Conventions used to be climactic frenzies of debate, shouting, smoke-filled rooms and brokered deals. Dissent was dramatic: George Romney fought Barry Goldwater over civil rights at the Republicans’ 1964 convention in San Francisco. Eugene McCarthy spoke outside the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago after his antiwar forces’ defeat, calling them a “government in exile.” Then the 1980s introduced the modern era of the stage-managed convention as a show of unity, cleansed of argument and debate.
It looks like the modern way to dissent is to stay home. Mitt Romney, John McCain and the Bush family — four of the GOP’s five living presidential nominees, all but Bob Dole — are skipping Cleveland. Same for most #NeverTrump Republicans — the politicians, consultants and donors who’ve announced they won’t vote for the presumptive nominee.
Staying out of town is more awkward for Ohio’s sitting Republican governor and U.S. senator, so they’re testing host-state versions of making themselves scarce. Both Kasich and Rob Portman say they’ll be in Cleveland, but Portman will busy himself with a mini-convention that includes building a Habitat for Humanity home. Kasich, according to a spokesman’s early June statement to The New York Times, had no idea “what role if any he will have” at the convention.
Republicans who show up in Cleveland with grave misgivings about Trump face complicated decisions. Will they resist him? Bargain with him, using their support as leverage? Or just bite their tongues, offer Trump carefully calibrated and mild support, talk up in-state candidates and go home?
“My guess is, delegates who don’t like Trump will give lip service to him,” says Kamarck. “It’s less what they say, more what they do [after the convention].”
This dance will be a special challenge for Portman, who’s supporting Trump while running for re-election against former Gov. Ted Strickland.
“Portman is probably the least happy person, save the governor, that Trump got the nomination,” says Cohen, the University of Akron professor. “He knows his political survival, his ability to hold on to that Senate seat, is directly tied to Donald Trump’s chances of winning Ohio. He’s got to try to not alienate the Trump supporters, while continuing with his base of support, some of whom might not like Trump.”
Centrists or social conservatives upset at Trump’s takeover could
resist him at the convention in several ways. The nuclear anti-Trump option, to try to unseat the presumptive nominee by challenging his delegate lead in the rules and credentials committees, was a staple of contested conventions up until the early 1980s. But since all of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals have dropped out, the rules and credentials committees will probably put up at most scattered resistance.
Trump is likely to face conflicts in the convention’s platform debates. Longtime Republicans who don’t think he’s one of them may try to pressure him to commit to conservative positions such as an abortion ban. Trump, meanwhile, could challenge the party’s stands on free trade and Social Security reform.
“There’s always interest in the platform,” says Curly Haugland, a Republican national committeeman from North Dakota and frequent dissenter in party rules battles. “You can count on that.” Haugland predicts party activists will watch the immigration and foreign policy planks carefully.
Kasich or Cruz could also stir up the convention by declining to make peace with Trump. Before most conventions, vanquished presidential candidates usually release their delegates to vote for the presumptive nominee in exchange for concessions such as a prominent speaking slot. But that show of party unity doesn’t always happen. In 2012 in Tampa, Ron Paul refused to release his delegates and staged a small revolt against Mitt Romney.
This year, Trump’s insults of his opponents and belligerence toward the Republican establishment may make peace elusive. To reconcile with Trump, Cruz would have to get over multiple injuries, including Trump’s insinuation (based on no evidence) that Cruz’s father was friends with Lee Harvey Oswald a few months before Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy.
Kasich could also decline to make a deal. In late May, the governor told reporters he may never endorse Trump because of his “scapegoating” and willingness to “run people into the ditch.”
Pat McDonald, a Kasich delegate and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections director, says he hopes Trump forges party unity with an unprecedented move: announcing he’ll give his main rivals Cabinet positions if elected.
“It shows you’re reaching out and can work with all factions of the Republican Party, not just Trump loyalists,” McDonald says. “His tone has been pretty negative, playing off the fears of Americans. So I think it is important that he shows the other side of Donald Trump: that you can compromise, that you can work with people, that you are a decent human being.”
Matt Cox, a Republican lobbyist in Cleveland and Columbus and a partner in the consulting firm GOP Convention Strategies, thinks even Ohio delegates appalled by Trump will limit their disagreements. “I think you have to separate the nominee and the party,” Cox says. “Most delegates are party people first. They will not do something to hurt the party.”
On the convention’s last day, Cleveland will likely host a spectacle that will go down in American history: a Republican candidate for president taking over a semi-united party with promises to deport 11 million people, spurn war refugees and ban members of an entire religion from the country — as tens of thousands cheer. Across downtown, thousands more will protest his stances as un-American.
No political convention has actually wounded its host city’s reputation since the violent Chicago riots in 1968. But if anyone can do it, Trump can.
Cleveland now knows the deal has been altered, that it unknowingly signed up to provide the stage for Trump’s nationalist takeover of the Republican Party. So the city boosters’ sunny view of the convention, as a deadline for civic beautification and a dazzling showcase of our hospitality, now seems both naive and small.
What’s at stake is much bigger than the city’s eternal quest to seek validation from the rest of the country. Cleveland’s job is to host a pivotal moment for our democracy in a way the whole country can respect.