If you began to pay attention to politics starting any time later than the early 1970s, you know political conventions consist of nothing more than a four-day-long infomercial, where each party is afforded a rare chance to transmit its message to the public unfiltered. For a variety of reasons, the Donald Trump campaign has made poor use of this opportunity.
Some of the causes of its failure were routine — on night one, angry, rambling general Michael Flynn blathered too long and pushed the smooth, compelling Joni Ernst out of the prime-time slot. Then this small disaster was eclipsed by the much larger disaster of Melania Trump’s speech having turned out to include plagiarized passages. Then the campaign compounded the problem by insisting on lying and changing its account, so that the news media — given an actual news story to uncover — blotted out the intended message with wall-to-wall plagiarism coverage.
By the last day of the convention, Trump loyalists now look back with fondness at the innocent, early days of the convention, when the only thing that had gone wrong was a plagiarism scandal that blotted out their message.
And then Wednesday night, Ted Cruz spoke. Normally, the speech by the runner-up is an important moment in securing party unity. Cruz was open about his refusal to fully endorse the nominee, because the nominee is a sociopath who called Cruz’s wife ugly and insinuated that his father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy. The Trump campaign could have denied Cruz a speaking slot, or offered only a videotaped address it could vet in advance. Alternatively, it could have let Cruz speak and then spun the positive elements of his coy not-quite-endorsement — don’t stay home, Hillary is bad, and so on.
Instead, incredibly, the Trump campaign settled on a third option. It would allow Cruz to speak, but it orchestrated booing from the delegates. Perhaps its belief was that a hostile audience reaction would force Cruz to ad lib an endorsement. Instead, he stuck to his script, and the result was an increasingly angry crowd booing the speaker off the stage. This was not a spontaneous failure. This was the Trump campaign’s idea of the best use of television time — a televised refutation of their claim to have unified the party. It’s as if Trump had purchased a television spot for Trump Steaks that showed a customer spitting out the beef in disgust and saying he wouldn’t feed it to his dog.
If Trump had managed to stage a normal, drama-free convention, it would have been overshadowed by his news-making interview with the New York Times. In the interview, Trump broke decades of precedent by telling the reporters that he wouldn’t defend Baltic NATO allies against a Russian invasion — defending fellow members from a Russian invasion being the primary formative purpose of the NATO alliance.
Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, tried to clean up the mess by denying to reporters that the candidate had said what he said. Unfortunately for him, the Times taped the interview — which should not have come as a surprise to the campaign, since Trump asked during the interview if it was being taped:
Trump: I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?
David Sanger: We do.
Maggie Haberman: We both do.
So denying the authenticity of the quotes was probably a bad idea.
Perhaps the most damaging element of the interview was Trump’s response to the crackdown in Turkey, where President Erdogan is carrying out mass arrests. Here was Trump’s response:
I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.
What made this answer so unfathomable is that Trump impugned the moral standing of the United States. Republicans have spent eight years falsely accusing President Obama of doing this very thing. Trump repudiated the primary thread of agreement that runs through every strand of right-wing foreign policy, from isolationism to realism to neoconservatism. It seemed for months that Trump had developed a more effective and populist brand of nationalist politics. But what kind of nationalist denigrates his own country? Without delving far into the philosophical basis for nationalism as a philosophy, the executive summary you would read on page one of Nationalism for Dummies is: OUR country good, THEIR country bad.
Instead, Trump is handing Hillary Clinton the opportunity to tee up his line “When the world looks at how bad the United States is … ” and then announce that she thinks the United States is good.
For all of Trump’s managerial dysfunction, it was widely believed that he had a command of the uses of television as a medium for propaganda, and nationalism as a message for connecting with the public. It turns out he’s bad at both of these things, too.