The theme for the final night of the Republican National Convention was “Make America One Again”. This is a call for unity, presumably amongst both the Republican Party as well as America as a whole. If tonight’s speakers stay on message and orient themselves around this message, including Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination, this would be a unique directive. The overriding theme of the Trump campaign throughout the primary season seemed to be one of division. Donald Trump wasn’t like the other Republican candidates and he wasn’t a typical politician. He wasn’t even a politician. As stated by Newt Gingrich, Trump is a “pirate”. This dissension from the political norm propelled Trump to the nomination he will be accepting tonight by creating this populist, nationalist figure who appealed to the base emotions of a segment of the Republican Party through demagoguery. These Trump supporters became united perhaps unlike any section of the political populace under this cult of personality.
But a cult isn’t based on inclusiveness. It was widely assumed that once Trump had the Republican nomination sewn up this unconventional approach would have to be altered to appeal to wide portions of the Republican Party, including the socially conservative base, which Trump had largely ignored if not openly mocked. Steps in this direction were seemingly being made as there was a large and significant turnover in the Trump campaign apparatus. Trump effectively reached people in the Republican Party who had previously felt disaffected largely through the force of his personality, which with the nomination assured could now be directed toward uniting the Republican Party. However, thus far this doesn’t seem to have happened.
Partially, this is an issue of message and focus. Up to this point the RNC hasn’t really been about Donald Trump outside of his short appearances and Undertaker-like entrance. The message and focus has been about why people should not vote for Hillary Clinton, not really why people should vote for or trust Donald Trump. That’s a problem for the Republican Party. Numerous speakers, including those powerful and popular within the party, have barely mentioned Trump, if at all. Ted Cruz blatantly refused to endorse Trump. John Kasich refused to endorse Trump and did not show up to the RNC. In his home state. In response, the message of the Trump campaign to those unsupportive has continued to be combative, declaring those who refuse to support Trump un-American and unnecessary. Paul Manafort, Trump’s new campaign manager, called Kasich “petulant” for refusing to endorse Trump and appear at the Convention. Does Trump not need the support of Kasich, the sitting Governor of Ohio and the most popular political figure in the state, at the RNC in Cleveland, Ohio?
It would appear not. Except details of the Vice President running mate search show Kasich as part of the final shortlist put together by the Trump campaign. It was acknowledged that Kasich really was the best overall candidate for the position, except he had no interest. Other candidates dropped out due to irreconcilable differences, namely personality and political style, between themselves and Trump. Now, some candidates dropped out of the running or simply were not selected for the position due to reasons having nothing to do with conflict between themselves and the soon-to-be presidential nominee, but the fact that multiple possible choices did is meaningful. Ultimately, Mike Pence, the social conservative former Governor of Indiana who is popular in the Republican Party, was chosen in order to inspire “party unity”. But no one votes for the Vice President. Research has demonstrated that in order for a VP candidate to make a significant difference in vote totals, either at home or nationally, they must be exceedingly popular and well-known and come from a state with a significant number of electoral votes. Indiana has 11 electoral votes and may not have reelected Pence this year because he is not well-liked at home, nor is he well-known and liked nationally. He was even overshadowed by Trump at the press conference introducing his new running mate.
And that was simply one in a recent spate of strategic blunders by the Trump campaign and the Republican Party. At the RNC in just the last few days criticism has been drawn for the tone-deaf decoration of the hall, the aforementioned treatment of figures such as Kasich, the extreme mismanagement of Melania Trump’s plagiarism, scheduling as well as the speeches themselves which have largely failed to inspire. What must this political comedy of errors look like to those on the fence about voting for Trump? It is telling that to this juncture that which has inspired the greatest unity amongst the RNC attendees was Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. There have been moments of Republican exultation during the Convention, particularly during the “audience participation” speeches, but nothing to make Republicans coalesce. What seems to have affected this at least temporary joining of Republican minds is a further stirring of emotion through some implicit threat to their candidate. People enjoyed and rallied around the divisiveness.
The problem, however, is that new supporters will not be won by relying on and appealing to the same feelings of alienation. While the ability of Trump to retain supporters no matter his words or actions has been remarkable, his inability to attract new supporters must also be remarked upon. This is why the tone of the RNC must be considered troubling to Trump and Republican supporters. Attacking Hillary Clinton may cause some voters to stay home, but how many votes will it gain? How many delegates at the RNC and viewers of the RNC at home were considering voting for Hillary Clinton? Some, but probably not many. Perhaps Trump is able to win more support tonight by delivering a sensible, conciliatory speech which speaks to the base of the Republican Party instead of featuring the egotistic man-child with self-control issues we have come to expect. But how much credit would Trump really deserve for acting appropriately one time? Donald Trump is to this point the most unpopular presidential candidate in history. Without major alterations the only glimmer of hope he can gather is that Hillary Clinton isn’t far behind.