Will Trump's Unconventional Republican Convention Unify the GOP?
Election 2016

Will Trump's Unconventional Republican Convention Unify the GOP?

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Party Chairman Reince Priebus says he’s confident that the Republican National Convention that begins on Monday and culminates with Donald Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday evening will turn the page on a stormy and divisive presidential primary season –- one notable for Trump’s ability to alienate minorities, women and even party regulars.

Party officials, the Secret Service and Cleveland police reportedly are bracing for what some fear could be the most explosive national convention since the Democrats’ disastrous gathering in Chicago in 1968, complete with angry protests inside and outside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

Related: Trump’s Choice of Mike Pence Should Make Fiscal Conservatives Happy

Scores of prominent Republicans, including governors, senators and former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, are boycotting the convention, which has been roughly cobbled together with mostly members of Trump’s family and a “B” list of public figures scheduled to speak. As late as Sunday morning, the Trump campaign still hadn’t announced the keynote speaker for the four-day extravaganza.

Yet the eternally optimistic Priebus has visions of Trump and his vice presidential running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, rallying the party together this week with brilliant, inspiring, and even conciliatory speeches that will unite the party heading into the fall campaign against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I want the convention to show the unification process continuing,” Preibus said today on Fox News Sunday in one of several talk show appearances. “And for me –- and I’m serious -- I think Thursday night is a real big deal for our party. Trump delivering that consistent, measured, pointed message. The balloons drop. The band plays. Donald Trump running for president . . . That’s where we need to be.”

There’s no doubt that plenty of red, white and blue balloons will cascade down from the ceiling before the convention is over and that there will be plenty of oohs and ahs over the sleek convention set design and music.

But GOP campaign officials’ goal of reintroducing Trump in a friendlier, more thoughtful and unifying light will be a tall order –- especially since it has been hard for Trump’s handlers to keep him on script. And the convention comes at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, as Americans continue to reel from a spate of terrorist attacks and violence in the U.S. and Europe. Just today, three police officers were killed and three other law enforcement officers were wounded in a shoot-out in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a town with mounting racial tensions.

Related: Why Trump’s Choice of Pence for Vice President Could Backfire

Just four years ago, Priebus issued a stinging post mortem of Republican Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Priebus said that the GOP had become far too insular and needed to reach out to Hispanics and other minority voters.

Trump this year soared to victory in primary contests by doing precisely the opposite of what Priebus recommended. He denounced some illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and criminals; he vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to tighten security; he proposed barring Muslim immigrants from this country unless they were fully vetted to prevent terrorism; and he allegedly offended Jewish Americans with seemingly anti-Semitic tweets and comments.

As Trump travels to Cleveland to formally accept his party’s nomination, polls show him with the highest negative ratings of any major presidential candidate in modern times. Clinton is only slightly more popular than Trump in the polls, but she runs  well ahead of him among women, Hispanics, blacks and other minorities.

When Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace noted Trump’s glaring deficits and said, “You can’t win with numbers like this,” Prieibus sheepishly responded, “Well, that’s true. But we also have a long way to go and we have to improve those numbers, and we’re planning on doing that.”

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Trump is certain to present himself at the convention as a tough, no-nonsense businessman with solid judgment and the utmost contempt for Clinton and Obama -– someone who can lead the country through tough times. He claims he could defeat ISIS and other terrorist threats in short order. He has promised to use his business skills to renegotiate major international trade agreements that he says have hurt U.S. workers and industry. And he promises to that NATO and other U.S. allies will pay a bigger share of regional defense costs rather than relying so much on the U.S.

In the wake of racial unrest and the massing killings of police officers in Dallas and now Baton Rouge, Trump has also declared, “I am the law and order candidate,” echoing a theme of former President Richard M. Nixon that proved highly effective against the Democrats. And he has said that if he is elected president, he would ask Congress to formally declare war on terrorism. Congress hasn’t approved such adeclaration since the start of World War II.

Trump has never held a government office before and prides himself as a Washington outsider, a position voters seem to want in a new president. For all his tough talk, he has provided remarkably few and skimpy details of how he would achieve his ambitious goals. His critics both inside and outside the party say that if his clumsy handling of his choice of Pence to be his running mate is an example of his executive and political skills, voters should be concerned.

Related: 10 Things You Should Know About Mike Pence

Trump reportedly agonized over his decision to select Pence, a conservative Midwestern politician and former House member, over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Even after he had publicly disclosed his choice of Pence, Trump fretted that the governor wasn’t exciting enough and might not mesh well with his campaign. According to reports, Trump as late as Thursday night asked  his senior campaign advisers whether there was some way he could withdraw his offer.

Paul  Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, strongly disputed those reports during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. He insisted that the late Thursday night conversations were strictly about the timing and logistics of formally announcing the choice of Pence. Trump said that Pence was his “first choice” and chosen primarily to help unify the party. He said he delayed the announcement out of consideration for the tragic killings  in Nice. 

“There was never any doubt about choosing Pence,” Manafort said. “What we were talking about Thursday night was because of the tragedy in the world, postponing his announcement which was scheduled for Friday morning.”

Trump made the announcement on Saturday during an event in New York City where Pence and his family had been holed up in a hotel room for two days waiting for a final decision. Asked by Wallace whether voters should trust a politically inexperienced Trump to become president amid all the chaos in the world, Manfort replied, “All the chaos is exactly the reason why voters should trust Donald Trump.”

Related: Trump to GOP Leadership: Sit Down and Shut Up

“The world today is a mess because of a failure of U.S. leadership that Obama and Clinton as secretary of state put in place when they took office in 2009,” he added. “Donald Trump is not just a businessman. He’s a person who understands the issues, he’ll have a team in Washington that understands the problems. And as he says on the campaign trail, the mess has been created by the people in Washington. They’re the ones that have got to be removed from power.”