Cleveland, Day Three
It’s strange to be in a bar where the coolest guy is Newt Gingrich. The Westin Hotel is the headquarters of Team Trump, and its shock troops were outside smoking Cuban cigars and reminiscing about their efforts to win the Indiana primary, the contest that at last vanquished Ted Cruz. The delegates and GOP operatives at the bar not lining up for selfies with Newt felt the Tuesday proceedings had been an improvement on Monday in that none of the speakers seemed candidates for being sectioned. I was disappointed by the absence of Roger Stone, the former Nixon dirty trickster and longtime Trump confidant, who had been holding court the night before. Stone began his career at age 16 on Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He smeared the opponent, Hubert Humphrey, by making a donation to his campaign in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance and giving the receipt to the Manchester Union-Leader. He is also a longtime business partner, in the international political consulting racket (speciality: Eurasian dictators and elected Putin clients), of Paul Manafort, who has emerged as the Cromwell to Trump’s Henry VIII.
It’s often said that Trump isn’t really a Republican, and it’s true that his commitments to Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio’s ideologically rigid Ayn Rand summer camp version of the GOP are nil. But, through his friendship with Stone, Trump has ties to a more venerable Republican tradition that stretches past Nixon through Trump and Stone’s mutual mentor Roy Cohn to Joseph McCarthy. Speaking at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1952, McCarthy accused the Democrats of ‘treason’, a word also spoken by an adviser to Trump on veterans' affairs, New Hampshire state legislator Al Baldasaro, who called for Hillary Clinton to face a firing squad (and is now being investigated by the Secret Service). Again paranoia is the unifying theme in Cleveland, and there are echoes of anti-communism in Trump’s border-wall xenophobia and Islamophobia. The devious government of Mexico is sending its worst people here, as is Islamic State. If the Democrats won’t speak the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, maybe they’re in on the plot. It’s natural for people who are perpetrating conspiracies to insist that their enemies are perpetrating conspiracies. When she was just out of law school, Clinton worked on the House Judiciary Committee's investigation into Watergate; but she has her own Nixonian qualities, and they aren’t a boon to her here.
The other part of Trump’s pitch, of course, is his own success, and as the New York Times likes to point out, he never ceases inflating his own success to the point of fraud. ‘Truthful hyperbole’ is the phrase the ghostwriter Tony Schwartz coined for this technique in The Art of the Deal, but it’s true to the ideals of the other mentor of Trump’s youth, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. This is often noted, but I’d never read Peale’s 1952 mega-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, so I’ve been dipping into it in Cleveland. (Perhaps it might help me with my own problems.) Trump clearly lives by many of Peale’s prescriptions, usually omitting the parts about God. ‘Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless,’ Peale writes, ‘is not so important as our attitude toward that fact. How you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. You may permit a fact to overwhelm you mentally before you start to deal with it actually. On the other hand, a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.’ So Trump’s claim this week that he had recommended that the convention be held in Cleveland fit the thought pattern better than the fact that he had nothing to do with a decision that was made years before he became a politician. In the imperative form, Peale’s magic spell goes like this: ‘Make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it 10 per cent. Do not become egotistical, but develop a wholesome self-respect. Believe in your own God-released powers.’ Trump tends to convert the percentage to an exponent and throws out the parts about handcuffing his ego, wholesomeness and God.
But he has turned other Peale commandments on their heads. ‘It is important to eliminate from conversations all negative ideas,’ Peale advises, ‘for they tend to produce tension and annoyance inwardly. For example, when you are with a group of people at luncheon, do not comment that the “Communists will soon take over the country.”’ Melania too has strayed from the Pealean path: ‘Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them.’ Peale considers happiness a choice made every morning upon waking, a lesson that might be useful to the convention’s many dissident delegates. Many dejected Republicans speak of initially supporting a Scott Walker or a Marco Rubio, reluctantly voting for Ted Cruz, and now settling for the consolation of party unity. Saddest of all are the neocons. But why sacrifice your state of mind to an ideology? Peale would tell them, as he told one 52-year-old man ‘in great despondency’, ‘So suppose we take a piece of paper and write down the values you have left.’ Item #6: ‘Live in the United States, the greatest country in the world.’
The bone that glum conservatives have been thrown is the vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence. Pence was a local lawyer and radio host in Indianapolis until he was elected to Congress in 2000. He had an orthodox Republican record: against abortion, against environmental protection, against gay rights, for the Iraq war, for increased surveillance, for free trade deals, etc. He was elected governor of Indiana in 2012, and his popularity has been waning. A friend of mine from Indiana tells me: ‘Most Hoosiers see Pence as a humourless dolt. He’s like a dumb Dan Quayle.’ Aside from run of the mill opposition to minimum wage increases and support for anti-union legislation, Pence has suffered in the public eye from his failed attempt to start a government-funded news service. He became a national figure when Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a coded pass for Christians engaging in LGBT discrimination. Then there’s the HIV outbreak in southern Indiana that Pence has abetted by opposing a needle exchange programme. Some speculate that in the event of a Trump victory, Trump would simply act as a frontman and leave the trouble of running the country to Vice-President Pence.
When I walked into the Q on Wednesday, when Pence would headline a night billed ‘Make America First Again’, the talk radio host Laura Ingraham was explaining that Trump had won the nomination by calling out ‘the phonies’. No doubt there’s some truth to this – his obvious phoniness shattering the studied phoniness of the other candidates – but that didn’t mean three of the phonies, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, wouldn’t be allowed on stage. The chants of ‘lock her up’ started early in the evening, kicked off by the California delegation. The most embarrassing moments of the undercard acts belonged to Michelle Van Etten, who sells fad vitamins through a pyramid scheme called Youngevity. She told a wandering story about charging her parents and neighbours to watch her childhood circus performance, and stumbled repeatedly with the teleprompter before declaring Trump ‘the ultimate ringmaster’ who could restore order to the circus America has become since Obama let the lions and tigers out of their cages. Harold Hamm, a fracking billionaire, spoke of his earliest memories picking cotton and left out the part about how he made his billions through dumb luck – an argument he made in a divorce settlement in an attempt to keep his money through an Oklahoma law that exempts income made from changing economic conditions, rather than skill, from divorce claims.
Scott Walker restored some professionalism to the evening, though his speech was right-wing boilerplate. Rubio appeared in a pre-recorded video with a Manchurian Candidate quality and by the time he got around to insisting Trump could be trusted to be cut taxes I wouldn’t have been surprised if he said Trump was the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being he’s ever known in his life. When Ted Cruz came on stage I felt overcome with the impulse to boo him but managed to stifle it. When he finished his speech without endorsing or mentioning Trump he was booed by the crowd. His speech, on the theme of freedom, including the freedom brought by Brexit, veered from maudlin sob stories to corny chiasmic zingers about the way Obama has ‘exported jobs and imported terrorists’. Eric Trump attempted to cast his father’s business career and presidential run as acts of public charity. Gingrich renewed the apocalyptic tone of Monday night with a litany of terror attacks, listing numbers of casualties. He promised future attacks ‘worse than September 11th’, and advertised a dirty bomb attack on an American city that would kill more than 300,000.
As for Pence, his eyebrows are much darker than the grey hair on his head, and the eyebrows clench when he talks about ‘the Clinton machine’, assume a somewhat looser formation when he asserts that he and Trump will defeat that machine, and splay halfway up his forehead when he says the most important job he’s ever had is spelled ‘D-A-D’. He’s a slick and competent speaker who’ll do nothing to distract attention from his boss as long as he sticks to the script. Everything this week in Cleveland, especially Cruz’s omission, has been about Trump. Most of the room loves him, even if he’s induced depression in a few delegations and the party’s intellectual water-carriers. That wasn’t true of Mitt Romney in Tampa in 2012. Any excitement there centered around the party’s young prospects – Ryan, Rubio, Christie — and ageing celebrity cameos like Clint Eastwood. One ability Trump can’t overestimate is his power to make everything about Trump.