Michael Wolff: Trump's Oddball Convention Further Divides (and Fails to Conquer)

Donald Trump Stage - H 2016
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The country may not be so much separated by politics, conservative or liberal, but by taste, logic, aspirations and sensibility (quite a difficult divide for political writers and cable news channels to express).

And so the balloons almost failed to drop on the weirdest political convention and most belligerent and longest nomination acceptance speech in modern memory. By any standard political judgment, the Republican National Convention has been a catastrophe, a joke, a meltdown, a departure not just from the best-practices political playbook but from political reality. It was also dark and venomous.

At an hour and a quarter, the Trump speech last night offered nothing optimistic or positive — just darkness at noon in America. He gave no quarter to his own likability (heretofore the sine qua non of electability). He wasn’t playing that role. He replaced the inherent blandness of American politics with a type of character acting — eyes, mouth, fingers, chin in constant dramatic movement. The big breaths, the pumped chest, the step back and strut forward. The threats, the chanting, the constant exclamation points. The absolute, sweeping, categorical assertions. “I am your voice,” he proclaimed and, indeed, he certainly seemed to change the terms of how we heretofore thought it was proper to speak.

The summer political conventions are the media and marketing events that, since the age of modern television, have come very close to deciding the presidential race. Each convention is a kind of gladiatorial PR battle. The candidate who gets the biggest bump from his (and now her) convention can be expected to win. By anecdotal, social media and gut-instinct evidence, almost none of the 20,000 media people here in Cleveland believe, for seemingly obvious reasons, that this convention, this cock-up and farce, with its disturbing current of malevolence, will be anything but the final nail in the coffin of the Trump campaign.

The aspiring First Lady cribs the sitting First Lady’s speech, and then everybody denies it until they find someone to blame it on. And then they admit it and laugh it off — and anyway, pay no attention, says Newt Gingrich, because the possible First Lady is a looker. Really? Really?

The one consistent 4-day refrain is to put Hillary Clinton in jail — “lock her up” — or, even, shoot her. Virtually the entire establishment of the Republican party decides to be somewhere else. Ted Cruz comes to the convention and publicly snubs the candidate. The Republican governor of the state where the convention is being hosted is everywhere but at the convention itself — taunting the candidate from offsite.

Most of the speakers are unknowns or oddities or, seemingly, recruited off the street minutes before, or Trump family and business retainers —or Rudy Giuliani having a frothing-at-the-mouth episode. Then, in the middle of the convention, the candidate gives an interview saying he doesn’t believe in NATO. Oh, and the collaborator on the book that made Trump famous, The Art of the Deal, says he’s a sociopath — with Trump promptly siccing lawyers on him. And, to boot, the hall is at best half full.

And yet, none of this is much more extreme than the inexplicable behavior that has occurred all year. And here he is. It’s his convention. And so there’s the question: In some alternative reality, one which has whacked the media alongside the head again and again this year, will Donald Trump emerge out of this jaw-dropping event as an ever-more-compelling, protean, even romantic figure of clarity and strength?

In my hotel, a low-end Hyatt set in a mall development in the suburbs of Cleveland lodging various Republican delegates, there has been every morning — in the make-your-own-breakfast lobby kitchen feature — some kind of ecstatic, near-tremulous response to the night before. They can’t get enough of the Trump thing.

He’s a rococo Howard Roark. Or an aging rock star for the aging rock star demographic. Or — and last night, the liberal media took off its historical analogy gloves — he’s Hitler or Mussolini. Which is another way of saying his appeal is utterly incomprehensible.

It’s a dog whistle that no seemingly reasonable person, Democrat or Republican, can hear. Indeed, the country may not be so much separated by politics, conservative or liberal, but by taste, logic, aspirations and sensibility (quite a difficult divide for political writers and cable news channels to express). What one side sees as ugly and ridiculous, the other side sees as new and amazing — much like the reaction to the décor of a Trump building.

But even this falls far short of an explanation because with Trump, consistency and coherence fall short. In the midst of this angry populist convention, he asked his base to embrace his prepped-out, Richie Rich family. And perhaps it has.

Curiously, part of the dog whistle here is a message against the media itself and its inability to understand his appeal. If the media is arguing —and it is — that Trump is a joke, that the Republican party is finished, that demographics doom conservatism, the Trump view of the world sees the media the same way. We’re the joke, the problem, the corrosive opinion. But in Trump land, he can negate that opinion. He negates all other opinions and arguments not his own by ignoring them, talking over them, denying them, mocking them. He creates his own reality, which seems to be pleasurable to many people.

Anyway, very few of us are capable of seeing how — at least in the traditional terms — this convention can possibly work for him.

But soon the numbers will be out with a bump or no bump. And meanwhile it’s on to Philadelphia.