It was supposed to be a night to “make America safe again,” but as usual the candidate’s need for attention stepped on the GOP message.
CLEVELAND—When Pat Smith offered emotional testimony about how the government failed to protect her son during the Benghazi attacks, Donald Trump was calling into Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show to preview his speech at the convention. As Smith powerfully recounted Hillary Clinton’s unresponsiveness to her family’s plight, Trump attacked John Kasich, Ohio’s GOP governor hosting the convention in absentia.
This was “make America safe again” night at the Republican National Convention. But just as Trump has refused to cede control of his scattershot presidential campaign, his constant need for attention overshadowed some of the most compelling programming at his own convention. While the presidential nominee traditionally appears on the final night, Trump briefly emerged tonight to roaring applause to introduce his wife, Melania.
The convention’s schedule focused on Benghazi, illegal immigration, national security, and indictments of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “Are you safer than you were eight years ago? Is our military stronger? Is America still respected?” House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul said. In a well-received speech, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke intoned: “We simply cannot be great if we do not feel safe in our homes, on our streets, and in our communities.”
Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City on 9/11, was the star of the first night’s proceedings. He landed several scathing jabs at President Obama, compared his unifying rhetoric as a Senate candidate with the polarized reality of today. “What happened to ‘There’s no black America, there’s no white America, there’s America’?” Giuliani asked, mockingly. He was one of the few speakers to unequivocally defend Trump. “I am sick and tired of the defamation of Trump by the media and the Clinton campaign,” Giuliani exclaimed. He ridiculed Obama for refusing to call Islamic terrorism by its name.
But the sober indictments of Obama and Hillary Clinton were sprinkled with celebrity testimonials to Trump by ‘80s sitcom icon Scott Baio, soap opera regular Antonio Sabato Jr., and Duck Dynasty scion Willie Robertson.
Giuliani, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn, and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas gave the most substantive speeches on national security, even though their hawkish views were at odds with the candidate who claims prescience for opposing the Iraq war. And all were overshadowed by Melania Trump’s closing remarks about—who else—Donald Trump.
The biggest challenge Republicans faced entering the convention was convincing a skeptical public that Trump can be presidential. In most polls, voters believe Trump is better equipped than Clinton to handle the economy and fight terrorism—the two most pressing issues facing the country. But overwhelming those small advantages is the fact that large majorities doubt he is prepared to be commander in chief.
The night’s proceedings made the case against Clinton, but did little to bolster Trump’s credentials.
Melania helped him the most in this regard, speaking to his love for America, loyalty to family and friends, and tenacity in business: “He will do it better than anyone else can, and it won’t even be close.” But the generic endorsement from his obviously biased wife won’t do much to alleviate the real concern voters have over his readiness for the presidency. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s family and friends offered numerous examples to bolster their case for his character. Melania’s argument amounted to: Trust me.
Even though Trump’s allies successfully squelched internal opposition at the convention, he still faced widespread skepticism from anti-Trump forces throughout the night. Most of the Utah delegation sat silently as speakers won enthusiastic applause throughout the arena. “The only way he’ll win over any Utah Republicans is by proving he’s not an authoritarian autocrat,” said Utah Republican delegate Casey Voeks, a small business owner. “Show me you’re not an autocrat!”
That’s the case that Clinton and her allies will be making in Philadelphia next week—that Trump is too unstable to trust with the country’s nuclear codes and too bullying to unite a divided country. He has three more days to convince the opposition that their attacks won’t stick.