Back when run-first, conservative strategies were still the vogue in college football, coaches often quoted Texas legend Darrell Royal in saying that when you throw a forward pass, three things can happen (a completion, an incompletion, or an interception) — and two of them are bad.
You could say the same of the live, in-person national political convention Donald Trump seems determined to hold in Charlotte (or, he threatens, some other city and state where the local yokels don’t interfere with his grandiose plans). It’s possible the coronavirus pandemic will have abated enough that he’ll be able to hold the traditional convention he wants by August without large negative consequences. That’s the best-case scenario, to be sure.
But as Michael Kruse notes, anything less than that could be really problematic:
[M]aybe more than everybody else, the optics-obsessed former reality television star is aware of the potential damage of the image of a half-full, semi-silent arena—a looming totem to the insufficiencies of his administration’s response to the still spreading coronavirus.
In other words, a live, indoor convention under the social-distancing regime most experts think will still be in order for large gatherings even if they are allowed might be counterproductive, no matter how many colorful MAGA masks are distributed throughout a necessarily reduced and muffled audience.
But that scenario is infinitely less perilous than one in which Trump and Republicans defy the experts and hold an old-school convention in which Trump fans in a packed and sweaty throng toss thousands of droplets into the air as they cheer their warrior-king at every juncture.
It would be hard to imagine the tension it would produce in GOP circles as Team Trump waited to see if the boss’s big party triggered a local or even national COVID-19 outbreak or sent considerable numbers of elderly delegates and alternatives to ERs in Charlotte or back home.
So why is Trump taking this kind of risk? Is it simply an extension of the Republican craze for “reopening” or the tendency of conservatives to believe that precautions against a pandemic are cowardly and un-American (not at all a majority opinion among rank-and-file voters)? Or is it something deeper?
Kruse thinks it’s a personal thing with Trump that dates back to his experience with the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans that nominated then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush. At that event, he was squired onto the convention floor in its final moments by lobbyist Laurance Gay, at the request of Roger Stone, and achieved a galvanic moment:
“So we went down there, and the speeches were made,” Gay recalled, and Bush capped his remarks by placing his hand on his heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Barbara Bush joined him on the podium, and the rest of his family, and their families, and Dan Quayle, his pick for vice president, and his family, “and there’s 25 people out there, and with that, the band strikes up, the confetti starts to fall, the balloons are rising and falling,” 150,000 of them, red, white and blue, and there were 15-plus minutes of sustained, ecstatic sound.
And in the middle of this scene, Trump said something, not quite to Gay, who was immediately to his left, but loud enough for him to hear.
“This is what I want.”
With himself, not Poppy Bush, as the object of all that intense affection, of course. This particular itch was at least partially scratched in Cleveland in 2016:
In 2016 in Cleveland, of course, he became the Republican nominee, and that stage—his stage—featured the big bright white letters of his name bracketed by panels of gold and a backdrop of American flags, while his hour-and-15-minute-long remarks were defined by language that was dystopian and dark—“violence in our streets,” “chaos in our communities,” “damage and devastation.” But when he was finished, he was feted the way Bush had been feted; out came his wife and his family and the VP-to-be and his family, and up went the noise of the crowd, and down came the balloons, all that red, white and blue, and Trump pointed and made a face like an O. “That,” biographer Michael D’Antonio told me this week, “must have been an orgasmic moment for him.”
And that, mind you, was at a convention where his control was somewhat limited, as shown by Ted Cruz’s prime-time speech in which the former Trump rival dissed his conquerer by refusing to endorse him. Given the president’s famous affection for military hoopla and his limitless ego, you can only imagine the kind of idolatrous display of fealty he might expect at a point where his party — including Cruz and many other previous detractors — is entirely in thrall to him.
Ultimately, the direction of the pandemic will determine whether Trump even has the option of pursuing convention folly, and the consequences if he does and guesses wrong. He might be able to mitigate the risk a bit by moving outdoors (that’s where Obama accepted his nomination in Denver in 2008); there is a large NASCAR racetrack nearby, which would be a good cultural fit. But it’s possible the man just can’t shake an addiction to tightly packed throngs of the sort that make him long for the resumption of MAGA rallies. His campaign team and his Republican allies probably need to be whispering to him every day that his real audience will be in front of millions of screens.