Michael Wolff on GOP Convention: For Trump, Massive TV Ratings Matter Most

Donald Trump - Getty - H 2016
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Donald Trump - Getty - H 2016

The stakes are obvious: Does the convention further harden the Republican heart to him, quite possibly guaranteeing Hillary Clinton a landslide of 300-plus electoral votes?

Editor's Note: Hollywood Reporter's extensive converge of the Republican and Democratic national conventions begins today with columnist Michael Wolff and two reporters on the ground in Cleveland and critic Frank Scheck reviewing the major speeches. Check THR.com for constant updates....

And dawn broke in Cleveland on one of the most bizarre events in the history of American politics. The Republican party, the host in anyone’s recollection of only the dullest, most controlled and most ritualized conventions, is, in substantial ways, boycotting itself.

Party donors, stalwarts and stars are staying away and publicly holding their noses about, if not repudiating, the presumptive nominee. The media tends to report political conflict as politics as usual (actually most politics is listless and procedural), so it can be hard to fully appreciate the extraordinary circumstance of the loathing, disbelief and outright Republican rebellion that Donald Trump faces — this from many people whose careers, temperament and political philosophy are based solely on not rocking the boat — and the historic rupture between party and candidate that this convention may memorialize.

And that frames the most fundamental question of the next four days: Does Trump need these people — the Republican congressional establishment, the evangelical mainstream, the conservative pundits, the senior bench of Republican operatives, the Bush wing, the Reaganite stalwarts, the Fortune 500 CEO clique, the small-government faction, the free traders and anybody else with a decent party pedigree — to have any hope of getting elected? Need at least their acquiescence if not enthusiasm?

Or, as he clearly is inclined to prefer, does he gain by jilting them? By committing daily offenses against them? Does calling their bluff give him his fundamental credibility and appeal? After all, it’s the Trump coalition of rust-belt working men (or unemployed men) who are not going to take it anymore, of immigrant-and-muslimophobes, of terror paranoids and of, in general, the great rump of American outliers, that has gotten him this far.

The convention begins with an awkward an uncharacteristic signal that Trump will try to go with the former strategy. The selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence for the ticket —- already it appears to be stirring disquiet in Trump’s rebellious soul — is a strategic bid, influenced by his disciplined family and by the few political professionals around him, to accept political reality: you can’t be a Republican candidate for President without making an accommodation with the Republican establishment (in this case, the hard-right, socially retrograde part of the Republican establishment — but part of the establishment nevertheless).

At the same time, the convention also begins with a nearly all-day, “America First" rally in Cleveland at Settler’s Landing Park, with a line-up of Republican rebel speakers, including conspiracist Alex Jones, dirty trickster and Trump-whisperer Roger Stone, wing-nut radio host Wayne Dupree and other Trump rally firebrands and provocateurs. “We need every Trump supporting patriot to converge on Cleveland in YUGE numbers to show our unity and support for Donald J. Trump!” declared one promotion for the event, with “patriot” being a call to the most extreme of Trump supporters. Reporters from Vice, the outlet specializing in war zone coverage, are saying they'll attend the rally with gas masks and body armor.

So one way to read the convention is as an effort spearheaded by Trump's children to impose order, professionalism, respectability and at least a touch of gravitas on their father. The other way is to see the Trump core, with its deep anti-party, near-anarchic passions encouraging the kind of adoration and mayhem that makes Trump head fabulously off script. The stakes are obvious: Does the convention further harden the Republican heart to him, quite possibly guaranteeing Hillary Clinton a landslide of 300-plus electoral votes? Or is some ever-more outlandish Trumpian thing unleashed in the nation that so destabilizes political assumptions and math that the outcome remains, as it has all year, incalculable? Or, in perhaps the most unlikely result, do enough Republicans come home to make this a relatively by-the-book horse race, down to the usual handful of swing states?

The issues are not just between the party base and the Trump base, but the need to satisfy his own deeper urge. Success for him will be to achieve higher television ratings than any convention before and, certainly, better ratings than the Democratic convention following in a week. In his heart, it is a one-number play for him. And that number, well beyond how he handles interest groups and party factions and targeted policies, is how he sees his political fortune being shaped.

It is the showman, not the ideologue (whatever that fluid ideology might be) nor the tactician that is most dominant in his thinking, and that is most difficult to constrain—hence, his impulse or threat to go commando and not use a teleprompter for his acceptance speech. Indeed, his is a genuine, golden-gut, mass appeal showmanship, his biggest and, possibly, only advantage.

Conventions — when they work — cement a few points of bump by building a sense of enthusiasm and consensus, and a bullet point or two of memorable message. That’s the unlikely discipline his family is urging on him. But that is less than his ambition. Almost 36 million people watched the final night of the 2012 Democratic convention (30 million for the 2012 Republican convention; in 2008 both final night conventions reached an audience of about 38 million). Trump has talked — and only partially in Trumpian exaggeration — about doing double that for his convention. In this, he believes that the record-busting rating for the first Republican presidential debate — 25 million — was what vitally propelled his primary campaign, and that an awe-inspiring convention audience will do the same for the general election.

It isn’t, in the Trumpian view, politics that win — not consensus, not consistent message, not organization — it’s ratings. It is attention (good attention or bad attention, no matter) that make the man.