CLEVELAND – Republicans – some happy, some horrified – will gather here starting Monday to officially sanction Donald J. Trump’s hostile takeover of their party.
That being the case, while they call it the Republican National Convention, there will be little conventional about it.
Sure, a made-for-TV program will aim to show the United States that the Republican candidate is a better choice than the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But beyond that, this will be as unconventional a convention as the candidate himself, a developer-turned-reality TV star who captured the nomination in part by making promises – like building a wall at the Mexican border and rewriting free-trade agreements – that upend decades of GOP dogma.
Given Trump’s history, supporters expect a show that’s a fanfare for the common man.
“It’s going to be a historical moment as we witness a second American revolution,” said Carl P. Paladino, who co-chairs Trump’s New York campaign.
Yet the convention also will be noteworthy for its absences. The most prominent Republicans of recent decades – two presidents named Bush and the last two GOP presidential nominees – will not be here. Neither will some lower-level party mainstays who cringe at what they see as Trump’s bluster and bigotry.
“I’m glad I’m not going because I wouldn’t vote for the guy” to be the Republican nominee, said retired Rep. Amo Houghton of Corning.
Those intraparty tensions could erupt on the convention floor, but they are likely to pale in comparison to the scene on the streets. Thousands of protesters – some pro-Trump, some anti-Trump and some from every conceivable political fringe – are flocking to the city at a time of racial tensions and terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly then, a Politico survey of GOP insiders found that nearly half expect violence in the streets of Cleveland.
Add it all up, and James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, foresees a convention like none other in American history.
“This matches the candidate,” Campbell said. “I’ve never seen a candidate like this.”
When Donald Trump rails against political correctness, he clearly means it. He has called Mexicans rapists. He has mocked everyone from Hillary Clinton to a disabled reporter to a war hero. And he won the Republican nomination with a promise to clamp down on illegal immigration, shut out Muslims and bring back the factory jobs that many economists say are gone forever.
Trump’s bombast charmed enough Republican primary voters to carry him to the nomination with a plurality of the votes, but now the businessman with the orange cotton candy hair and perpetual scowl faces a much tougher task.
Somehow, he must persuade a majority of American voters that he can be a president who really can make America great again.
Selling that message, more than anything else, will be what the Cleveland convention is all about.
“In the end, the mission of this convention is to drive home the most distilled message of all: You’re either for change or eight more years of the same,” said Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who worked for Trump for most of 2016 before he resigned in June. “I think the Trump convention team will deliver that very successfully.”
The convention won’t feature many of the big names that typically take the stage at such events. The list of speakers is nothing if not eclectic, featuring Benghazi survivors, athletes and B-list Hollywood and Washington types. There’s not a Clint Eastwood or a Mitt Romney on the list.
But Americans are sure to tune in because no one denies that Trump, longtime star of the TV show “The Apprentice,” knows how to put on a good show.
“This convention will have someone who really understands the importance of TV and that people will watch,” said Michael J. Hook, who held managerial posts at the GOP conventions in 1996 and 2000. “The nominee has been so successful on television that he’s become an institution.”
Hook said the national party and its convention officials always establish initial “hardware” until the nominee starts adding his own touches.
Trump’s touches on this made-for-TV spectacle, while still as much of a mystery as his Thursday night acceptance speech, will no doubt be unique.
“Knowing Mr. Trump’s understanding of the medium, I think we’ll see surprises,” said Hook, now chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
But we’ll also see some of the elements every convention features, such as day-long, nonstop media appearances by Trump surrogates.
Both Paladino and Collins – the first member of the House to endorse Trump – expect to have major roles telling his story day in and day out.
“They’ve got me lined up with a bunch of stuff,” Paladino said, including appearances on Fox News Monday and Tuesday.
Collins stands to be even busier given that, unlike Paladino, he landed an as-yet-to-be-determined speaking spot.
“Some say: ‘Is he (Trump) a real conservative?’” Collins said. “What a great chance this is to say to the conservative base and all of America: This is just a rock-solid guy.”
Collins has become Trump’s go-to guy in the House and is in constant contact with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy.
“If there is someone from Western New York who will shine, it will be Chris Collins,” Langworthy said.
The convention will also shine a light deep into the chasm Trump created within the Republican Party – a chasm that could grow even deeper as the four-day event progresses.
Signs of that chasm can be found in this convention’s absences.
Former Gov. George E. Pataki, a convention mainstay for many years who told ABC in April that Trump’s nomination “would drive the Republicans off a cliff,” says he is undecided about attending.
Other big names avoiding the convention include several of Trump’s defeated opponents, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and even Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, whose state is hosting the event.
“It is odd, isn’t it?” Kasich, who refuses to support Trump, told The Washington Post. “It’s going to be strange.”
Similarly, for the Western New Yorkers at the convention who all stand solidly behind Trump, it’s going to be strange not to see Anthony Gioia, the Buffalo businessman and GOP fundraiser who has been a fixture at conventions for decades.
“My guy lost,” said Gioia, who raised money for Rubio during the primaries. “I’m supporting Senate candidates this year.”
Asked about Trump, Gioia said: “I just don’t agree with some of his positions, particularly on trade.”
Gioia, who served as ambassador to Malta under President George W. Bush, added: “He’s not that thoughtful. He changes his positions. I worked for a president, so I know that what you say as president matters.”
For Houghton, the former congressman from Corning, the problem with Trump goes beyond what Trump says and includes how he says it. Two decades after Houghton led a movement aimed at restoring civility to the floor of the House, he said he’s aghast at the insults Trump hurls almost daily.
“I was brought up with the idea that you should treat people with respect,” Houghton said.
But the big trouble for Trump won’t be so much those people who won’t be in Cleveland. His big convention challenge will be managing the many delegates on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena who don’t respect him.
Last week, the “Never Trump” forces lost their fight for a rules change that would have freed delegates to vote their conscience when picking a nominee instead of having to stick to the choice of the voters they represent.
But that loss wasn’t enough to stymie Trump’s GOP opponents. Instead, they are plotting ways to bring their grievances to the convention floor, where delegates will vote on the party platform and a host of other issues before presumably nominating Trump for president and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for vice president.
“If they thought they were going to have the nice, unified kumbaya show, they just completely guaranteed they’re not going to have it,” Kendal Unruh, a Republican delegate from Colorado who fought unsuccessfully to “unbind” the delegates, told The Washington Post.
That means there could be skirmishes on the convention floor between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces, which may have been foreshadowed by the emailed sucker punch Paladino threw last week at Utah delegate Stefani Williams in which he suggested she be “hung” for working against Trump.
Yet Williams and other anti-Trump forces say they have good reason to continue opposing Trump’s nomination.
“Trump’s campaign is a disaster waiting to happen – unless the party uses the Cleveland convention to avert it,” she wrote last week in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. “Republican delegates can resign themselves to go down on a sinking ship,” she wrote. “Or they can mount a mutiny to install a captain who has the judgment, experience and skills needed to guide the vessel safely home.”
No matter what happens on the convention floor, it’s likely to be just one of the stories coming out of Cleveland this week.
It’s even possible more news will happen outside Quicken Loans Arena than inside it. That’s because thousands of protesters of every imaginable political stripe plan to be here.
Travis McNamara of Buffalo will be here to protest Trump and his policies.
“I just want us to give a demonstration to Trump supporters that they’re not the silent majority,” said McNamara, 39, a member of the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Trump – a group that’s independent of the campaign – plans a rally of its own for Monday.
“We need every Trump-supporting patriot to converge on Cleveland in YUGE (sic) numbers to show our unity and support for Donald J. Trump!” the group said on its website. “ONE TEAM, ONE FIGHT.”
Law enforcement, not surprisingly, worries the fight could get out of hand. That’s partly because Ohio is an “open-carry” state, where citizens can carry firearms in public.
Even Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, an ardent supporter of Second Amendment rights, urged protesters to think twice before bringing weapons into the protest zone.
Howard said if protesters routinely brought weapons and if shooting started, “law enforcement can’t tell the law-abiding person from the criminal.”
Howard and his deputies won’t be among the 2,500 cops from out of town who have come here to try to control the protests. Instead, he is an alternate delegate who will be in the arena hoping for the best, hoping the divisions among the delegates, on the streets and in the country don’t come to overshadow the man he thinks should be president.
“I’m proud to support him,” Howard said. “Most Western New York, Republicans, for a long time now, have been committed to Donald Trump.”