Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Donald Is Screwing Up His Convention

I've had enough of the Republican Convention. I'm getting out of Cleveland today and flying to London. So I won't see Trump's speech in real time. I'll just get the replays tomorrow, and spend the next two weeks reassuring frightened Brits that the end of the world is not approaching. (Someone, please, reassure me.)

But it's already clear that the RNC has not gone well for Trump, and even the best speech tonight will, at best, make up part of the ground he's lost. It's been one problem after another, so much so that some aides getting in a car accident on the first day counts as one of the good points. So instead of getting bogged down in the details, let me leave town with four big take-aways from three troubled days:

1. Trump is not the party boss. People are chattering about Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump. But why would anyone expect Ted Cruz to endorse Trump? Cruz never said that he would. The convention started with Cruz's #1 wing man Mike Lee trying to start a floor revolt over the convention rules. But this isn't about Cruz. Trump has not made peace with any of the other major players in the party, and he has no control over them.

Before the convention even started on Monday, Trump's surrogates were attacking prominent Republican office-holders wo had not come to heel. Campaign manager Paul Manafort was berating Ohio Governor John Kasich for boycotting the convention, and getting booed for it by the local crowd. (Pro tip: if Ohio Republicans didn't like Kasich, he wouldn't be Republican Governor of Ohio. QED.)  Meanwhile Gingrich was sent out to call the Bush family "childish." That's right. "Childish," coming from the Trump camp, about George H. W. Bush.

These attacks have been a spectacular failure in bringing anyone to heel. Kasich has defiantly avoided the convention and paid the Trumpies back by leaking, on the day Mike Pence accepted the Veep nomination, the news that Kasich had been Trump's first choice for VP and outright refused. So bullying Kasich has just paid off in spades. And what on Earth does Trump think antagonizing the other Republicans will get him? He needs help from these people to turn out the vote, especially since they have GOTV organizations and Trump does not.

Trump has no control over the Republican Party. The Republican Party is currently without a political boss, because Trump hasn't managed to assume that job. He should have made peace with all the rival chieftains in the months before the convention, and come into Cleveland with a show of party unity. Instead, he's operating like a factional leader.

One of the great rules of politics is to take care of business before the meeting. You should not go into the meeting with things unsettled. Yes, I know, there are meetings where things get hashed out, but those are private meetings. Trump should have been having those private hash-it-out meetings for the last three or four months, so that the big public meeting could follow a smooth script. Apparently, Trump was unwilling or unable to make any deals.

More to the point, it's become obvious that the other party players are not afraid of Trump. They can defy him, because they do not fear him. He has no way to punish them, unless he actually becomes President. The level of open defiance from Kasich, Cruz, and several others makes it clear that they are not in the least worried that Trump will be elected. You don't do this to a member of your party who might be President in six months. Cruz and Kasich aren't just betting that Trump will lose. They are completely confident that he will lose.

2. It's personal, not business. Melania Trump's pointless, self-inflicted plagiarism incident is just the most vivid illustration of how Trump World rolls, ignoring the professionals in favor of family members and family retainers. It's not simply that the Trump campaign has not professionalized, which it has not. It's that the inner circle actively vetoes and undermines the attempts at professionalization. The Trump family runs like the Corleone Family would if everyone had to listen to Fredo.

There are some professionals around, but their professional judgment is ignored and they are told instead to enable the amateur insiders' decisions.  That misunderstands what professionals are for. They are not there to tell you what you want. They are there to provide expertise that you need and don't have. When a medical doctor gives you his professional advice, you should take it. When a rich client starts telling the doctor that the doctor is paid to do what the patient says, well, that's a rich client who is going to OD on something.

Two professional speechwriters, who had done this before and done it well, wrote a script. Melania, who has no experience with anything like this task, threw out that speech. She then rewrote it with a Trump family retainer who has done some writing but was not at all prepared for a high-stakes task like a major convention speech. So you had a family retainer who wasn't fully qualified operating at the direction, and following the instructions, of a family member who was thoroughly unqualified. Surprisingly, the result was not good.

Then Paul Manafort, one of the allegedly grown-up professionals, was forced to go out and do what the Trumps wanted, which was to flatly and obviously lie for two days, insulting his own intelligence with every word. On the same morning that Manafort had to sit and be called a liar to his face on CNN, the Trumps changed tack and had the family retainer admit to exactly the things Manafort had just denied. The professionals, again, got thrown under the bus.

Professionals only help you if you take your advice. Trump hires professionals to enable his own bad instincts. There is no reason to believe this problem will go away.

3. Trump is still running a primary campaign. It has been shocking how much the Trump convention has been about throwing red meat to the base. Even leaving aside the shocking calls to jail and even kill Hillary Clinton, in a complete break with America's civil politics, the whole show so far has been about riling up the base rather than reaching out to swing voters.

If you didn't know what Benghazi was, or why the Republicans blame Hillary for it, before Monday night, you still wouldn't know after watching this convention. And that's after a solid forty-five minute block of Benghazi programming on Monday. That material wasn't just pitched to the base's biases. It was pitched to people who had already absorbed the fairly complicated conspiracy narrative, which it never really bothered to explain. Even the hate-monging is only for the initiated.

I mean, yes, conventions are meant to get the activists excited, so they will go out and work hard for the campaign. But they are even more important as outreach to the wider electorate. Trump cannot win with just the base of voters who want to imprison Hillary. And what I'm seeing and hearing is a convention that's splitting and alienating even the Republican activists.

I'm not saying he's turning off swing voters. I'm saying he's not even trying to reach them.

4. Losing control of the narrative.  Trump needed this convention to change the press's conversation about him, and to dispel the conventional wisdom that he is a disorganized crazy person who's running his campaign into the ground. And the press would be willing, even eager, to go along with that "New Trump" narrative if Trump game them some slight and superficial grounds to go along with it. He doesn't really need to convince the media that he isn't crazy. He just needs to give them something they can use to pretend he isn't. Instead, Trump has gone out of his way to cement the crazy screw-up story. He has done this by 1) being crazy and 2) screwing up.

But it's worse than that. Trump has gotten as far as he has by bullying the media, by rolling them, and by counting on their laziness. When he's called on things, he's turned it around into an attack on the press, and then moved on to the next crazy. Those tricks are beginning to stop working now. They're not effective as they used to be, and sometimes they're counter-productive. The stakes are too high, the stage is too big, and the media have already been lied to so baldly that they're out of free passes to give. At this point, Trump is putting the media in the position of embarrassing him or embarrassing themselves, as he tries to force them to accept his Humpty-Dumpty lies in front of millions of people. They should have stopped accepting his lies a year ago. But he's pushed it to the point where they can't afford to accept his lies even if they wanted to.

Trump's basic communication strategy is signal jamming. He doesn't make a strong case for himself, He just creates so much noise, in the radio-engineer sense of "noise" as static, that no one else can get their message out clearly. That's what happened to the other 16 palookas in the primary. They couldn't make their cases to the public because Trump drowned them out with his endless static.

Hillary Clinton isn't the catchiest tunesmith, but she is a very experienced communicator and she has an enormous broadcast apparatus to send out her message. I expect Trump to spend most of his energies, especially during the Democratic convention, on creating distractions to try to dull Hillary's message. It may or may not work, depending on how the media play along. But what I do know, now, after a year of this nonsense, is that Trump has very little positive signal of his own to broadcast. He can't even get his own children to tell heart-warming anecdotes about him, suggesting that there really may be no heartwarming anecdotes about him. (Compare Melania's speech to the Michelle Obama speech she ripped off; what's missing are all the detailed personal stories Michelle told about her husband, the stories that are the point of the nominee's wife giving the speech in the first place.)

What we are looking at is a fall campaign between a politician and her fine-tuned campaign machine sending out a message about Hillary Clinton, on one hand, and a disruptive troublemaker trying to sabotage that message on the other. There will be no positive Trump vision. If he hasn't shown it by now, he doesn't have one. But Trump will now face trouble sending out even disruptive static, since he has actively trained the press to push back at him hard.

It's an old lesson: you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. I admit I didn't come up with that line myself. I borrowed it from a Republican.

cross-posed from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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