A convention is traditionally a showcase of what a candidate and a party want you to know about them. They are highly scripted, full of artifice and managed messages, staffed by armies of planners of everything from lighting to speech writing.
A Donald Trump convention is different. We knew it would be. It’s both good and bad for all the reasons Trump’s candidacy is. It is entertaining, with story lines of discord and mistakes. On the other hand, it did not do the things a convention should—unite a party while projecting rah-rah good feelings to America.
A Trump convention doesn’t tell us what he and the party want America to know about him in the traditional ways, but it does tell us something about him. I was most struck by how he’s not very good at the very things he’s supposed to be good at.
Stagecraft and Branding
Donald Trump is a showman. If there’s one thing we know about this modern-day Barnum, it’s that he’s capable of delivering in the big top. His moment was Thursday, but he had a stage to himself for his message for days in front of the entire nation. He and his team were in charge of all of it.
Even if he’s not in the room, one would think the campaign would be interested in holding the excitement there, but they made programming choices that prevented just that from happening. Scheduling decisions left supposed keynote speakers and rising stars like Sen. Joni Ernst with their audience headed to the doors. Fiery speakers like Laura Ingraham, who know how to work the crowd, were relegated to early hours, while less skilled speakers got slots closer to prime time. More than once, Trump stepped on other speakers at his own convention by calling into cable news shows to do interviews while they spoke.
The campaign often didn’t make the best of the 10 p.m. hour, plodding with poor pacing through the one hour all three of the broadcast networks dip into the convention and carry it to a giant audience. On the third night of the gathering, the giant screen behind the speakers shorted out during that very hour, leaving Eric Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz with error messages and black screens behind them.
On the night of the biggest speech of his life, I didn’t even get the one thing I like about a Trump candidacy. There was a subdued and traditional entrance utterly devoid of fog machines or WWE pageantry. Sigh.
Hiring the Best People
It would be impossible to count the number of times Trump has said he’ll hire the best people to cover his gaps in knowledge and experience. This week, a longtime staffer admitted plagiarizing Melania Trump’s speech from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech and went unpunished.
Over and over, things that were imminently knowable were unknown to the Trump campaign. Cruz told them he wasn’t going to endorse Trump. He gave them an accurate written version of his speech. They gave him a prime time speaking slot anyway. The next day, they added a complaint in their consternation—Cruz had run over his allotted time and pushed Pence further into the 10 p.m. hour than they wanted. Short of death and taxes, there is nothing surer than Ted Cruz running over his speech time.
The best people couldn’t figure any of this out. “(I have) no tolerance for government incompetence,” Trump said in his acceptance speech Thursday. But he had quite a bit of tolerance for incompetence this week.
Customarily, naming a VP and the subsequent convention aren’t just messaging boons, but great big money bombs. The fundraising cash should be flowing freely during these events to prep the party’s war chests for the fall.
Trump had fallen far behind Clinton by May, with not even $2 million cash on hand to Hillary’s $44 million. Things improved in June and the Trump campaign almost matched Clinton’s, bringing in about $20 million. However, as with many parts of a campaign, it is obvious Trump doesn’t have a normal infrastructure or plan, and the campaign misses opportunities as a result.
Watchdog groups filed Federal Election Commission complaints against the Trump campaign for soliciting foreign nationals via email in June. When Trump named his vice presidential pick, Gov. Mike Pence, one Politico reporter noticed more than a dozen things a campaign would normally do to capitalize on the announcement that went undone. There was no announcement on Trump’s web site, no change to Pence’s Twitter bio, no Google ads or prompt fundraising emails to supporters. Coordination on this front is not a small thing. American politics is a game of inches, and taking splashy, cashy advantage of one’s big moments is part of the game.
During the convention, the campaign has advertised online, giving small-money donors a spot on the convention Jumbotron for donations. It remains to be seen in the next FEC report how well the Trump campaign did with fundraising around the convention, but efforts feel scattershot and the VP roll-out indicates that’s probably because they are.
As with many things Trump, talk of his competence looks like a lot of bluster. Perhaps the truest sentence of the convention was uttered by Melania, who promised, “There will be good times and hard times and unexpected turns. It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama.” She was right.
This is his true core competency. He is the man of constant tension and constant attention. But at least we got a rambling, stream-of-consciousness, vaudevillian acceptance speech out of the deal, right?