A Messy First Day of RNC Is a Bad Sign for Donald Trump

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Scenes From the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Day 1
Eventgoers pull an antiwar banner from the hands of a protester during the RNC.Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

National political conventions are exercises in pure organizational competence. With deliberative functions reduced to a minimum, and media attention focused on relatively few hours of prime-time television content, it’s a pretty simple matter of determining a message, selecting messengers, and scheduling and rehearsing them to appear in a logical and compelling order.

Even before the evening session began, the clumsy handling of an ultimately unimportant effort to force a roll-call vote on the convention rules gave bored reporters grist for negative stories and left many delegates unnecessarily confused, angry, and half-deafened by the rock-and-roll musical “interludes” the managers used to buy time for their offstage maneuvering. The content of “business session” speeches delivered by obligatory representatives of various party organizations and caucuses is an inevitable and disposable feature of every convention, but Monday afternoon’s oratorical diet managed to be distinctively vacuous — again guaranteeing maximum coverage of the silly rules fight.

But when the big lights came on for the first evening session, all of that should not have mattered anymore. Instead, the impression of disorganization continued with a redundant lineup of angry speakers on Benghazi and other alleged Obama-administration crimes and misdemeanors, several of whom showed no signs of rehearsal or use of the normally obligatory teleprompters. The crowning moment of day one in Cleveland was Melania Trump’s lifting of a sizable chunk of text from perhaps the most unfortunate source imaginable: the woman occupying the First Lady position to which she aspires. This was a pure organizational failure, either perpetrated or inexcusably missed by convention and Trump campaign staff whose job at conventions is to play error-free baseball. But even before this disaster was revealed, the first session came to a ragged end with an interminable and pointless address by the cast-aside veep prospect General Michael Flynn, who had already shown his political chops in a series of hilariously calamitous media appearances the week before the convention. After prime-time coverage ended, it was left to GOP “rising star” Joni Ernst to deliver her own “big” speech to a rapidly emptying arena. 

Politico summed it up aptly:

For most of the night, the convention lineup felt and sounded more like a tea party rally on the statehouse steps — with little-known speakers delivering hard-line speeches — than a traditional national convention.

If the overriding purpose of the convention (as Trump campaign and RNC operatives have been not-so-subtly telling the world) is to “normalize” Donald Trump, this sharp difference in tone and its ragged, improvisational packaging is not a very good idea.

It’s hard to know from the outside how much dysfunction is behind these visible problems. It sure looks like the scheduling, speechwriting, content vetting, and rehearsal functions — the very heart and soul of well-functioning conventions — are in disarray. The immense fatigue that always descends on convention officials and worker bees alike as conventions drag to their conclusion will make additional mistakes likely. Trump fans can only hope his performance on Thursday covers a multitude of organization sins.