AGAINST THE GRAIN

Republicans Slam Clinton, But Don’t Make the Case for Trump

It was supposed to be a night to “make America safe again,” but as usual the candidate’s need for attention stepped on the GOP message.

Donald Trump's wife, Melania, walks onstage during the opening night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 18, 2016, 11:04 p.m.

CLEV­E­LAND—When Pat Smith offered emo­tion­al testi­mony about how the gov­ern­ment failed to pro­tect her son dur­ing the Benghazi at­tacks, Don­ald Trump was call­ing in­to Bill O’Re­illy’s Fox News show to pre­view his speech at the con­ven­tion. As Smith power­fully re­coun­ted Hil­lary Clin­ton’s un­re­spons­ive­ness to her fam­ily’s plight, Trump at­tacked John Kasich, Ohio’s GOP gov­ernor host­ing the con­ven­tion in ab­sen­tia.

This was “make Amer­ica safe again” night at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. But just as Trump has re­fused to cede con­trol of his scat­ter­shot pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, his con­stant need for at­ten­tion over­shad­owed some of the most com­pel­ling pro­gram­ming at his own con­ven­tion. While the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee tra­di­tion­ally ap­pears on the fi­nal night, Trump briefly emerged to­night to roar­ing ap­plause to in­tro­duce his wife, Melania.

The con­ven­tion’s sched­ule fo­cused on Benghazi, il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and in­dict­ments of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign policy. “Are you safer than you were eight years ago? Is our mil­it­ary stronger? Is Amer­ica still re­spec­ted?” House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair Mi­chael Mc­Caul said. In a well-re­ceived speech, Mil­wau­kee County Sher­iff Dav­id Clarke in­toned: “We simply can­not be great if we do not feel safe in our homes, on our streets, and in our com­munit­ies.”

Rudy Gi­uliani, who was may­or of New York City on 9/11, was the star of the first night’s pro­ceed­ings. He landed sev­er­al scath­ing jabs at Pres­id­ent Obama, com­pared his uni­fy­ing rhet­or­ic as a Sen­ate can­did­ate with the po­lar­ized real­ity of today. “What happened to ‘There’s no black Amer­ica, there’s no white Amer­ica, there’s Amer­ica’?” Gi­uliani asked, mock­ingly. He was one of the few speak­ers to un­equi­voc­ally de­fend Trump. “I am sick and tired of the de­fam­a­tion of Trump by the me­dia and the Clin­ton cam­paign,” Gi­uliani ex­claimed. He ri­diculed Obama for re­fus­ing to call Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ism by its name.

But the sober in­dict­ments of Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton were sprinkled with celebrity testi­mo­ni­als to Trump by ‘80s sit­com icon Scott Baio, soap op­era reg­u­lar Ant­o­nio Sabato Jr., and Duck Dyn­asty scion Wil­lie Robertson.

Gi­uliani, former De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency chief Mi­chael Flynn, and Sen. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas gave the most sub­stant­ive speeches on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, even though their hawk­ish views were at odds with the can­did­ate who claims pres­ci­ence for op­pos­ing the Ir­aq war. And all were over­shad­owed by Melania Trump’s clos­ing re­marks about—who else—Don­ald Trump.

The biggest chal­lenge Re­pub­lic­ans faced en­ter­ing the con­ven­tion was con­vin­cing a skep­tic­al pub­lic that Trump can be pres­id­en­tial. In most polls, voters be­lieve Trump is bet­ter equipped than Clin­ton to handle the eco­nomy and fight ter­ror­ism—the two most press­ing is­sues fa­cing the coun­try. But over­whelm­ing those small ad­vant­ages is the fact that large ma­jor­it­ies doubt he is pre­pared to be com­mand­er in chief.

The night’s pro­ceed­ings made the case against Clin­ton, but did little to bol­ster Trump’s cre­den­tials.

Melania helped him the most in this re­gard, speak­ing to his love for Amer­ica, loy­alty to fam­ily and friends, and tenacity in busi­ness: “He will do it bet­ter than any­one else can, and it won’t even be close.” But the gen­er­ic en­dorse­ment from his ob­vi­ously biased wife won’t do much to al­le­vi­ate the real con­cern voters have over his read­i­ness for the pres­id­ency. In 2012, Mitt Rom­ney’s fam­ily and friends offered nu­mer­ous ex­amples to bol­ster their case for his char­ac­ter. Melania’s ar­gu­ment amoun­ted to: Trust me.

Even though Trump’s al­lies suc­cess­fully squelched in­tern­al op­pos­i­tion at the con­ven­tion, he still faced wide­spread skep­ti­cism from anti-Trump forces throughout the night. Most of the Utah del­eg­a­tion sat si­lently as speak­ers won en­thu­si­ast­ic ap­plause throughout the arena. “The only way he’ll win over any Utah Re­pub­lic­ans is by prov­ing he’s not an au­thor­it­ari­an auto­crat,” said Utah Re­pub­lic­an del­eg­ate Ca­sey Voeks, a small busi­ness own­er. “Show me you’re not an auto­crat!”

That’s the case that Clin­ton and her al­lies will be mak­ing in Phil­adelphia next week—that Trump is too un­stable to trust with the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar codes and too bul­ly­ing to unite a di­vided coun­try. He has three more days to con­vince the op­pos­i­tion that their at­tacks won’t stick.

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