Those who follow politics sometimes lament that primary elections have drained the suspense and intrigue from national party conventions, but the Republican convention that opened Monday in Cleveland is restoring a missing element of theater. Unfortunately, the element is not drama but farce.
This is the Donald Trump show and as such is showing itself to be, like his ego, inflated and hollow. Indeed, it’s questionable whether this is a true convention in the traditional sense of the word. For it is as much a boycott as a gathering, and it will be distinguished more by protest than by celebration.
The party’s most recent nominee and its last president – Mitt Romney and George W. Bush – are pointedly skipping the event. Republican senators and governors up for re-election are skittish about attending. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have been hard-pressed to get big-name speakers for the prime-time slots. Even the popular Republican governor of Ohio and former presidential candidate John Kasich will not be there.
Trump has encouraged dividing Americans and fed off the fear and anger he sanctions and stirs. That is an especially damaging approach at a time when Americans must be reminded of what binds them, of the accomplishments and hopes they share. But Trump announced his candidacy by attacking and dividing, and there’s no reason to expect a change when he accepts the nomination as the star the GOP’s surreal reality show.
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There is hope, however, that as the Trump show finds its biggest audience that the glare will expose the emptiness of what he offers. His pledge to “Make America great again” appeals to disaffected whites who feel left out or overwhelmed by changes in the nation’s economy and demographics, but it is a promise to lead the nation where it cannot go – into the past. And, despite its use of “great,” the Trump slogan sells the nation’s greatness short. It denies its unique ability to make out of the many one and to use the talents and will of all to build a safer, fairer and more broadly prosperous future.
The challenge for this generation of Americans is as it has been for all generations. It is not to make America what it was. It is to pursue America’s ideals anew. That likely isn’t the word from Cleveland, but it is the message that gains urgency with the spectacle of this divided and divisive convention.