For decades, political conventions have been derided as miserably predictable events that always devolve into monotonous made-for-TV affairs. Once you get past Barack Obama’s “United States of America” speech in 2004, Pat Buchanan’s thundering culture-wars declaration in 1992, Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “Tale of Two Cities” masterpiece or Ted Kennedy’s breathtaking “Dream Never Dies” manifesto in 1980, the only political players that have mattered at contrived conventions over the past 30 years have been the nominees themselves.
The last time a convention defined a primary battle was in 1976, and party apparatchiks and eventual nominees have preferred it that way. Maybe that is because Ronald Reagan’s remarkable “Challenge” speech so completely overshadowed Gerald Ford that the incumbent president still found himself 13 points behind Jimmy Carter following the GOP’s Kansas City convention. Reagan, on the other hand, had used the unscripted moment Ford gave him at the end of the convention to plant the seeds for a political revolution that would put him in the White House four years later and define American politics for the next quarter-century.
After 1976, party bosses took great care in choreographing national conventions while squeezing every last drop of spontaneity out of these dreadful events. The strategy was successful in maintaining political order and boring most Americans to tears every four years.
Enter Donald Trump. The Manhattan developer has spent the past year confounding critics while adapting chaos theory to U.S. politics. Trump’s approach to campaigning has borrowed much from P.T. Barnum, who is famously quoted as saying, “I don’t care what they say about me so long as they spell my name right.”
The media have done just that as Trump has seen his political fortunes rise, while insulting John McCain’s war service, picking a fight with Fox News, accusing George W. Bush of being responsible for 9/11 and suggesting more than once that Barack Obama is conspiring with the Islamic State and cop killers. After each manufactured crisis, Trump extends his middle finger to an outraged ruling class as his poll numbers rise even higher.
As Republicans headed to Cleveland to anoint Trump as their nominee, supporters of the political rookie assured Americans that their man was going mainstream and bringing a new professionalism to the campaign. Instead, each day at the convention devolved into chaos.
Day One at the Quicken Loans Arena started with an ugly floor fight that saw Trump forces ramrodding rules through a divided convention. That night, Melania Trump dazzled the GOP crowd there until it was discovered that her speech borrowed many of its most moving lines from Michelle Obama. Day Two was consumed by the campaign’s clumsy handling of the plagiarism story and a jagged schedule, while Wednesday will remembered in political circles as the day Team Trump handed the convention hall’s microphone over to a bitter rival who used his time to launch his next campaign.
The media have stared at the entire spectacle with mouths agape. Dire predictions about the nominee’s chances predictably flowed from frazzled pundits who had discounted Trump’s chances from the first days of his campaign.
But NBC News legend Tom Brokaw had a different take after Ted Cruz’s bizarre turn on a blinking convention stage. The veteran newsman warned that the grim forecasts concerning Trump sounded like tired conventional wisdom from journalists reporting from a convention unlike any other in a generation. Should Trump’s flurry of miscues doom his presidential run? Of course. But polls taken this week seem to suggest that what Americans want in a presidential campaign is not competence and consistency, but rather a reality show that keeps them glued to their TVs.
Perhaps the political professionals have it all wrong once again. Just maybe the best made-for-TV convention is the one where viewers are left wondering how the hell it’s all going to end.
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, is host of the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”