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What’s happening at the Republican National Convention is not normal

Let’s repeat that. What’s happening at the Republican National Convention is not normal.

On a night in which a primetime speaker, Ted Cruz, pointedly refused to endorse the party’s nominee for president, only to be booed and heckled off the stage, this may seem obvious. But there’s something even weirder about this convention, and it began long before Cruz got up onstage.

On the surface, this event has all the trappings of a normal party convention. There are Republican state officials and congressional leaders giving speeches. There are delegates on the floor holding up coordinated signs with political slogans like "Make America Work Again." And there’s a roll call where, as usual, each state proudly recites its accomplishments as it doles out delegate votes for the nominee.

But if you’ve watched other political conventions through the years (I covered the 2008 convention in person and the 2012 convention from DC), you’ll notice that something was decidedly off about this year’s version.

It’s uncanny: On one level, it sometimes looks like a regular convention. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Usually parties try to deliver a carefully crafted, unified message. This RNC is not that.

At first glance, the convention orchestrated by Donald Trump's campaign seems to offer clear messages it wants to deliver each night: "Make America Safe Again," "Make America Work Again," and so on.

Again, this would seem to be normal. Conventions usually have a series of carefully selected slogans and overarching themes. In 2012, for instance, Republicans organized one day around the message "We Built It," as a rebuttal to something Barack Obama said on the campaign trail.

I watched those 2012 speeches, and whatever you may think about the merits of the arguments, the overarching message clearly shone through. Tom Stemberg, who founded the office supply company Staples, riffed on the theme to go after Democrats, saying: "They don't understand what it means to risk money to create something new."

As NPR reported, speaker after speaker found a way to insert the phrase "build that" into his or her speech. Sure, it seemed boring to political reporters tasked with watching endless speeches that repeated the same phrase, but it was designed to hammer home a unified message to the American people.

So far, this year’s Republican convention is ... not that. The slogans offered up each day don’t do much to unify the string of seemingly random speakers offering up a range of unrelated ideas. For instance:

  • Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame talked about how America was the true light in contrast to the "dark place" outside the borders.
  • Chris Christie essentially conducted a show trial to put Hillary Clinton behind bars.
  • Tiffany Trump warmly described her father as "so friendly, so considerate, so funny, and so real."
  • Michelle Van Etten talked about her childhood dream of becoming a circus performer and homeschooling her children to protect them from Common Core.
  • Other speakers railed against Hillary Clinton’s email server management, arguing that this amounts to criminal behavior and she should be put in prison.

The disjointed nature of the convention betrays a serious problem with the GOP right now: As much as Republicans have grudgingly come around to Trump, they don’t seem to agree on what exactly he stands for, and they don’t have a clear message for the American people about why they deserve to be elected.

The "Make America Safe Again" night could have offered a clear message about warding off ISIS attacks like the ones we’ve seen in Europe or the lone wolf ones we’ve seen at home. "Make America Work Again" could have been a story about how the economy hasn’t really come roaring back after the Great Recession under President Obama’s leadership. But that didn’t happen — at all.

It’s also about who isn’t speaking

The real tell that this is not an ordinary political convention is the list of who isn’t on the program. When the 2012 convention schedule was released, it was a who’s who of Republican Party politics at the time. Many of the party’s top candidates and best-known politicians had prominent speaking slots.

This year, by contrast, so many prominent Republicans said they weren’t going to attend the convention that it appears Trump had trouble actually filling his speaker roster, waiting to release a near-final list until 5 pm the day before the convention started.

Even the celebrities who did fill out the list are mostly personal friends of Trump: There’s Scott Baio; there’s a former professional golfer who started a Boys and Girls club with Trump’s help; a former astronaut; the president of UFC. Nothing is wrong with any of these people, per se; they’re just not the people who would generally be thought to excite voters about voting for Trump this fall.

What Trump is left with at his convention is a collection of people who are neither prominent popular Republican officials nor genuine celebrities. Even the heavy-hitter politicians — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — offered up only tepid endorsements of their candidate. The runner-up in the primary, Ted Cruz, did show up but pointedly didn’t endorse Trump.

And as Vox’s Dara Lind wrote, many of the Republican leaders didn’t sound all that excited about Trump in particular — their case mainly centered on the fact that he was at least a member of their own party who could be counted on to sign the legislation and put forth the kind of judges they like.

By contrast, the Democratic National Convention next week in Philadelphia is expected filled with political stars like Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. Plus, there are already names leaking out of celebrities who, while not all A-list, are certainly popular figures with their own followings.

On top of that, the Clinton campaign will likely designate a rising star to give a prominent speech with the hopes of launching the next generation of Democratic politicians. The Republican convention had nothing of the sort. Instead, Cruz simply got up onstage and declared himself the heir apparent. The crowed didn’t care for it — booing and chanting, "Endorse Trump." This is the opposite of a party presenting a unified front.

For Republicans of the Paul Ryan variety, this is a bad sign for party unity — at least in the short term. The uncanny convention is an indication that many Republicans have given up this year — that they’ve looked at the consistent lead Hillary Clinton has been putting up in the polls and have simply decided to cut their losses this time around.

It’s too early to say if this is the new normal for GOP conventions — or, if Trump loses, it will prove to be an aberration, just one in a series of bad decisions the party will try to sleep off after November.

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