Back when it looked like Republicans might well hold a “contested convention” in Cleveland on July 18 to 21, the excitement of journalists at the prospect of covering something other than the usual four-day infomercial knew no bounds. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that the very recent breathless coverage of dozens of delegates preparing to vote to unbind themselves from primary and caucus commitment in order to make it possible to dump Trump owes a lot to the power of the “contested convention” fantasy, and the need to justify lavish outlays for media outlets for Cleveland.
The odds of a coup are extremely low for reasons I explain here and here.
But even if a rules-based coup to get rid of Trump isn’t happening short of the committing of a major felony by the candidate in broad daylight, that doesn’t mean other wild things are off the table. Here are four scenarios that could throw the RNC into turmoil:
Violent protests and counterprotests.
While the original nightmare of angry Trump supporters rioting as the nomination is “stolen” has abated, protests against Trump are a certainty. And they could get out of hand.
Local police originally drew up a plan to keep protesters as far away from the convention site as possible. But a federal judge has intervened with an order killing the plan. No telling which restrictions might survive.
And yes, even without a coup, there are going to be pro-Trump demonstrators in the vicinity. A group called Citizens for Trump is expecting 5,000 people to show up under its banner. Worse yet, the Traditionalist Worker Party, a pro-Trump fringe group that recently became embroiled in violent clashes with leftists in Sacramento, is planning to travel to Cleveland to “protect Trump supporters.” The convention will be an all-purpose freak magnet. And if that’s not scary enough, it’s clear Ohio’s “open carry” law will be in force in whatever area is eventually made available to the various protesters (it might have been enforced even inside the convention site had the Secret Service not stomped on that possibility).
Are local police up to the challenge? Maybe. But at least one out-of-state police chief who had been asked to bring officers to help with convention security has already pulled out, citing “a lack of preparedness for the RNC.”
It’s true that Secret Service agents will be available to make sure any violent activity doesn’t penetrate the actual convention perimeter. But as we learned in Chicago in 1968, violence in the streets has a way of spreading beyond any security perimeter. If violence is extensive, it will co-star with Donald Trump on television screens around the world.
A veep challenge
The freedom of delegates to do anything they want so long as they respect their binding commitments to vote for a presidential candidate extends to the nomination of a running mate. If a majority of delegates don’t actually favor Trump, there’s no inherent reason they should defer to his wishes on this important matter. There could be a mini-conspiracy to impose a veep on Trump who would make his candidacy or election less scary, like someone with extensive governing experience or perhaps a Latino elected official. Or if Trump names someone deemed unacceptable to a broad swath of delegates, a revolt on the floor could develop spontaneously — especially if the mogul chooses to spring his choice on the convention with no advance notice, which some observers think he would prefer to do to elevate the drama of “his” convention.
There is precedent for a veep revolt. In 1920, the same cabal of party leaders who chose Warren Harding as the GOP presidential nominee in the famous Chicago “smoke-filled room” decided to offer the vice-presidential nomination to Senator Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin. But delegates stampeded to Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, whose crushing of the Boston Police Strike of 1919 made him popular — sort of the Scott Walker of his time. Coolidge, of course, went on to become president upon Harding’s premature death.
A more subtle revolt occurred among Democrats in 1944. Shortly before the convention, party leaders convinced Franklin Roosevelt to dump Vice-President Henry Wallace owing to his strident liberalism and personal eccentricity. They then talked FDR into their consensus favorite, Harry Truman, who also became an accidental president.
All this talk of strange doings in Cleveland, of course, is pure speculation. Although it’s hard to imagine a convention that nominated Donald Trump for the presidency being “normal” in any real sense, it could lack unplanned drama. The only thing we know for sure is that any private meeting held to make key decisions out of the public eye will be smoke-free.
It’s even possible the convention could turn out to be boring. But the word that threatens to hang over the convention until the whole show is over is disorganized, which is first cousin to chaotic.
A vote on unbinding delegates
While delegates will not vote to unbind themselves from the primary and caucus results, they may have to vote against them. It only takes one-fourth of the Rules Committee to approve a minority report that will be entitled to a vote by all delegates when the convention’s rules are adopted. So a mere 28 delegates on that committee could get the convention off to a bad start by forcing a vote on, in effect, dumping Trump.
There’s no way it will pass, but there could be some anticipatory hype and of course some bad blood between Trump and anti-Trump factions.
A messy platform fight
Even if there is no serious challenge to the binding of delegates on the first ballot, the delegates are by no means forced to follow the direction of “their” presidential candidate on other matters. Platform fights are a time-honored way for party elites, interest groups, and defeated candidates to seek vindication even if they’ve lost the main battle. And in the case of a nominee like Trump, whose fidelity to conservative ideology is very much in question, there could well be efforts to rope him in with explicit platform planks, even on those issues where his positions are ostensibly kosher. Depending on how Trump and the convention managers handle such efforts, you could wind up with big, noisy platform fights over items the GOP and Trump would just as soon not broadcast nationally during an event that is supposed to make the party look toothsome and non-controversial.
These could include the traditional GOP language opposing any rape-or-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban (Trump supports such exceptions); abrasive anti-LGBT planks styled as “religious liberty” guarantees; and challenges to Trump’s positions on banning Muslim immigration or deporting undocumented immigrants. Once the Pandora’s box of the platform is opened up, anything could happen.