Donald Trump’s climb to the top of the Republican ticket shattered the rules of presidential politics. Now, his nomination is promising to break with tradition like no other political convention in the modern era.
Trump’s brash brand of reality-TV politics is expected to produce a crowd-pleasing four days in Cleveland. It’s sure to capture the populist sentiment that propelled his rise, but will be absent the pageantry of party elders and statesmen giving approval to a presidential hopeful the Republican establishment has been slow to embrace.
Many top officials, including both living former Republican presidents, opted to stay home, not that they were entirely welcome by Trump fans anyway. In their place will be soap opera actors, Trump family friends and several billionaires who will attest to the businessman’s character and savvy.
Party leaders are anxious for a display of political unity after the turbulent primary season. They hope the addition of conservative Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to the GOP ticket will comfort the naysayers. But a dogged anti-Trump element threatens a high-profile floor fight inside the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Outside, police are bracing for unruly crowds of protesters – white nationalists and black power activists among them – with Ohio’s open-carry guns laws allowing firearms in the streets.
“Donald Trump and his campaign know how to put on a show,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Thursday night is a really big deal for our party: Trump delivering that consistent, measured, pointed message — the balloons drop, the band plays, Donald Trump running for president in the White House,” Priebus said. “That’s where we need to be.”
Conventions are normally an opportunity to introduce the presidential ticket to a wider audience of prime-time television viewers – and voters who will be needed on election day. But Trump’s convention, like so much of his campaign, carries a high likelihood of becoming something else.
“He’s got to do more here than say, ‘You’re fired,’” said Tom Rath, a veteran GOP strategist from New Hampshire, referring to Trump’s signature line from “The Apprentice.”
“This is a time to reach and talk to the broader electorate. If you play too much to the group that nominated you, you miss that opportunity to take that second step,” he said. “His acceptance speech has got to be something that people say, ‘Yeah, he could be president.’”
Ahead of the convention, GOP officials worked frantically to tamp down a delegate uprising trying to block Trump’s nomination. Many longtime party volunteers and activists see Trump as insufficiently conservative and not representative of core GOP values. They prefer other candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and tried to change the rules to allow delegates to vote for the candidate of their choosing, rather than for the winner of their state primaries.
Last week, Priebus engaged in intense shuttle diplomacy, dispatched between Trump operatives and rebellious delegates during party organizing meetings, to quell the rebellion. Trump’s team emerged mostly victorious, but made clear it was no more interested in unity than the frustrated minority of delegates under the “Never Trump” banner.
“We crushed them,” a triumphant Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, assured to CNN. “‘Never Trump’ is nevermore. They’re just gone.”
On Sunday, he added: “This is a Donald Trump convention.”
“It’s just beginning,” said Kendal Unruh, a mother from suburban Denver and organizer of the effort.
Meantime, even Trump supporters were head-scratching over the week’s lineup after Trump promised a “winner’s night” and A-list celebrities that had yet to appear. Some just wished they had a schedule to plan the week, as would normally be available days ahead of time.
Even the theme of the event – “America First” – harked back to an isolationist era in American politics, though Trump’s campaign counsel, Donald F. McGahn, said it was simply an extension of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“You’re going to see a little bit of a different convention than years past,” McGahn said. “There are going to be some politicians speaking, but you’re going to see some sports figures, some celebrities, that sort of thing – and a number of people who know Mr. Trump personally.”
Prime time kicks off with a “Duck Dynasty” star and Scott Baio, known to generations of TV viewers for his roles on “Happy Days” and “Charles in Charge.”
Trump’s wife, Melania, will also speak.
The lineup also includes speeches by Trump’s adult children, billionaire backers including Californians Peter Thiel and Tom Barrack, and Calvin Klein model Antonio Sabato Jr., the Italian-born soap star.
To be sure, the convention will include traditions, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan presiding as chairman. Also, each night will focus on core topics.
Monday is devoted to national security, with an emphasis on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Tuesday will be the economy, when Ryan, also the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, will deliver a prime-time address.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will speak, as will Trump’s primary-season rivals, including Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is campaigning for reelection in Florida, will send a video message.
But the 2008 and 2012 GOP nominees, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are not expected to attend, nor are former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Another glaring absence is Trump rival John Kasich, the Ohio governor, who will be in his home state but staying away from the convention hall.
“Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of narratives about establishment and rebellions and everything like that,” said Trump top aide Bill McGinley.
“One of the things that we’re going to be seeing over the next couple of days is going to be a very active floor that’s going to promote Mr. Trump, that’s going to nominate him as president and that we are going to come out of Cleveland unified.”
Running short of cash after some corporate sponsors declined to back the event, Republican officials made an overt plea last week to billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to help cover the tab.
Officials downplayed the shortfall as routine for producing a big event. The RNC’s chief strategist, Sean Spicer, told CNN that the convention would be “like nothing that has ever been seen.”
Spicer said that security from more than 70 federal, state and local law enforcement entities would “make sure that this is the safest place on earth.”