So it’s official: Donald J. Trump is the Republican nominee for president in 2016. There’s no "presumptive" about it anymore; the delegates have voted and made it official.
That was probably the biggest news of the Republican National Convention’s second night, but once the actual business of the event was out of the way, the focus was on jobs and family.
The night’s official theme was "Make America Work Again," and the political speakers, notably Trump’s former rivals and current sycophants Chris Christie and Ben Carson, tried to focused their rhetoric on jobs, touting Trump’s business experience and repeating tried-and-true Republican attack lines on President Obama’s economic record.
But the show occasionally deviated from that theme with speeches from two of Trump’s children: Tiffany, his 22-year-old daughter with second wife Marla Maples; and Donald Trump Jr., Donald’s firstborn and a key lieutenant in the Trump Organization.
This being Trump, the proceedings were not exactly stage-managed to perfection, and there were definite winners and losers at the end of the night. Here’s who ended Tuesday behind — and ahead.
Winner: Criminalization of politics
Chris Christie delivered easily the most chilling speech of the evening, referring back to his time as US attorney for New Jersey and leading the crowd in a mock prosecution of Hillary Clinton.
His charges were numerous, and went beyond even the most extreme of Trump’s talking points in some places. They included:
- "Ruining Libya and creating a nest for terrorist activity"
- "An apologist for an al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria resulting in the capture of innocent young women"
- "Putting big government spending financed by the Chinese ahead of good-paying jobs for middle-class Americans"
- "She called Assad a different kind of leader. There are now 400,000 dead. Think about that: 400,000 dead. At the hands of the man that Hillary defended."
- "An inept negotiator of the worst nuclear arms deal in American history"
- "A failed strategist who has permitted Russia back in as a major player in the Middle East"
- "A coddler of the brutal Castro brothers and betrayer of the family of fallen Trooper Werner Foerster"
- "Lying to the American people about her selfish, awful judgment"
After each of these accusations, Christie would ask the crowd: "Guilty or not guilty?" And the crowd would roar back, "GUILTY!" occasionally adding in a chant of, "Lock her up!"
There were two genuinely unusual and somewhat shocking dimensions to Christie’s speech. One was the sheer severity of the charges he leveled against Clinton. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Boko Haram. He directly accused her of responsibility for Boko Haram’s schoolgirl kidnappings, calling her an "apologist" for one of the most brutal terrorist groups on the planet. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Syria but implied she was responsible for every death in the Syrian civil war.
These are truly grave charges for which there is no evidence, yet Christie leveled them casually, like they were any other campaign talking point. That’s a remarkable escalation of rhetoric even for this bananas election.
The second shocking element of the speech was the ease with which Christie essentially called for the criminalization of political disagreement. You can like or dislike the Iranian nuclear deal. But helping negotiate it, and supporting it, is not a crime. Doing that is participating in statecraft. Christie suggested that bad policy should put you before a jury ready and eager to condemn you for anything they deem mistakes.
The whole feel of the speech — a prosecutor inviting a mob to condemn the accused on count after count — resembled a show trial more than anything else, free of any and all protections for the defendant. Obviously it wasn’t a real trial of any kind. But the implication was nonetheless clear: Clinton deserves to be dragged to court for what she’s done when what she’s done is pursue policy options that Chris Christie doesn’t like.
It was a performative case for criminalizing disagreement, a perverse and authoritarian pageant that preyed on the worst, darkest tendencies of the Trump movement.
Winner: Donald Trump
Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. Officially.
The votes are tallied. There can be no last-minute coup. The delegates aren’t going to be unbound and rebel to some consensus candidate like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. A #NeverTrump revolt isn’t going to happen. It’s too late for NeverTrumpers to mount a realistic third-party campaign.
The convention went like every convention in recent memory: The delegates came and voted based on how they were bound, nominating the person everyone thought would be nominated.
And yet unlike other recent conventions, the specter of a last-minute revolt hung over the 2016 RNC up until the last moment. As late in the game as Tuesday afternoon, there were still reported efforts to disrupt Trump’s inevitable nomination:
Some drama/suspense behind scenes at RNC: Cruz backers debate entering his name into nomination a few hours from now. Party leaders nervous.— Tim Alberta (@TimAlberta) July 19, 2016
Yet despite all the scheming and the angst and the extreme unease of Republican elites in a position to attempt a putsch, Trump survived. He made it through. He got nominated. Whatever else happens this week, that’s a significant victory — more significant, given the context, than it was for Mitt Romney or John McCain or other recent GOP nominees.
Winner: Benghazi, the issue
Monday night of the Republican convention was very heavy on Benghazi, featuring two veterans of the Annex Security Team and the mother of slain diplomat Sean Smith, and references from numerous other speakers on the "Make America Safe Again" national security theme night of the convention.
That makes sense: Monday was supposed to be about foreign affairs and defense, so attacking the Democratic presumptive nominee’s most famous foreign policy failing, particularly when the hardcore party activists at the convention are still deeply upset by that failing and what they perceive as its trivialization by the mainstream media, was a no-brainer.
But Tuesday wasn’t about national security. It was about jobs. And yet it was still about Benghazi.
"Hillary Clinton's bad judgment, as you heard last night, left us four dead Americans in Benghazi," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared in a speech that really should have been about the Clintons’ history in his home state. "She lied about her emails, about her server, about Benghazi," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked. "She even lied to the family members of America's fallen heroes," Sen. Ron Johnson said, in an allusion to Patricia Smith's claim that Clinton lied to her about the cause of the Benghazi attacks.
It was startling, especially coming after a first night already overloaded with Benghazi content, and a further sign that Donald Trump’s RNC is not designed to persuade undecided voters. It’s meant to excite his base by appealing to issues that enrage and energize them — even though those issues are not especially important to the people Trump needs to win over if he’s to have any hope come November.
This was Trump and fellow party members playing into a longstanding Republican tendency of extreme overreach when it comes to Clinton scandals — and doing it in a very high-profile way, using time they could be using for persuasion.
Winner: The Trump kids
Tuesday night was Donald Trump Jr. and Tiffany Trump’s time to shine, another opportunity for members of the Trump family to humanize the candidate and present him as a real person with whom the American people can empathize and whom they can trust in the wake of their stepmother Melania’s botched, plagiarist mess of a headliner speech.
And they did a pretty great job! Tiffany offered an almost entirely apolitical speech that was polished, confident, and human. She clearly understood that her father has a reputation as a brutal, abrasive figure whom one might expect to be a domineering parent with impossible expectations, and immediately set about trying to disabuse viewers of that notion.
"As a recent college graduate, many of my accomplishments are still to come, but my dad takes such pride in all [I've] done so far no matter how big or small," she told the crowd. "I still keep all my report cards because I like to look back and see the sweet notes he wrote on each and every one of them." Translation: My dad is a real person. He reacts to his kids’ ups and downs the way any other parent would. He’s not this asshole you think he is.
Better still, she bolstered this kinder, gentler image of Donald Trump while tying it into components of his existing reputation. "My dad is a natural-born encourager, the last person that will ever tell you to give up your dreams," she said. "I always look forward to introducing him to my friends, especially the ones with preconceived notions, because they meet a man with natural charm and no facade. In person, my father is so friendly, considerate, funny, real."
Here she’s blended the counterintuitive vision of her dad she’s trying to forward — as kind, generous, sweet — with the vision most already have, that he’s relentless and persistent, for good or ill. Those qualities, she’s arguing, didn’t make him a merciless steamroller but a wonderful cheerleader and supportive figure. You don’t need to buy the narrative she’s pushing to respect the skill with which she pushed it.
Donald Trump Jr. honestly seemed like a better candidate than his father, with a fluent grasp of the issues that Republican policy folks care about. He tried to defuse his and his siblings’ reputations as rich brats by acknowledging their privileged upbringing upfront and then pivoting seamlessly into a call for school vouchers.
"My siblings and I growing up were truly fortunate to have choices and options that others don't. We want all Americans to have those same opportunities," he told the crowd. "Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they are stalled on the ground floor. They’re run for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know what other countries do better on K-12 — they let parents choose where to send their children to school."
Within a paragraph, he’d turned his own privilege into a chance to portray himself and his father as compassionate and concerned with the plight of the poor — and as a chance to reassure conservatives of his father’s ideological bona fides.
The Trump progeny are not politicians, and there was no reason to expect their speeches to be especially great. But Donald Jr. and Tiffany acquitted themselves very well, delivering two of the best speeches of the night.
Loser: Paul Ryan
Most Americans weren’t watching the convention as early as 8 pm; the major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox) start coverage at 10. So relatively few people saw Paul Ryan oversee the roll call vote procedure that saw Donald Trump finally, and officially, nominated as the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
Still, this was clearly a loss for Ryan, who had to oversee the nomination of a man he once called a "textbook" racist, whom he for weeks pointedly refused to endorse, even after it became clear that man had won the primaries.
Ryan has tried to put a brave face on Trump’s nomination, arguing that he has little choice but to support the nominee. "It is either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton," he said on CNN. "You don't get a third option. It's one or the other." In essence, he’s been trying to signal to elites that his grudging support for Trump was a matter of protocol and that he was still the smart conservative they’ve come to love.
But that balancing act went to hell the minute he stood before America and stated, "Pursuant to rule 40d of the rules of the Republican Party, I formally declare Donald J. Trump and Michael R. Pence the Republican nominees for president and vice president of these United States..."
It’s hard to imagine a better way to make Ryan’s protestations that he was uncomfortable with Trump seem phony and worthless. When the chips are down, when the nomination was being decided, Ryan was out there in front, pushing Trump forward. He’s not Trump-agnostic. He’s Trump-boosting, the same as everyone else at this convention.
Loser: States’ delegate announcers
During the seemingly interminable roll call vote for president, each state and district/territory participating in the convention picked someone to represent the delegation and formally cast its votes for the nomination.
In some states, this was a fairly anonymous figure. But in others, it was a major politician, or at least a rising star. In Kentucky, it was Gov. Matt Bevin. In Iowa, it was former Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a likely future gubernatorial/senatorial candidate. In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez introduced a junior delegate who did the honors, as she stood by smiling.
The result was that a slew of promising Republicans, all with bright futures ahead of them, are on tape enthusiastically praising Donald Trump as the "next president of the United States," or at the very least standing by happily as someone else does that.
In deep red states like Kentucky, maybe that’s not that damaging. But in swing states like Iowa and New Mexico, it’s ideal attack ad fodder. One can all too easily imagining a Senate race in Iowa where Schultz’s Democratic opponent plays footage of Shultz at this convention on loop to associate him with Donald Trump, who’ll either be a hugely divisive incumbent president or a discredited, failed former candidate who lost Iowa.
In normal years, like 2012, exercises like this don’t really matter. Obviously everyone in the Republican Party backed Mitt Romney. But Trump is different, and everyone knows at some level that Trump is less acceptable.
Loser: Michael Mukasey
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey is not exactly a moral paragon. Recruited from a district judgeship late in George W. Bush’s second term as a more professional-seeming replacement for Alberto Gonzales, he is now best known for his participation in and defenses of the Bush administration’s torture regime.
He pointedly refused to say whether he considered waterboarding torture during his confirmation hearings, nearly derailing his nomination — only coming forward to suggest he thought it could be legal in some cases once in office. He would later gush of the CIA’s torture program: "Brave and serious men and women, faced with the most terrifying attack in American history, and — along with the rest of us — fearful of more, devised and executed a program to get intelligence from captured terrorists who refused to cooperate." He also falsely claimed that torture led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
So it was rather rich to see him take the stage at the Republican National Convention and complain about Hillary Clinton’s systems administration practices, assailing them as indicative of Clinton’s disrespect for the rule of law. It’s a hard argument to take coming from someone who helped undermine the rule of law in the US by torturing people, which many would argue is worse than setting up a private email server.
It was worse than rich, though. It was hypocritical. Mere months ago, Mukasey participated in a forum at National Review attacking Trump as unacceptable, and declared, "A Donald Trump presidency would imperil our national security."
Here's Michael Mukasey a few months ago explaining why Trump should never be president pic.twitter.com/HmPjW8WNE6— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) July 20, 2016
And yet here Mukasey was, at Trump’s convention, attacking his opponent. One could be forgiven for thinking he’s willing to abandon principles he claimed to hold mere months earlier for a chance to raise his profile within the party.